A. Taiga Guterres
I’m here with Father Donald Vettese of the Society of Jesus. Father Donald is past president of St John’s Jesuit High School and Academy in Toledo, Ohio, and founder of the International Samaritan, a major global nonprofit that focuses on community level aid to raise the standard of living and entire neighborhoods. So, Father Don, thanks for joining us.
Fr. Donald Vettese, S.J.
Happy to be here.
So, as you know, in some of our previous conversation, the Jesuit Educational Quarterly is interested in exploring the long standing Jesuit tradition and heritage through the prism of education. And when we think about the history of Jesuit education, it isn’t necessarily just the big documents, the Ratio Studiorum, Characteristics of Jesuit Education, or the Ignatian Pedagogy Paradigm, but it’s also inclusive of the local histories, the ways in which schools have adapted their Jesuit identity and mission to the local contexts.
And as somebody who has been the President of Saint John’s Jesuit for 15 years, from 1992 to 2007 and an educator and leader for much longer, what can you tell us about the context of Saint John’s and Toledo during your time, and what challenges were there with regard to Jesuit education within that time and local context?
Yeah, I would say back in 1992, when I arrived at the school, the enrollment was diminishing. It had been for several years before I got there. It was below 700. The campus itself was, I think, living on what I might call deferred maintenance. The buildings were in disrepair, you know, with roofs that were leaking, and they needed a lot of updating.
The school had, you know, been built 30 years earlier and there were never any plans to continue to keep the building upgraded. So with a lot of private institutions, they can live on deferred maintenance. And St John’s was doing that and somebody had to do something. So I had to do a capital campaign very soon after I got there.
And we also had to deal with the enrollment. The general area of Toledo was also shrinking a bit. The population of the city of Toledo was diminishing and the region was also shrinking a tad, which is what’s happening around the Midwest in what we call the Rust Belt. So I’m trying to answer your question about the condition of the school.
The spirit of the school was strong there. There was a good history of Ignatian values being built into the curriculum. I think the faculty was in pretty good shape in their Jesuit formation themselves. They were having faculty retreats and they were having good programs that I might call adult education for the faculty. The academics in the school were okay.
One of the problems I thought, or one of the challenges was I thought the school was a little too turned in on its own region. The graduates were qualified to go to upper tier colleges and they weren’t always doing it. We needed to show them the horizon beyond academic horizons beyond Toledo and that did result in the hiring of a higher quality college placement director, Dr. Margaret Warrick.
She came out of the University of Michigan and I went and explicitly made a trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan, 50 miles from St John’s in Toledo, to find somebody who I thought could help build a good college counseling program and upgrade our placements for our seniors into better colleges and more scholarships. So that needed improvement. I thought when I got there.
So I proceeded to make a five year plan that included all the things I referenced: upgrading the academics, hiring staff to improve the quality of education. And of course, we had to do millions of dollars—you know, I don’t want to say 10 million or $20 million—I don’t remember, but many millions of dollars to invest in the infrastructure.
And of course, I noted, too, that one of the problems in the school, one of the challenges was we didn’t have very many minorities. Economic or ethnic minorities were, I thought, lacking in the school. And I thought we ought to be looking at what we could do for minorities in the region. We had a good school, and I felt it was right, and more than right, I think we have a gospel imperative to offer what we can do for those who have less.
And so one of the programs that was started was what was called the Toledo 20/20 Program. And that started several years after I was there in the nineties. And the idea was that by 20/20 we had a vision that would graduate students from the lower tiers, socioeconomic lower tiers, to go to some of the better colleges.
And we did that. We had done some educational research at the University of Michigan and I saw that many schools did have scholarship programs, but they didn’t graduate students they brought in and the attrition rates were very high in many schools in the country. For those receiving scholarships based on the economic need and perhaps social disadvantage, what I learned was that one of the reasons there was attrition at St John’s as well as the other schools, I think in the region and perhaps the country, was that they weren’t being included.
They weren’t able to participate in the full life of the school. And the reason in part was many of the scholarships were just scholarships. They didn’t provide for what was sometimes called “extra-curricular.” And I took exception to that word. This is not extra-curricular. It’s a central activity.
