The voice on the phone speaks easily and laughs often. John P. Foley, S.J., may be several lifetimes removed from his youthful days at Xavier, yet, from the tone of his voice, it’s hard to imagine the 1958 graduate ever sounded more enthusiastic, more humble or more filled with wonder. Life, after all, is a beautiful mystery. How else to explain this son of a Chicago car salesman standing in the White House last year receiving the Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation’ second highest civilian honor?
“I’ve always found God in my life where I least expected to find him,” Foley says with a sparkle in his voice.
Indeed, Foley has a long history of finding deep meaning and fulfillment in making choices he didn’t want to make, going to places he didn’t want to go and doing things he never planned to do. He reluctantly entered the priesthood, reluctantly became a Jesuit, reluctantly went to the missions in Peru and was ambivalent—if not exactly reluctant—about returning to Chicago 34 years later to help launch Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, which is built around an innovative program in which students pay for their education—and gain invaluable life experience—by working in entry-level office jobs at large corporations. In the process, he presided over the growth and development of numerous K-12 Peruvian students, lived through periods of civil unrest and violence, and offered some Hispanic students of Chicago’s South Side a hope and sense of purpose they could not previously imagine.
A quiet murmur fills the west wing of the White House. It’s December 2008. Foley and a group of fellow honorees are standing face to face with President George W. Bush. The President hands Foley a blue box containing a gold medal embossed with an eagle over green leaves: the Presidential Citizens Medal, awarded to citizens who have “performed exemplary deeds or services for his or her country or fellow citizens.” The list of awardees includes, among others, athletes Muhammad Ali and Hank Aaron, civil rights activist the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and now Foley.
“I’m in the Oval Office and I want to pinch myself,” he says. “What am I doing here? What happened?”
Foley can perhaps be excused for failing to recognize the full extent of his accomplishments—and their implications as a model for the future of Catholic education in progressively difficult economic times. He was, after all, awfully busy. As the Cristo Rey idea took hold, Foley helped develop the work-and-study model into a national network of 24 schools—and more are on the way, including one in Cincinnati in 2010. By the time he resigned as president of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School to become president of the Cristo Rey Network in 2005, Foley had raised $26 million and created a $2 million endowment for the flagship school. He’s now chairman of the network’s board.
Success, as they say, begets success. And, along with success often comes recognition: besides the Presidential Citizens Medal, recent years brought Foley several honorary doctorates, the National Catholic Educational Association’s 2007 Seton Award and a 2009 Pax Christi Award from St. John’s University.
Foley may wonder at these things, but Jim Gartland, S.J., isn’t surprised. Gartland, a 1980 Xavier graduate, succeeded Foley as president of Cristo Rey High School. He joined the Jesuits in 1983 and spent his regency working with Foley in Peru. Gartland was involved with the feasibility study for the school in 1993, and it was he who suggested Foley to head the new project.
“John is charismatic, and his enthusiasm is contagious,” Gartland says. “He always says, ‘It’s Christ who leads. We simply lend a hand.’ Well, John’s personality brought many hands to the project. People love to be with him. He’s fun. He’s a hard worker, but he believes you should have fun.”
This sense of fun permeates Foley’s conversation, even when discussing the more difficult decisions of his life. The younger of two brothers, Foley attended Loyola Academy, graduating in 1953. The idea of becoming a priest surfaced early. Foley resisted.
“I was very taken with the local pastor,” Foley says. “He was a member of the country club and a good golfer. He was a very good man. He would come over to our house and play bridge with my parents a lot. He was definitely an influential figure in my life.”
Foley tried to get around that influence. “I never wanted to be a priest,” he says. “And then I decided that being a priest was what God was calling me to. So I reluctantly decided to be a priest. Even though I went to Loyola Academy, when I thought about the priesthood, I thought about diocesan priesthood because I knew the Jesuits didn’t belong to country clubs. I started thinking if I was going to go that route, that I wanted to make it as painless as possible.”
A close, trusted school friend then weighed in on the matter, urging Foley to become a Jesuit. So, as a high school senior, Foley went to see a counselor at Loyola Academy who told him that he wasn’t ready for the Jesuits. “He said ‘No way until you go to college because you aren’t sure yet.’ That was the best piece of advice I ever got,” Foley says. Foley was also momentarily relieved, but the advice only delayed the inevitable. Foley spent his first year out of high school at Georgetown University. And it was there—on March 7, 1954—that he attended the funeral of John Smith, S.J. As he looked at the dead priest and prepared to pray before the casket, Foley got his vocation. “I said, ‘That’s the way I want to die.’ ”
Peru sits along the western coast of South America. What isn’t covered by the Andes Mountains is jungle or arid plain. It’s hot. It’s poor. And it’s the last place in the world John Foley wanted to be. Committed at last to his Jesuit vocation, Foley spent four years at the Milford Novitiate in Milford, Ohio, just outside Cincinnati, learning the life of a priest while simultaneously earning a bachelor’s degree in Latin from Xavier. In 1961, following three years at Loyola University of Chicago where he earned master’s degrees in sociology and
education, Foley was poised to begin his one-year regency as a French teacher. But his life took another unexpected turn. Pope John XXIII asked all religious groups in the United States to send 10 percent of their personnel to Latin America. Some were interested. Foley wasn’t.
