When early followers of Ignatius of Loyola prepared to open a school in Perugia, Italy, in the mid-16th century, the former Basque knight gave instructions that it must be “per tutti quanti, poveri et ricchi”—for everybody, poor and rich.
For many years, thanks largely to wealthy patrons, many Jesuit schools and colleges were free, but eventually all had to impose tuition. In 1910 the four Jesuit high schools in New York charged $100 to $300; the average worker’s annual income then was under $650. That was the year Hugh Grant, a former Gilded Age mayor of New York, died and left wife Julia and three young children an immense fortune—more than $9 million, or $220 million today—with instructions to give $300,000 to charity. The pious widow turned to her pastor, David Hearn, SJ, of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, for spiritual and financial advice. She wound up giving Hearn $1.7 million—the equivalent now of $36 million—to fulfill his dream of opening a free school for talented Catholic boys, especially sons of immigrants who could not otherwise afford a Catholic education. Mrs. Grant imposed only one condition: absolute secrecy on where the money came from. Regis High School opened its doors in September 1914 and, a century later, remains the sole tuition-free Jesuit high school in America.
The Regis saga and the wider tale of Jesuit secondary education now are captured in Teach Me to Be Generous: The First Century of Regis High School in New York City, a scholarly history by Anthony D. Andreassi, CO, an Oratorian priest and Regis history teacher. Written with the school’s cooperation, it recounts the story warts-and-all, including the intrigues surrounding the school’s founding. The quixotic Hearn outmaneuvered a provincial who wanted Mrs. Grant’s money to build a new seminary. Hearn was shuffled off to Buffalo as a dean at Canisius College, where his health soon failed. A Jesuit at the Vatican upbraided Mrs. Grant for giving the order “a white elephant” and said she was unworthy of the title of “Founder” the order had quietly bestowed on her. But the Jesuits kept her secret even as the Grants gave other large gifts to the order to build and furnish chapels, pay for seminarians’ studies, and meet other needs. The Jesuits assigned a family chaplain to say Mass daily in the private chapel of Mrs. Grant’s “almost convent-like” mansion off Fifth Avenue. The children shared their mother’s devotion to Regis and passion for anonymity and remained the school’s sole benefactors until rising costs—especially salaries for an increasingly lay faculty—outstripped even their philanthropic capacity.
Regis, from the start, attracted top boys from parochial schools across the city and beyond, and became known for the rigor of its then classics-heavy curriculum – four years of Latin and two of Greek for all – and for what a former scholastic called its high “mortality rate.” In the first two decades fewer than half graduated. But Charles Taylor, SJ, in a 1938 master’s thesis, lauded the school for upholding the Jesuit tradition of educating the “natural, intellectual aristocracy.” Attrition was once common policy at Jesuit high schools. Now even Regis has abandoned it, substituting extensive counseling, tutoring, and mentoring to help students stay the course.
The school also once produced priests in abundance—12 percent of the first two thousand graduates, including John Corridan, SJ (1928), model for the crusading priest in On the Waterfront—but no more. Especially in the early decades, Andreassi writes, it enabled many from working class families “to move on to college and the professions while also advancing up the socioeconomic ladder into the middle class.” But as Catholics grew more prosperous, so did the Regis student body, with far more students coming from lower middle class enclaves in Queens and Long Island than the Bronx and Manhattan in 1970, he found. Regis’s relative impact on Catholic education in the city also lessened as the archdiocese opened new high schools, including Cardinal Spellman High School, alma mater of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, he notes: “While the opportunities for Regis graduates from the school’s first thirty or so graduating classes differed greatly from the other boys from their neighborhoods, this was far less the case during the next three decades.” Though still priding itself on its egalitarian atmosphere and economic diversity, the percentage of students “from upper middle-class families is far higher than in the school’s first few decades,” Andreassi says.
The school did not graduate a black student until 1930, or another until 1949, but it achieved greater diversity in the 1970s by adding interviews to the selection process and weighing financial need as well as scores on the feared admission test. Today, Andreassi writes, nearly a third of students are ethnic or racial minorities. Even more are sons of immigrants. The school spends $500,000 on a year-round tutoring program called REACH to encourage sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders to apply to Regis and compete for scholarships to other Catholic schools. The school says 85 percent of those helped by REACH are Hispanic or black and a record fifteen of this year’s one hundred and thirty-five freshmen came through the tutoring program.
Regis and sister Jesuit high schools—there are fifty-seven other U.S. schools, three in Canada and one in Puerto Rico—and nineteen Nativity middle schools have survived the plunge in vocations and implosion of parochial education. Rev. James Stoeger, SJ, president of the Jesuit Secondary Education Association (JSEA), told me the overall enrollment of roughly fifty-three thousand may be an all-time high. “There’s a product that people are willing to pay for,” he told me. Some of the Jesuit schools are coed, and Regis is the only one that admits no non-Catholics.
Andreassi says that only half of today’s Regis students attended parochial schools. The student body no longer troops across 84th Street to St. Ignatius Church for weekly Mass, but there is a heavy emphasis on community service and social justice, befitting Superior General Pedro Arrupe’s famous call for Jesuit schools to produce “men for others.”
Although Hearn said his new school would offer a “classical and scientific course,” for years the science offerings were “quite scanty,” Andreassi found, with a second year of science not added until 1966. Nonetheless, it managed to graduate John O’Keefe (1957), a future Nobel Prize winner in medicine, and Anthony Fauci, M.D. (1958), the AIDS researcher and infectious disease fighter. There are other luminaries on the alumni rolls—bishops, judges and writers among them—but almost no political leaders. A 1950s president of Regis privately worried it was admitting too many “colorless boys with watery personalities...who have reached their intellectual top in grammar school.”
That is far from how graduates see themselves. Today the school relies heavily on the loyalty of alumni and gratitude of parents from whom it raises more than $5 million a year to close the large gap between investment earnings and the $23,000 cost of educating each of five hundred and thirty students. Now the school awaits a final gift of $10 million-plus from the estate of Julia Grant’s last survivor, a socialite her bachelor son married late in life.
The challenge Jesuit schools face is to ensure they serve not only the poor and the rich, but those in between. Some charge more than $16,000 in tuition. The schools award $90 million in financial aid each year, JSEA’s Stoeger says, and “are working very hard not to eliminate the middle group. Most don’t serve the truly wealthy, but a lot would be upper middle class.” Regis, with full scholarships for all, remains uniquely positioned to move students up the ladder of opportunity. However, despite reserves that some colleges might envy, Regis has never been fully endowed, and while affluent alumni and parents have stepped up to fill the role the Grants played for so long, Andreassi cautions that “whether this model will continue to be financially viable in the years ahead is open to question.”
Christopher Connell writes about education for foundations and nonprofit organizations. He is a former assistant bureau chief for the Associated Press in Washington and a 1967 graduate of Regis High School.