Founder's Day Mass Homily
Exactly 175 years ago, yesterday morning, John Hughes, bishop of New York, founded St. John’s College on this very hill — the hill of roses. Six young men enrolled in that first class at St. John’s, which meant there were more faculty than there were students. Not a sustainable business model by today’s standards! Bishop John Hughes originally wanted Jesuits to staff his college: but that would take another five years. As Bishop Hughes greeted those six students on June 24, 1841, what thoughts stirred in his mind? What passions moved his heart? He had to be aware that he was establishing the first Catholic institution of secondary and higher learning in the Northeast United States, in the country’s largest city.
John Hughes was born into poverty and prejudice in occupied Ireland in 1797. The son of a poor Ulster farmer, he was forced to abandon his education to support his family. As Hughes himself recalled: “They told me when I was a boy that for the first five days I was on social and civil equality with the most favored subject of the British Empire. Those days would be the interval between my birth and my baptism.”
You see when John emerged from the baptismal font of his Catholic parish church, he became a second class citizen in his native country. Like many of his fellow Irish, Hughes emigrated to America in 1817 and worked as a day laborer in Pennsylvania quarries. Two years later, he discerned that he wanted to become a priest.
He was so poorly educated that he had to complete remedial studies to qualify for seminary training and ordination. When ordained a bishop for New York in 1838, just 12 years after becoming a priest, he would lead an impoverished urban flock under duress and the subject of bitter and stinging prejudice as the Nativist movement was stirring. Catholics experienced discrimination in New York public schools. Their faith was an object of open ridicule — so much so that half of the city’s Catholic children had no education at all because their parents would not send them to hostile and overcrowded public schools.
It is said that biography is destiny. Perhaps this expresses too strong a link between our history and our actions. In Hughes’ case, at the very least, biography and personal history formed and shaped a powerful sense of mission. Hughes’ mind was focused on his flock’s liberation from poverty; his heart was aflame with a passion for justice and equality.
Here was the core of his mission: Education has the power to transform a young man’s opportunity. It allows him to see himself as a subject of dignity, rather than an object of scorn; and it opens his mind to give him the resources to challenge prejudices. In society at large, education sets in motion the wheels of justice.
For Hughes, this transformation was inextricably linked to excellence. Aware of the Jesuits’ reputation as extraordinary schoolmasters, he petitioned the Superior General of the Society of Jesus not once, but twice to run St. John’s College. In this regard he shared the opinion of the residents of Messina in Sicily, who some 300 years prior petitioned Ignatius Loyola to open the first Jesuit school for lay people. Those Sicilians were impressed with the humanism and rigor — the excellence — of Jesuit schools that were, up until that time, reserved for members of the Society preparing for priesthood.
Hughes’ first request to Jesuits to help start his college was denied. A few years later, he saw an opening. With the Jesuit College in Kentucky in trouble, Hughes began a campaign to get the French Jesuits there to move to New York. In the summer of 1846, he succeeded. St. John’s College was transferred to the Society of Jesus with a $40,000 mortgage, and 28 Jesuits arrived at Rose Hill from Kentucky, the very same number of Jesuits that live and work at Fordham Prep and Fordham University in 2016.
The first Jesuit president, the Reverend Augustus Thebaud, SJ, implemented a rigorous 7-year course of study, which included what today is both secondary and college education, and was based on grammar and classical languages.
Eight generations later, much about St. John’s College has changed — most obviously, the name. Since other schools were named Saint Johns, the Jesuits and their students distinguished their school by using the geographical moniker Fordham, which became eventually its official title.
At 175 years in, the core of Hughes’s vision remains remarkably intact: Fordham Prep still transforms young men through opportunity:
- 20% of our students speak a language other than English at home;
- Thanks to the gifts of generous alumni, 45% of our students — from middle and working class families — receive $3.5MM in financial aid;
- Our student population is itself a gift because now, within our very walls, with students who hail from over 110 zip codes, we have the opportunity to break down the prejudice that still plagues our society.
Today the walls of our classroom are not confined to Rose Hill. Rather, they expand to Camden, New Jersey, to Tennessee, Ecuador and Australia, where, like John Hughes, our students study, serve the poor and promote justice.
Thanks to the almost completely lay faculty of men and women committed to excellence and scholarship, and imbued with the values and traditions of Ignatius Loyola, young men are still taught to expand their minds and grow in intellectual capacity. More than 60% of the Class of 2016 are attending top colleges and universities in the country with 13 of them enrolling in Ivy League Colleges and Universities this fall.
This morning we give God thanks for our founder, John Hughes. May God continue to inspire us with Hughes’ bold vision, so that our mission of education may transform students into men striving for excellence, serving their brothers and sisters in need, and dedicating their very lives, ad maiorem Dei Gloriam.
Rev. Christopher J. Devron, SJ
The historical background and source for Fr. Devron's homily was the Rev. Thomas Shelley's new history of Fordham, just published in honor of our dodransbicentennial.