When I was talking about students being able to afford to participate in sports, you know, it costs money to buy equipment and shoes and uniforms, and their parents didn’t have it. It costs money to go on certain trips and they weren’t they weren’t able to do that. They needed tutors to help them. They had the native ability. They didn’t have the academic background. So we started the program that went beyond scholarships and included everything that was needed to succeed at the school, everything that they couldn’t provide for themselves.
Things that I called essential, not extra. So they could participate and you know, the attrition rates did drop. They dropped dramatically and the program grew. I think today it has graduated over 600 or 700 young men who were of the socioeconomic minority and many of them went to top tier schools. Well, one of them I know of right now is teaching at the University of Chicago Law School.
He’s one of our 20/20 stars. But there are many, many others, too, who, you know, a good number of them go on to the University of Michigan. I think the impact of the 20/20 Program is quite measurable on the basis of the hundreds of alumni of that program.
But it was met with resistance. You know, I would talk to our board about ‘preferential option for the poor’ and, you know, they would nod until the ‘preferential option for the poor’ started costing some money.
And then we had some questions that were, I guess, legitimate from parents and board members about the students we were bringing in the 20/20 Program. And the question in part was, where are you getting the money for this? And then it was also, are we supposed to be doing this? Is our mission social and to the disadvantaged? Is that what we’re supposed to be doing? I thought we were a college prep school and a private college prep school?
So I had to do board education and parent education on how you put flesh on the bones that we put in our documents. We, meaning the Jesuits and the Catholic Church, about serving the poor and about the gospel values that we preach all the time.
Now, that had an appeal in addition to the gospel, having a social value of diversity and inclusion. When we go beyond middle and upper middle class students and bring in lower class students, we are expanding the opportunities for everybody involved. We are helping them get different points of view right in the classroom.
It’s a wonderful thing to see a kid who is growing up, grew up in a ghetto, talking to a kid coming from and, you know, a wealthier suburb on common issues and how they learn to respect each other’s experiences and differences and grow from it. To me, that is the best part of college preparatory education, bringing in a lot of diversity and giving them a lot of opportunities for growth in their values and in their formation.
So the board then, of course, being a board, has fiduciary responsibilities and they want to know where we were going to get the money because it was hundreds and thousands of dollars to do the 20/20 Program. So what I had to do was go out in the community beyond our alumni and go to corporations in Toledo. And we sat down and I had the boys explain how they lived, where they lived, why they wanted to go to a good school.
And then I explained how we needed money and that the return would be in providing education for young men in the future to serve in their corporation, to get good graduates, well-educated students, to work in their corporations. That went through from Owens-Illinois to Owens Corning Fiberglass to local Toledo Community Foundation to Tara Foundation to Sage Foundation, and many other foundations fell in line and corporations to fund it.
So I’m talking about—there’s going to be—to do a program like that in some schools, you’re going to get resistance on the basis of money and it’s legit. It’s a legitimate concern and so I think it’s incumbent upon the school board and the leadership in the school to broaden the base of support, to get beyond the obvious.
That means get beyond funding from the obvious sources, which would be alumni and parents, and go to corporations, foundations and make your appeal broader than just a gift to St John’s, the local Jesuit high school, but rather to youth in the community. So we made the case for this bigger than just the school. And it worked, by the way, because they have a decent endowment today.
They have a pretty good endowment. They need more. They always need more, but they have a pretty good—and it’s again, it’s endowment beyond just tuition money. It pays for all that is required to participate fully in the life of the school.
So I blather to you, about the 20/20 Program and I don’t know if you wanted to talk about other things, you know, beyond the 20/20, like the International Samaritan program, which I founded in the school because the students, seniors actually, wanted a retreat.
I gave a talk on poverty in the world and that leadership required—Christian leadership required—that they make an effort to do something for the world, for larger than Toledo. And so we went on a mission trip to Guatemala City, and we visited while we ended up somewhat by accident in a Guatemala City dump with thousands of indigenous peoples who were illiterate living there in the garbage and working to recycle whatever they could, recycle rubber or plastic.
And they, as I said, they would live there, They ate there. They had no homes. They would sometimes dig under the garbage to get out of the rain. They competed with dogs and pigs for food. It was a horrible , ugly, ugly experience of third world poverty, which, by the way, does not exist in the United States.
You know, so one of the questions I got from people was, why would you go to a third world country? Why would you go to Guatemala or other places to help the poor when we have just so many poor people in the United States? And I’m going to tell you, you won’t ask that question if you visit a landfill in a developing country.