“I thought, ‘Thank God they all want to go to the missions, cause I sure don’t,’ ” he says with a chuckle. “I ended
up in Peru. I was 25. I had no idea what I was getting into.”
Language was the first hurdle. “I didn’t know any Spanish. None of us did,” he says. “I came down and lived in the novitiate in Peru for about four months just trying to get my tongue loose so I could be able to say something in Spanish.” Initially “bummed” because he was assigned to teach grade school, Foley quickly realized that the accepting, uncritical nature of his young students provided the perfect foundation for his growth as an educator. He settled into his work, moving the next year to teach high school, eventually working in a total of three schools and serving as president of two of them.
Matt Garr, S.J., arrived in Peru as a novice in 1965 and soon met Foley, who was then working at a Jesuit high school in the southern city of Arequipa. The two worked together several years later and have remained friends since.
“What impressed me—and for that matter everyone else—about John is his smile, which is the manifestation of something much deeper, namely, his friendliness,” Garr says. “When you are with him, you are the most important person. He isn’t distracted by other things, and he is genuinely interested in you.”
Latin America was a place of unrest during those years, but Peru was less affected than some countries. To be sure, there were dangers—particularly when the anti-government Shining Path organization was in full swing in the 1980s and early 1990s—but Foley saw many successes. One of his students from that grade school class, Alberto Bustamante, rose to become prime minister of Peru. He saw other students become Jesuits; helped develop a program that aided city children in understanding the needs of the poor in their own country; and was involved in starting a center to aid working children. As far as Foley was concerned, Peru was home. “I just thought that’s where I was going to leave my bones,” he says. “I loved every minute of it.”
Then—when he least expected it—change came again. “The Provincial of Chicago came down,” Foley says. “He said, ‘Would you ever consider coming back? I want to start a school in Chicago for Hispanics.’ ”
Foley hadn’t thought about working in America again and didn’t particularly want to. Gartland, who was presenting the meeting, recalls the moment. “John said, ‘I’ll do what the Society of Jesus asks me to do.’ I think his response says a lot about his character.”
Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood has long been an American port of entry for succeeding waves of immigrants. Washington Post columnist George Will once called Pilsen a “heartland Ellis Island.” It’s the kind of place where people move in and stay only until they can afford to move out. Most recently, it’s an Hispanic enclave with Spanish as its primary language, from street signs to daily commerce. It’s an insular area—many residents have never made the 15-minute trip to downtown.
Against this backdrop, Foley returned to Chicago in 1995 to begin “by far the hardest year that I ever spent. I was totally out of sync in Chicago.” There wasn’t much time to get in sync. Foley was assigned to a three-person team charged with opening a new high school for low-income, at-risk Hispanic students. With virtually no money in hand, they turned to consultant Richard Murray, who helped develop a plan in which, ultimately, teams of four students would work in the offices of some of Chicago’s biggest corporations. Each student would work one day a week and the company would pay the school the equivalent of an entry-level wage for one worker annually—now between $26,000 and $30,000. Unlikely as it may have sounded, the idea worked: Cristo Rey opened in September 1996, about 20 months after Foley returned to the States.
Beyond the work component, Cristo Rey’s operating principles are unique on several fronts. The school has no entrance exam. Potential students come in for an interview, and a primary key to admission is their desire to be part of the school. Personality also figures into the equation: Students who are too shy to ask questions or to admit they don’t understand something won’t qualify, although they may come back at a later date and try again. Those who are accepted go through a pre-first year orientation boot camp designed to teach them the cultural skills necessary to succeed in dominant-culture office environments. These include behaviors ranging from making eye contact—which Hispanic children may be raised to see as a sign of disrespect—to shaking hands and taking phone messages. Once in, students are expected to do three hours of homework nightly, and the school enforces a zero-tolerance policy for such things as drugs and violence.
“We have found gang symbols in a person’s notebook and he’s gone,” Foley says.
But the rewards are great. “To our surprise, the educational breakthrough here is that when they see that there’s a place in that professional office for them, their self-esteem goes over the top,” Foley says. “They never suspected that would be a place where they could find a future, or even be welcome. All of a sudden there’s a future to this whole thing.”
To be sure, there are issues to work out. Gartland says that, in the face of family mobility and academic rigor, retention across four years remains a big problem. But the vast majority of those who make it are accepted to at least one college or university. Xavier now has welcomed about 21 students from the Chicago school in recent years.
“We’re learning,” Foley says of the network. While the Chicago school continues to be exclusively Hispanic, other network schools—which may or may not use Cristo Rey as their official name—serve students from a variety of backgrounds. “Our mission is generally to guarantee the product and guarantee the name Cristo Rey. We have 10 mission effectiveness standards. Our job is to keep people honest about using the name.”
And though he’s “ecstatic” about the success of the model thus far, it’s also clear he’s taking nothing for granted. At the end of the day, Foley remains in awe—and pleasantly surprised. “God continues to surprise me,” he says. “I think that’s what it is—it’s discovering that our God is a God of surprises.”