Responsive Mission, Courageous Leaders, Foundational Beliefs:
150 Years of St. X

A statue of Theodore James Ryken on the campus of Saint X in Louisville, Kentucky.

A statue of Theodore James Ryken on the campus of Saint X in Louisville, Kentucky.

The following is a speech given by Brother Edward Driscoll at Saint Xavier High School’s 150th Anniversary Celebration on October 11, 2014.

This evening it is truly an honor for me to express in behalf of the Xaverian Brothers our deepest gratitude, our sincerest congratulations and the warmest expression of our fraternal love and support to you as representatives of the institution and community that has come to be known over the past 150 years, first as Saint Xavier Institute, then Saint Xavier College, and today as Saint Xavier High School. St. X, as we know it affectionately, has had, and continues to have a special place in the life of so many Xaverian Brothers who taught here. I believe also that St. X holds a special place in the life of our Church and our world. Tonight is special because of the mission and deep story of the institution that we love so much and are celebrating. Thousands of young men have been influenced for the good by the mission of St. X.

St. X as an institution, indeed, enjoys a unique place in history. Fewer than 10% of all institutions that existed in 1864 are here today. You have to be doing something right.   Curiously institutions come into existence because there is a mission impulse that inspires a community to respond to a real need, be it in education, health care or social services. However, institutions often run the danger of slowly losing the vitality of their founding mission and gradually become closed cultures and self-serving entities. That is not the case for St. X.

What distinguishes St. X, I believe, are three things: a clear and responsive mission; courageous leaders and foundational beliefs that point beyond our material world to a spiritual reality that gives direction and a context to the Catholic education the students received 150 years ago and receive today. As we celebrate, I want to touch briefly on these three points because they tell the deep story of St. X – the story we celebrate tonight.

Responsive Mission: The French have a wonderful expression that only the French can completely understand: Plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose ( Jean-Baptiste Alphonse  Karr, 1849). The more it changes, the more it remains the same thing. I think this quote aptly describes St. X’s mission. We find that one of the first expressions of the mission comes directly from our Founder. Ryken wrote “(the Brothers) will devote themselves to the education of young people by religious instruction and by teaching (what they need): handicrafts, arts, languages so that the students will be given back to the Church and society as perfect Christians” (Scheme 1838-1839). In another Xaverian writing, we read  the following: “Our humble Founder was consumed by zeal for the spread of the gospel of Christ” (Men and Deeds, x). Ryken must have been so proud to witness the foundation of St. X.

The zeal and passion for St. X’s mission that inspired the Brothers to devote themselves totally to their students on 1864. That same zeal and passion for the mission continues to enflame the women and men who teach and form students today in 2014. That is what we celebrate tonight.

From its foundation, St. X’s mission has been and continues to be grounded in faith and love of God. The mission calls the administrators, teachers and the entire school community first to help the students to discover God’s unconditional love for them and to feel that they are okay. Second, the mission calls us to create a faith community in which the students feel they belong and that they matter to us. Third, the mission calls to teach them what they need to know and to do so in a manner that is nothing less than excellent. Fourth, the mission calls us to inspire them to a life of service to our world.

The needs of today’s young people are certainly different, yet strangely the same as they were in 1864. Whether in 1864 or in 2014, the need to know God loves them unconditionally, the need to know they are okay, the need to belong, the need to grow and learn, and the need to feel they have something to offer are constant. Tonight we celebrate a mission that has responded well to literally thousands of young men.

We celebrate a mission that has formed men of character who have become faithful husbands, loving fathers, who have excelled in the life’s work and contributed positively to the Louisville community, the national and international communities. I am grateful for the Xaverian Brothers, Jesuit priests, Divine Word, and Passionists who graduated from St. X. and went to mission in other lands: Uganda, Kenya, Bolivia, Haiti, Peru, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Alaska. We are grateful to the Saint X graduates who entered the priesthood and have served or are serving the Church of Louisville. Tonight we celebrate their part in the St. X. Story.

Tonight we also celebrate Courageous Leaders. I want to speak briefly about one. He is an individual who remains in the background of Xaverian personages as he remained in the background even while he was living and doing many heroic deeds here in Louisville and here at St. X. His life, his faith, his virtues shaped St. X. He was born in Holland in 1819 as Martin Van Gerwen. Through the influence of Brother Ignatius, a fellow Hollander, Martin entered the novitiate and received the name “Paul.” After Novitiate, Brother Paul Van Gerwen studied at the Normal School in Saint Trond, Belgium. He was an consummate educator and supervisor of instruction. Brother Paul Van Gerwen is St. X’s  first principal.

