Where Fathers and Sons Meet -- St. Thomas H.S.JOHN SAGE & THADDEUS J. KOSENS
St. Thomas High School has always been the kind of place that does not shrink from a test of character.
In 1968, professional golfer Jack Burke, Jr., stood in front of all the Basilian priests gathered at St. Thomas High School in Houston, Texas, and made a bold statement: “Anybody in this room who is thinking about leaving the priesthood for any reason whatsoever, please leave now. No hard feelings.” Anyone who knows Jack Burke, the former Masters’ champion, will realize that he didn’t try to cushion these blunt words. It was the late ‘60s; many Catholic institutions were cashing in their chips, but this was one school that alumni and staff would see through those turbulent times.
St. Thomas High School has always been the kind of place that does not shrink from a test of character. “Teach me Goodness, Discipline, and Knowledge” is the school motto, and for one hundred years, generation after generation of Houston alumni, fathers and sons, have been thankful to the Basilians for demanding more from them than they thought they could give. At St. Thomas, boys are treated as men, and become men. No matter what part of town you come from, whether rich or poor, everyone receives the same treatment. This may explain why they often send their own sons back to St. Thomas.
Burke, then a new member of the St. Thomas lay advisory board, had sent his own two sons to St. Thomas. Burke was intent on preserving the Catholic heritage he himself had profited from as a young man. Burke knew such devotion to tradition might be criticized as “unprogressive,” but the success of St. Thomas High School in producing generations of committed Catholic men refuted any such objections in advance. Today, more than 5,000 St. Thomas alumni live in Houston, constituting a sturdy Catholic community of politicians, business leaders, and professionals in a city on the southwest edge of the Bible Belt.
Keeping the Faith
The Congregations of St. Basil came to Houston from Toronto in 1899 to establish a Catholic educational institution in what was then considered mission territory. Houston at this time was only 60 years old, having been founded by the Allen brothers in 1840. In 1900 Fr. Nicholas Roche opened what is now St. Thomas High School as St. Thomas College in an old Santa Fe Railroad warehouse on the fringe of downtown Houston. In 1922 there were only 85 students; the Basilians offered seventh and eighth grades along with four years of high school. Fr. Magee, a teacher at St. Thomas, recalls, “when I started school in 1922 the school had no electricity or indoor plumbing. It was not until 1925, when Father Dwyer staged The Merchant of Venice, that they had the money to install electric lights. The light bulbs were on a wire hanging from the ceiling.” After a move from downtown Houston to a new location, the enrollment on September 1, 1940, reached about 450 students and grew to more than 700 in three short years.
Over the next three decades, little changed at St. Thomas, until the late ‘60s, when, as one might guess, the cataclysmic changes of the cultural revolution were beginning to take effect. Catholic institutions were sacrificing their identity in exchange for continued financial viability. Parishes and schools were faced with a migration of urban Catholic families to the suburbs. Faced with a financial crisis and a decline in vocations, St. Thomas’s mission and market were hanging in the balance.
Many Catholic schools simply followed the migration to the suburbs, and, as a result, lost touch with the deeply rooted Catholic culture and social cohesiveness of previous generations. But, after a period of struggle, the alumni and staff of St. Thomas decided to buck the trend. The flight from the inner city was hitting the school hard, causing a decrease in enrollment and an increase in the cost of operations. Vocations were becoming rare; more lay teachers were needed and their greater salary requirements made it difficult to keep the school properly staffed. The Basilian fathers were worried that the 68-year tradition of St. Thomas in Houston was nearing an end.
At the time, the advisory board seriously considered closing the school down, selling the valuable property in the city, and following their future prospective students, relocating to a less expensive facility in the suburbs of Houston. Forty acres of free land were dangled in its face. In a series of dramatic meetings of the board and the staff, the character of the school emerged. They all knew that by moving the school to suburbia, the Catholic tradition of St. Thomas High School would suffer. The founding principle of the Basilians was to educate young men from all walks of life in virtue and the Catholic faith. This required a centrally located campus with low tuition and financial aid. To move the school to the suburbs would undermine everything for which St. Thomas stood.
The Basilian Fathers had always funded the operation of the school from tuition and a few unsolicited donations nothing more. They had never considered going to the public for financial assistance. In 1968, private high schools did not have formal fund raising capabilities, and such a practice was considered novel and its outcome doubtful. The fathers, however, took the leap and asked for help, and the Catholic community of Houston responded. The move to the suburbs became unnecessary. Led by the alumni of St. Thomas, Catholics showed their gratitude to the Basilian fathers by setting fundraising organizations in place that would provide the high school with not only abundant financial assistance in the future, but also with a more intimate bond with the Houston community. With a strong network of committed Catholics devoted to St. Thomas’s survival, the school would not compromise its commitment to shape young Catholic men from all parts of the city.