They don’t have an infrastructure. They don’t have homeless centers. They don’t have clean water, they don’t have welfare programs. They don’t have public education. That’s why. Because they have nothing and I do mean nothing. It’s a different level of poverty. The United Nations told me, because I consulted with them, that the poverty and garbage dump communities in the developing world are the most severe and the most chronic in the world.
And that’s why we went there. We wanted to experience that. And then, of course, we came back with, okay, now what? So now what? What are you going to do with a bunch of 17, 18 year old kids who are graduating soon to address this? So that long, we’re going to have to do something that marks it into the fiber and the bones and structure of the school.
So I incorporated what is now called International Samaritan. It was called Central American Ministries, but it expanded beyond Central America into International Samaritan and became its own corporation and its own mission beyond the school. The school still has trips there, but the corporation relocated to Ann Arbor, and I became the president of it.
How we got funded, there was, of course, going to wealthy individuals, showing them the case for the needs of these people, going to foundations, national foundations, local foundations, and then eventually, when I left International Samaritan about six years ago, they had well over $25 million in endowment. I’m sure it’s more now. We grew from one country to five countries, and I think they’re going to a sixth country now with that model of going to the poorest people and creating—working with governments by the way.
This is a partnership program. I went to the mayor of Guatemala City and the president of Guatemala to talk about the problem and to see what we could do together. And we did work together to build schools, a middle school, a great school, housing the medical center, food programs, and then took the model to Honduras and took the model to El Salvador and other countries and then to Ethiopia.
We were invited to go to Ethiopia by a member of the United Nations who said, would you go there? Take a look, go and see and see what you could do, if anything. And we did. We did go and we did some things there. And I don’t know what it’s doing today. I’m not really current on either St. John’s or International Samaritan, but that’s how International Samaritan started at St. John’s High School.
It started taking kids on a mission trip and then, if you will, discerning what the next step would be in following the Holy Spirit. And of course, from step to step, I have to say there were many times I was not clear about where it could go or should go, but we continued to discern. We continued to pray, to raise money and to expand it and to refine the vision.
Right. Something to follow up on that that I would like to touch on. You talk a lot about the importance of fundraising. We know from the history of the Society [of Jesus] that Saint Ignatius and the first Jesuits were very intentional when they opened schools in the 16th century with regard to the financial conditions to ensure that they were sustainable for the long term. It sounds like it’s something that you’ve really put a lot of effort and thinking into, and talking about board education as part of that fundraising appeal and broadening that support.
Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, to begin a religious order, which is a little different than what we’re talking about, the Vatican requires and I don’t know how much, but they require millions of dollars in endowment for the people serving, to take care of the people serving in that order because they know you have to have money. That’s a resource. The question is how to get it, how to use it. But do you need it? Yes, you need it. Mother Teresa had it also.
Every charity, every school has to address the issue of money. Saint Ignatius did. And by the way, Saint Ignatius wanted all of our schools endowed. They aren’t.
We didn’t do it. We did it in part, by the way. But he was right in saying you’ve got to have sustainable funding for the future. You can’t serve people without it.
Yeah. And maybe just to ask a little bit about, you know, the board education piece of the Jesuit and Catholic mission. What did that look like and how did you approach that?
Yeah, I think absolutely. Two major features and responsibilities of the board of a Jesuit school and other organizations also is to protect and promote the mission and as a fiduciary to fund the mission. They have to understand that it’s not a business, a for-profit business.
It has purposes that require money, but don’t require, if you will, a profit. Many board members will come to a not for profit board looking at the bottom line as a way of defining success. Well, I’d say that’s not Ignatian.
“You’ve got to look at the bottom line.” That doesn’t define success. That is just something you have to have to do. The success would be in the service to the people you’re founded to serve.
Boards, I think, often need more education than they get. They need—we all need continuing education. So I think any good school leader is going to have regular programs on board formation, board education. You don’t do it once and then stop. You don’t just do a board orientation for new members and then not develop that. We’re all growing, and I think leadership especially ought to be having continuous quality education that their president and board chair ought to be providing for them. They ought to expect it. They have a right to expect it, and the leadership has a responsibility to provide it.
So, yes, you want to talk about Ignatian practicality. That’s what Ignatius did. Look at how he lived, what he did and what he accomplished.
