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Michael O’BrienOctober 12, 2023
Photo Courtesy of Boston College High School

In early September, Boston College High School renamed an academic building originally named for the school’s founder, John McElroy, S.J. It is now called St. Ignatius Hall. This follows a vote to rededicate the building in April 2022 because of evidence of McElroy’s ties to slavery.

Father McElroy founded Boston College High School in March 1863 as part of Boston College, primarily for immigrant boys of Irish-Catholic descent. Findings that McElroy was involved in the recapturing of a runaway slave sparked questions about his legacy among B.C. High’s Mission and Identity Committee in 2021.

In an interview with America, Grace Cotter Regan, president of Boston College High School, spoke about McElroy’s complex life and why the administration believes his story still has a place at the school. (Ms. Regan serves on the board of America Media.)

“We approached this in a very reflective, discerning way because it’s Ignatian to do so, and also because we wanted to make sure that we honored the great work of Father McElroy,” Ms. Regan said.

“But he was a flawed man, and he was a man of his time,” she continued. “We went at this whole approach in a spirit of reconciliation and recommitment to our mission, and part of our mission is to be an unapologetically antiracist school where all students can feel safe, valued and loved.”

The renaming follows a trend in other Jesuit schools that have renamed buildings to acknowledge historical ties to slavery, including Georgetown University and the College of the Holy Cross, both of which were consulted by Boston College High in its decision-making process. At Georgetown, the Spirit of Georgetown Residential Academy was renamed for Isaac Hawkins, one of the 272 enslaved people sold by the Jesuits in 1838 to financially sustain Georgetown and other ministries. Holy Cross removed the name of Thomas Mulledy, S.J., from Brooks-Mulledy Hall, a freshman residential dorm, because Mulledy was involved in orchestrating the sale. 

"Part of our mission is to be an unapologetically antiracist school where all students can feel safe, valued and loved.”

Both Georgetown University and the Society of Jesus in the United States have committed millions of dollars to the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation, which was created in 2021 to support the educational aspirations of the descendants of those held as slaves by the Jesuits and to promote racial healing and reconciliation. 

McElroy Commons at Boston College is also named after Father McElroy, but the school has no plans to change the name. “John McElroy, S.J., is recognized at Boston College for the work he did in founding BC in 1863. Because of his indispensable contributions to BC’s history, we are not planning to remove his name from McElroy Commons,” said Jack Dunn, Boston College’s associate vice president for university communications.

In its curriculum, B.C. High will seek to present Father McElroy’s whole life story, including the work he did on behalf of people of color. In 1819 McElroy founded a Sunday school for Black children, who were taught to read and write as detailed in William Warner’s book At Peace With All Their Neighbors: Catholics and Catholicism in the National Capital, in addition to serving as an army chaplain during the Mexican-American War. 

“As a Jesuit school, we are always learning, and what we learn often causes us to pause, take a step back, and examine our past to better inform our present and our future,” Ms. Regan wrote in a letter to the school announcing the decision.

B.C. High hopes to use the decision to change the building’s name as an opportunity to build community while renewing its commitment to being a firmly antiracist institution. 

Ms. Regan pointed to the endowment of a new center for diversity, equity and inclusion by an alumnus, which they named the Imago Dei Center. The school also named a new D.E.I. director, Dr. Dennis Hill. “BC High has put the importance of racial equality right at the center of mission, and we’re holding ourselves accountable,” Ms. Regan said.

The school plans to acknowledge Father McElroy as its founder by placing a plaque outside the school’s main entrance.

“As a Jesuit school, we are always learning, and what we learn often causes us to pause, take a step back, and examine our past to better inform our present and our future,” Ms. Regan wrote in a letter to the school announcing the decision. “BC High is a school that respects and upholds the dignity of all people, and it is our responsibility to demonstrate these values to the faculty, staff, students, and alumni who walk through our halls each day, both now and in the future.

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