Thus, the St. Thomas High School of 1999 can claim an unbroken lineage with the one of 1900, with a few improvements, of course. The campus at 4500 Memorial Drive, first occupied by a football field in 1838, is now the epicenter of new growth in Houston. With the move back to the urban environment by a new generation of Houstonians, coupled with students commuting from 120 different ZIP codes, enrollment remains strong. The campus is a model example of educational classrooms, modern science rooms, computer labs, and athletic fields, with 98 percent of the seniors moving on to higher education, especially at its brother college, the University of St. Thomas, also in Houston. The Basilian standard of “Teaching Goodness, Discipline, and Knowledge” is echoed in the hallways every day, and a treasured tradition of teaching Catholic values to young men has remained intact for 100 years.
Heart of the City
An infamous saying about St. Thomas High School is that it is the only place in Houston where a kid from the poor East Side can beat up a kid from affluent River Oaks. This remark reflects the Irish-Catholic-bulldog character of St. Thomas, but, more importantly (and more favorably) it attests to the amazing diversity of the St. Thomas student body. As alumnus Larry Gillespie, a former student and teacher of many years at St. Thomas, puts it, “You felt that the city of Houston is your backyard.” George Strake, Jr., former Texas secretary of state and proud alumnus of St. Thomas, describes St. Thomas as the “melting pot” of the city. Strake is purported to be the author of the pugnacious quote above and has a missing tooth and scarred lip to prove it. But many a bloodied lip has lead to a lifelong friendship. Strake’s circle of friends is a prime example.
St. Thomas was one of the first schools in the city to integrate and one of the first black students, Mervin Huzenne class of ‘68, is now a teacher at the school. Whether rich, poor, Hispanic, white or Black all the students were treated equally by the Basilian Fathers, as Gillespie remarks, “The Basilians did not coddle anybody because they were from a wealthy family; you were just one of the students.” St. Thomas has not only served to tie together the entire city but it has kept families together. Some of the blood traditions at St. Thomas encompass up to four generations.
St. Thomas constantly reminds its students of the necessity and responsibility of leadership in their local community. The Hall of Honor inside St. Thomas displays the many accomplishments of the best and brightest of St. Thomas’s students. It is well known by Houstonians that the St. Thomas alumni constitute a dynamic and powerful part of the Houston community, who as doctors, lawyers, businessmen, politicians, teachers, and clergy have contributed to the commonweal of Houston. The famous St. Joseph Hospital and St. Joseph Clinic in Houston are staffed mostly with St. Thomas graduates. The students put their faith into action in the many Catholic service organizations, like the Key Charitable Club, for the poor in Houston. St. Thomas High School is always identified by Houstonians as the center of the numerous Catholic social projects.
In contrast to the diversity of the student population is the stability of the educational mission of St. Thomas. For the Basilians, what constitutes the teaching of virtue and values is essentially the same now as it always was. According to alumnus Leo Linbeck, Jr., “The fathers have maintained a strict and strong commitment to inculcating young men with the virtues and discipline necessary for the successful attainment of knowledge. The pursuit of knowledge was something expected at St. Thomas, and it was not always fun.” The school still boasts a solid liberal arts curriculum and four years of required theology.
The strong athletic program at St. Thomas has always been integral to the boys’ moral formation. As Linbeck, himself a star baseball player for St. Thomas, recalls, “Playing sports helped to teach the discipline required by the Basilian Fathers. . . . Participation in a team sport requires humility, and Coach (Fr.) Wilson was as much a trainer in virtue as he was in pitching.”
For the Basilians, the best way to educate boys was with the single-sex approach. For the first 50 years of St. Thomas’s existence, not many secondary school educators in America, Catholic or non-Catholic, would have considered mixing the sexes. But with the rise of radical feminism and egalitarianism, gender mixing soon became the norm in both parochial and public schools. St. Thomas, however, remained firm in its educational tradition. As the Basilians maintain, on acccount of their essential differences, the moral, intellectual, and spiritual formation of young boys requires a distinctly different approach than the one for young girls, and uniformity is a condition for the educational thriving of both sexes. The Basilian Fathers, looking to the Church as mother, are more concerned with forming fathers who will create Catholic families. With the evident success of St. Thomas and other traditional schools, the trend is finally moving back to single-sex schools.
Representative Bill Archer of Texas, St. Thomas class of ‘45, remarked that the faculty, all male Basilian priests during his time, served as spiritual fathers for the young boys, complementing the roles their biological fathers played. He also noted that St. Thomas, as a place where boys learn to be men, is a vital resource today for those inner-city students who never had male role models. Archer remembers that, “the priests who taught us were tough not mean but tough. Discipline was meted out appropriately and had a major impact on the development of the young men at St. Thomas.” Though the faculty is no longer all-male, the school has kept alive the tradition by retaining the single-sex environment.