Right. I think that speaks to really living into the core aspects of the magis, or the greater the greater good, looking at the long picture and being able to really focus on that attention—on what would make the bigger impact.
Yeah, I think so. You know, again, I think our founder speaks so well to what we have done, that’s been successful, and what we need to do more of going into the future.
But people are shy. You know, I think people can be shy about asking for money. And you’re really, if it helps you’re not really asking for money. You’re asking for money for something for some person. In the cases I’ve talked about, it’s either poor kids and our schools or poor kids and poor people in the world. That’s what you’re doing. You’re helping those people. The money is, if you will, secondary. It’s important. But why are you asking for it?
And I think one of the things that some leaders I believe are talking about as a difficult component to this is that, as you know, numbers of both Catholics and Jesuits are on the decline, that certain institutions, religious institutions, Jesuit institutions feel like they are competing for the same funders.
I would say it isn’t only that Jesuits themselves are competing for the same donor, but so is everybody else. You know, the Jesuits have to remember when they’re raising money in their school and they go ask somebody for money, that the Boy Scouts are there, their parish is asking for money, their special interests are asking them for money, they’re political parties are asking them for money.
I don’t think that’s—with all due respect, we have to look at the intelligence of a donor to make the decisions that he wants to make with his money and we have to touch his heart. Okay. That’s what we have to do with the donor. I think to say, “I can’t go to Mr. Jones because I’m running a high school and the local university went to Mr. Jones,” is nonsense.
That’s nonsense. Mr. Jones is an intelligent human being who can do what he wants with his money. And there are competing forces for that money, with or without the Jesuits involved.
Our job is to make a compelling case for it and hope that he makes a discerned decision. Because I hear you know, I do hear a Jesuit running an institution telling another Jesuit, “Oh, you can’t go to Mr. So-and-so, I’m going to him and he’s my donor.”
Oh, you own him? You own the man? How would he feel if he heard you say that? I think a responsible adult would say, “I’ll decide where I want to give my money. Don’t try to control who comes and asks me for money.” I find that small thinking.
If you believe in your mission and you have a reason to believe a donor would be capable of helping and may be interested, go! Go ask. You know, if the Boy Scouts are coming out of the office right before you went in. Okay! He’s got a decision to make. Sometimes they’ll give something to everybody.
Hmm. Yeah, I think that’s a helpful—
I think the concern can be if he gives to you, he won’t give to me. But again, that’s his decision.
I think it’s a helpful discussion for educators, leaders to be really thinking about this as they have to go on campaigns and to raise funds and to really support schools as we see a number of schools closing, you know, what that takes.
Yeah. The fact that, well, St John’s isn’t closing in fact, because St John’s had good planning in the past and good activities and I think good leadership today, they have a bright future. They have two Jesuits working very hard there and a leader—a lay leader— who knows the mission, respects the mission and is committed to promoting that mission.
So the fact that they don’t have a Jesuit running the place doesn’t diminish in this case. It doesn’t diminish the Ignatian vision.
One of the things that, you know, if if we have the time that I would love to hear some of your thoughts on are the expansion from St John’s Jesuit High School to include the Academy and that inclusion of middle school education within a time period that was really, within Jesuit governance at least, was the Jesuit Secondary Education Association and really focused maybe a bit more on on high schools and secondary education. You were making this expansion during that time period.
Well, let me just give you a couple of brief responses to the founding of the St John’s Jesuit Academy, because I saw the demographic projections in the Toledo area diminishing. The number of students in the area for high school went all the way down. I saw the data all the way down to kindergarten and birth records in our region and projected how many ninth graders we would be getting each year for the next 20 years.
Okay. Yeah, the pool was shrinking. It’s that simple. The pool was shrinking. Did I want the school to shrink? No. I wanted the school to have a good enrollment so we could have quality sports and a lot of extracurricular others with good participation. I don’t know the exact right number—I didn’t have one—but I didn’t want it to diminish.
For that reason, along with the. I think in some respects more is better within reason. You can do more with a larger school. You can have bigger programs and be more competitive athletically with it. And also, of course, it also helps with your survival in the future. So the Academy was designed in part for that, and it was also designed because we were experiencing kids coming, eighth graders coming to take our ninth grade entrance test, and they were not doing well.
