Off To A Good Start

Teach Me to Be Generousby Anthony Andreassi

Fordham University Press. 272p $35

In 2007, a major secret in Jesuit education was revealed. When the wife of the late Hugh Grant, Jr., Lucie Mackey Grant, died, the fact that the Grant family had been almost single-handedly supporting Regis High School became public. Upon the death of her husband in 1910, Mrs. Julia Grant inherited $9,000,000 (roughly $200,000,000 today). Mrs. Grant purchased the land on 84th Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan, paid for the construction of Regis High School and endowed the school sufficiently to provide a quality education for Catholic boys. But there were non-negotiable terms: the boys had to come from parochial schools; they had to be Catholic; tuition remain free and fundraising not allowed; and, most importantly, the Grant family was to remain anonymous.

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Anthony Andreassi, C.O., a priest of the Brooklyn Oratory of St. Philip Neri and a history teacher at Regis, has produced a work that is both a scholarly analysis and homage. Teach Me to be Generous, while paying respects to individuals and events, is first a serious historical analysis of Regis High School and the factors that have shaped the school of today.

A portion of Andreassi’s narrative centers on the conflicts that arose between the “Founding Family” and the Jesuits. Accusations of mismanagement of funds were leveled against Fr. David Hearn, S.J., the Jesuit impetus behind the project, by his superiors; retaliatory remarks were made by Mrs. Grant, forcing further responses from superiors in New York and Rome. There were issues with Mrs. Grant until her death in 1944, and then with her children long afterward. There were disagreements over the use of space by non-Regians; the raising of funds from other sources; the possibility of charging tuition, and a host of other issues. However, Andreassi notes that, despite the disagreements between the Grants and the Jesuits, there was never a loss of love. The Grants continued to give generously to the Society and the Society continued to pray for the Grants.

For every generation in Regis, Andreassi points to characters within the school who acted as role models. For men from the ‘40s, coach Don Kennedy was a force in the school’s physical education program and a winning basketball coach. He took a genuine concern in the personal formation of Regians, both academically and athletically, and eventually led the basketball team in the season of 1947-48 to an unprecedented 27-1 record. For alums of World War II, Fr. Gabriel Zema, S.J., moderator of the Regis Alumni Association, supported Regis graduates in the Service during W.W.II, particularly in consoling the families of those lost. For graduates of the ‘50s, the name of then-president Fr. Robert I. Gannon, S.J., is undoubtedly remembered for his controversial plan to charge tuition, a scheme which would have been disastrous for Regis. Gannon planned to expand the school population to over 800, guaranteeing free tuition for freshman year. At the end of freshman year, the top 125 boys in each year would receive a free education, with the remaining 75 boys paying tuition. The plan was fortunately met with severe opposition.

Most remembered, perhaps, is “Fr. Regis” himself, Fr. Stephen Duffy, S.J., who taught at Regis for 56 years. Duffy was famous as not only a kind and ever-present teacher, but for his inventiveness and enthusiasm in the classroom. From his National Football League pool for charity to the little antics at his desk, Fr. Duffy was a beloved figure. Of course, he, too, had mentors, and who better to teach “Fr. Regis” than “Mr. Regis,” Cyril Egan, who was once the longest tenured teacher at Regis. His students adored him, so much so that the alumni, upon learning that “Cy” could not afford to retire after 44 years, established the first pension fund for their old teacher. It was a recognition by the alumni for the laymen who had sacrificed so much.

Andreassi defines two time frames within which the history takes place, centering on the 50th anniversary of Regis. In the first 50 years, Regis was typical of most Jesuit schools: severely competitive (reading of the marks), high achievement standards (a grade below 75 percent was failing), strict disciplinary action (if one failed two classes, expulsion was generally imminent, with very few exceptions). Regis focused on a classical curriculum, and it had great success but an extremely high attrition rate (this could be affected by external factors, like war and the depression). It was typical of a Catholic institution of the time in regards to pastoral care: sodality membership was high, confession and penances were regular, Mass was mandatory and retreats were less guided meditation and more devotional in practice.

This contrasts with the Regis of post-1964. After the Second Vatican Council, the school changed academically and pastorally. Academically, classics were deemphasized, more freedom was allowed in the schedule, the sciences and mathematics were emphasized and academic competition was also deemphasized. Pastorally, the sodality, a centuries old devotion, disappeared overnight; traditional sacraments saw a drop in attendance; school Masses became opportunities for liturgical experimentation; and retreats became less traditional in style. Many of these changes were indicative of the ’60s and ’70s, and quickly passed; others were more progressive, including variations in the curriculum and adaptions to the pastoral needs of the student body, and continued.

A development from this era was a greater concern for others, primarily in the mission of the school. Regis had slowly moved towards a more middle and upper-class student body, comprised of white students from European descent. It was around the 1960s and ’70s that Regis began to tackle the question of diversity. While the school continues to struggle with diversity, in recent years the REACH program (Recruiting Excellence in Academics for Catholic High Schools), has met great success and is sending forth a large number of boys (well over 200 since 2002) each year from New York’s minority populations.

In Teach Me to be Generous, Anthony Andreassi, C.O., provides a clear history of Regis that makes it more of a community than an institution. Despite financial struggles, issues surrounding the diversity of the student population, the pursuit of justice and internal battles that have been waged and won, Regis is still a fine Jesuit institution. Through Andreassi, we see what great things generosity can accomplish.

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