The old discipline, however, can’t be all it used to be. As Fr. Carl Belisch, a current member of the faculty, relates with some regret, “When we were here in the 1950s, we got swats and all that sort of thing, but now it’s much more complicated to discipline a student this is not a good thing. It was nice then, you got it over with, you got your three swats if you didn’t have your homework or if you were talking, and it was over with, now you have to go through all this rigamarole.” It is, after all, not possible in a litigious age to keep one’s traditions of corporal punishment entirely intact.
But even without the paddling, the Basilian approach to education can still be summed up as “personal and individual.” As Fr. Belisch indicates, the priests and lay teachers are obligated to take their recreation time to interact with the students. “They are not set apart, but mix and participate with students on trips and other activities,” he says. “Daily prayer is also a big factor, with many students and parents coming to the twice-weekly Divine Office service and daily Mass.” Congressman Archer remarked that his mass attendance was more regular during his school days at St. Thomas than at any time in his life. As he remembers, “Catholicism was woven into everything we did. It was a moral structure that complemented enormously what I was receiving at home, and for some students, it replaced what they were not getting at home.”
While the Basilians’ mission to educate all boys in a single-sex environment from all walks of life in these virtues has never changed, only five Basilian Fathers remain on the teaching staff at St. Thomas. One might have thought that, as has happened at numerous other Catholic institutions since the 1960s, the substitution of lay teachers for priests would have had an ill effect on the integrity and Catholic mission of the school. At St. Thomas, the mission statement reads, despite many rewritings and revisions, almost exactly as it did in 1900. The main reason for this, as Larry Gillespie points out, is that many of the lay teachers at St. Thomas were former students, who imbibed the mission first-hand.
In spite of the changes St. Thomas has suffered, its tradition of intergenerational loyalty has not diminished one bit. The present principal of St. Thomas, Basilian Father Ronald Schwenzer, remarks that the students’ and parents’ loyalty to the school’s tradition, and the rigorous alumni involvement, are far greater at St. Thomas than what he had ever experienced in his prior 22 years of administration at coeducational schools. He notes that the Basilian boys’ school in Detroit is similar in the amazing devotion its former students have toward it.
At a time when families are falling apart after a single generation, and when sons and fathers often never meet, St. Thomas’s heritage of sustaining familial traditions is an example of the successful application of the Catholic social teaching regarding societal unity. Connecting the individual with his family and then with the community, the Catholic school, through both the Catholic tradition it receives and the traditions it creates, gives individuals, families, and communities a locus of memory.
Basilians v. Jesuits: Creative Competition
In 1960 the Jesuits came to Houston and asked George Strake, a wealthy businessman and St. Thomas alumnus, to help with the funding of a new Catholic high school. Strake Jesuit would become another important Catholic school in Houston and St. Thomas’ chief competitor. George Strake, Jr., a student at St. Thomas high school at the time, asked Fr. Wilson, St. Thomas’s most beloved teacher and baseball coach, about the other Catholic school that his father was supporting. Fr. Wilson said that the founding of Strake Jesuit was the best thing that ever happened to St. Thomas, forcing both schools to rise to higher and higher levels of excellence.
The one great difference between the two schools is in location, for while St. Thomas is centered in urban, downtown Houston, Strake Jesuit was built in the suburbs. As a result, all of its students live within a five-mile radius of the school. In addition, the population of Catholic students at Strake is much lower than at St. Thomas, with the latter having a 85 to 15 ratio of Catholic to non-Catholic students. But, regardless of their differences, Strake and St. Thomas share a friendly rivalry, involving generations. Jim McConn remarked that his father, an alumnus who was also mayor of Houston in the 1970s, rooted for the St. Thomas baseball team even though his grandchildren were students at Strake. McConn’s wife is now running to take over the seat of a famous St. Thomas alumnus in the House of Representatives, Congressman Bill Archer.
This is a true sign of a school’s success the gratitude, devotion, and love its students feel toward it. Talk to any St. Thomas alumnus and the expression of such feelings is quickly evoked. St. Thomas High School is a community of grandfathers, fathers, sons, and grandsons an extended family of solid Catholic men who love the faith and the fathers, both clerical and blood, who passed it down to them. Congressman Archer remembers with gratitude, “St. Thomas gave me as fine a start in life as was available, I think, anywhere in the world.” Fiery alumnus Jack Burke, Jr., sums up his experience at St. Thomas: “The Catholic Church has a lot of canonized saints throughout its 2000-year history, but my saints are the Basilian priests who taught me at St. Thomas.”
As we celebrate the Year of the Father, St. Thomas High School, a place where fathers and sons meet, reminds us of the necessity of keeping alive our Catholic tradition of education. It is there that the knowledge of the Fathers is handed down to us, their sons, and it is through such knowledge that we build up the mystical body, where the Father meets His Son, the Son meets His Father, and His children meet Him.
Sage, John. “Where Fathers and Sons Meet St. Thomas H.S.” Crisis 17 no. 5 (May, 1999): 39-42.
Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.
John Sage is a St. Thomas Alumnus living in Houston; Thaddeus J. Kosens, an editorial assistant, contributed to this article.
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