I didn’t want to turn them away and yet I also wanted to uphold the academic standards of the school. I didn’t want to keep lowering the standards for passing the test. So I thought, okay, a diminishing population in the region, they’re not coming as qualified. We have to do something. So to me, the obvious thing was the academy.
So we started the academy, of course, with great resistance from the existing grade schools and even the diocese. The bishop didn’t try to stop us, but he certainly wasn’t encouraging us to do it. The reason he wasn’t encouraging, and I suspect, I don’t know, but I think, was because he had a lot of pastors with grade schools, with diminishing population, and he just saw us as, you know, one more place to compete with.
My response was, “provide a good program and compete,” and so we did, and by the way, that Academy was outstanding and is today an outstanding success. They’re always having a waiting list to get in. They probably are considering, I don’t know this, but I think they’re considering expanding the academy, adding classrooms in the school and taking more academy students because they’re limited by space and they may be doing that, you’ll have to ask their current president if they’re looking at that, but he’ll tell you that they always have a waiting list. They always have a lot of interest. It meets a great need. By the time the students are taking their entrance test to the St John’s High School, they’re doing quite well because all the remediation is taking place in those lower grades.
So it was a very practical consideration and, you know, connected to the future and the survival of the school and the mission.
Well, I think that’s a great, you know, a testament, witness to really paying attention to the needs of that local context and really putting those resources to the right place, which I think also connects back to some of the reasons why the Jesuits founded schools in the first place—seeing the need for an education in order to care for souls, in order to serve the greater good, the greater community.
Well, you know, the earliest days in the Catholic Church were not the same. I mean, they were proselytizing. They were baptizing and converting—they were taking people who had no religion oftentimes and converting them to Catholicism. I’m not saying that was bad, but our purposes are not the same. We are tending to the soul, of course, and we are forming their values, but it’s not that we’re not simply trying to increase the numbers of people on the registers of the Catholic Church. It’s broader than that. It’s a greater service to society. We are serving the world, not just the Catholic Church. We have Muslims going to our schools. We don’t close the doors on that. In fact, I would encourage it. I think that’s the Catholic thing to do. It’s universal—open to everybody.
Well, great. I want to be conscious of time here as we wrap up, but I want to make space for any final thoughts or comments that are coming to you about your experience or thoughts about Jesuit education, either within this past experience or even today.
Well, I don’t think about it much today. I’m doing other other kinds of work, but looking in the past, I think the Jesuits have a wonderful heritage wherever they go, wherever you go. I can feel a great inspiration if I’m somewhere out in the community working and I meet an alum of the Jesuit school I know nothing of, you know, I know nothing about, you know, Seattle Prep in Seattle, Washington and they’re happy.
Almost all of them talk so well about their experience at a Jesuit school. I don’t hear them say they had a bad education. Actually, one of the things I hear is kind of an arrogance that goes a little too far from a legitimate pride to some arrogance, which we have to be careful about.
That’s kind of never been part of the Christian of the Jesuits, humility. We didn’t do well. So we have to be careful between, you know, are we inspiring or are we bragging or, you know, what are we doing here? But we’ve done good work in the service of society. And I think our alumni are great testimony to where we’ve been and where we’re going. And they’re mainly from the schools, of course, from the schools.
Well, that about wraps up our time for today. Father Don, it’s been great to have you with us and thank you for the discussion.
Okay. Have a good day now.
Alright, thank you. You too. Bye.
Cultivating the intellectual, spiritual, and social dimensions of a school is one thing. Developing the resources and financial sustainability of them is another. While the conversation of Jesuit education is often around the curriculum, formation, and pedagogy, the topic of financial development and sustainability of the apostolate is less discussed.
Fr. Donald Vettese, S.J., is today’s guest. He is the former president (1992–2007) of St. John’s Jesuit High School & Academy in Toledo, Ohio and founder and former CEO of International Samaritan. Prior to his presidency at St. John’s Jesuit, Fr. Vettese served as the national president of Boys Hope from 1982 to 1992. His work in the area of Ohio led to a letter of commendation from President George H. W. Bush in 1989.
Taiga talked with Fr. Vettese, about his work in funding the mission of St. John’s Jesuit during his tenure as president from 1992 to 2007 and how it connects to the wider Jesuit educational tradition.
Learn more about St. John’s Jesuit High School & Academy: https://sjjtoledo.org/