St. John Francis Regis is lesser known than his Jesuit peers. Who was this saint?
John Francis Regis, whose feast Catholics celebrate on June 16, is not the most well-known saint. Unlike other Jesuits of his time, including Aloysius Gonzaga, Peter Canisius and Edmund Campion, Regis did not have a particularly notable mission or die a martyr. Born into a French family of some means in 1597 (his given name is Jean-François Régis), Regis longed to minister to Native Americans in Canada but was assigned instead to work in rural France. He would spend the rest of his life going from town to town, working primarily to convert the Huguenots, French Protestants who had abandoned their Catholic faith in favor of the teachings of John Calvin.
Also unlike many of his Jesuit compatriots, past and present, Regis wasn’t particularly good at rhetoric. But that proved to be an asset rather than a flaw. Direct and concise, his preaching appealed to the masses in a way that the florid or dense exegesis of others did not. And his dedication and ceaseless fervor also meant that he reached the ears of not just people in the pews but children, the poor and those in prison. Regis’s greatest accomplishment was in establishing safe havens for prostitutes looking to escape their occupation; he aided them in finding other work, particularly as lace makers. Today, Regis is the patron saint of lacemakers (which is almost certainly a way of expressing his care for the needs of sex workers, as well).
In 1914, when my alma mater Regis High School was founded in New York City, no one really knew why its first president, David W. Hearn, S.J., named it after John Francis Regis. Some have theorized that it was so named because of Regis’ work with those in poverty. Regis was established to give poor young Catholics boys a tuition-free education. Others claim that the name was chosen merely because other notable Jesuits, such as Loyola and Xavier, were already taken by other Manhattan schools.
The founding of the school was similarly wrapped in mystery: As the story goes, an anonymous foundress, under the cover of darkness and her form lit only by a candle, met clandestinely with Father Hearn at the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in the Upper East Side. She was armed with an envelope of money, which she gave to Father Hearn on the condition that the funds be used exclusively in the creation and maintenance of an all-boys Jesuit high school.
Today, we know that anonymous benefactor was Julia Grant, who continued to support Regis until her death in 1944.
With all this secrecy, perhaps it is appropriate that no one really knows why the school was named after John Francis Regis. Regis himself might not have approved of placing such a school in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in New York City, nor the giddy pride with which some associated with the school are known to carry themselves. In his 2014 novel We Are Not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas describes how mothers of Regians would often “pause for effect” before saying their son went to Regis, “expecting the revelation to inflate a protective balloon of prestige” around them. But there is little doubt Regis himself would have approved of the school’s mission to offer a solid Catholic education and devotion to Christ to young people, no matter their incomes.
Like many saints, Regis was apparently not an easy person to be around—another quality some say he shares with Regians (ha, ha). His ceaseless belief in his mission and his dedication to asceticism and prayer caused him to butt heads with other priests. His stubbornness extended to himself, as well: He was known to preach outdoors all day, then hear confessions all night. He also insisted on walking long distances even in the winter. It would be his undoing.
On Dec. 31, 1640, at only 43 years of age, John Francis Regis died of pneumonia. Following his death, he became informally known as the apostle of the region of France in which he ministered.
He was canonized by Pope Clement XII in 1737 and his feast day designated as June 16. Regis High School used to hold their graduation that same day—in honor of a saint who embodied intense fervor, a stubborn dedication to his mission and a ministry that served the poor and misguided.