Saint X and the American foundation of Xaverian Brothers owe much to Brother Paul. In my mind, Brother Paul epitomizes what we see today  as the ideals for which  a Xaverian Brother should aspire. He was a man of simplicity and humility. In the opinion of his confrères, “No one knew him but to love him. No one mentioned his name but to praise him.” He was a man of the common and ordinary. He never sought privilege, power,  prestige, or social position in any of the important roles he fulfilled for  the Congregation. He did with simple humility, obedience, faith, and graciousness.

A man of simplicity, Brother Paul never let anything get in the way of his love of God, his love for his Brothers, for the mission of the Congregation and his love for the students at St. X. He was a man of prayer. It was his practice of prayer that braced him for the many difficulties he had to face.

The Founder chose Paul to be the superior of the first colony of six Brothers to come to Louisville. His faith and trust in God were to be challenged. Let me create a scene. It took place in the late afternoon of  August 6, 1855, less than a year after his arrival in Louisville. There was a knock on the door of the 3rd floor of Saint Patrick’s on 13th and Market. It was a parishioner who was out of breath. The parishioner  was sent by the Bishop to tell Paul and the Brothers that the men milling around on the streets were intending to set fire to their house because as foreigners and Catholics they were suspected of having  ammunition in their attic. You can imagine the fear that he experienced. At his very calm command, the Brothers left in two’s and slipped out the back way leaving their few belongings with the caretaker of St. John’s cemetery in Portland and asking him to bury the sacred vessels used during Mass. Paul’s words to the Brothers as they left were simple, “Get out of the city and stay out of the city until dark” (Aubert,165).

Less dramatic but equally hard conditions plagued the first colony of Brothers. Due to the Founder’s lack of understanding of the value of the American dollar, he agreed to annual stipend of $130 per Brother which was simply not enough for food. Brother Paul approached  Bishop Spalding pleading with him to raise the stipend, but to no avail. It meant one meal a day and fasting on days off from school. The dire poverty of the Brothers did not diminishing their passion. Just the opposite. It created a bond among them and between them and the poor they were serving. Eventually two Brothers were recalled to Belgium in 1856 and another two, Brother Paul being one of them, in 1858. Upon his return to Belgium, Brother Paul was assigned to England where he remained for two years. In 1860 Brother Paul was assigned again as superior of the 2nd colony of Xaverians to be sent to Louisville. It is during this period that he founded Saint Xavier Institute on 4th Street as a continuation of Saint Aloysius Select School which was housed on Green Street not far from Saint Boniface.

It was said of Brother Paul that “animated by courage, Paul came to Louisville with faith, saw with hope and conquered with love.” Brother Paul was trained in pedagogy and helped the Brothers assigned to Saint Xavier become very good teachers. Brother Paul was doing and living the mission. His confrères would remark about the joy and the constancy in doing good especially for his Brothers whom he want to see happy in their vocation (Anecdote about enrollment).

Brother Paul’s love for God and the mission of the Congregation taught him great detachment. In 1866 he was again called away from the love he had for St. X at the request of Bishop Spalding who was now in Baltimore. The Bishop wanted Paul to establish Saint Mary’s Industrial Home. Despite the many hardships encountered, Brother Paul literally built the home from ground up for orphans and semi-orphans all children of poverty. Due to the care of the Xaverians and Passionist Priests, Saint Mary’s provided the feeling of a real home to youngsters who had none—the poor and marginalized of society. In 1869 Brother would again  practice detachment when, after the General Chapter which he attended, he was sent to Manchester, England.

However, his love for St. X and Louisville would again be rekindled but in response to terrible crisis. In 1870 the Franco-Prussian War broke out and tore the Xaverian community in Louisville apart due to the split between those Brothers who sympathized with the French and those who were pro German. Unfortunately our German Brothers came under the influence of  some pro German Franciscans at Saint Boniface where we had five Brothers teaching 502 students from German speaking families. In 1872 Brother Paul was sent back to Louisville to calm the situation and to stem the defections from the Congregation. In 1869 there were 59 Brothers in Louisville. By 1872 there were only 21 at St. X. Brother Paul remained in Louisville as superior and principal of St. X until his death in 1885. During that time the enrollment increased as did the curriculum.

What have I learned from Brother Paul Van Gerwen and all the Brothers and laymen who served St. X. as principals? I believe Brother Paul embodies one of the sayings found the Brothers’ Manual of Customs and Advice. Brother be “suaviter in modo, fortiter in re.” “Brother be kind in your manner, but strong in your action.” As principal Paul was humble, kind and courageous. His faith told him that St. X was a mission given to him, but more importantly this mission is God’s work. By all accounts, Paul was also very humble man. His humility allowed him to realize his own talents as well as his need for those of others. His humility allowed him to affirm others. It  attracted others to want to work with him. As noted earlier Paul was also courageous. He confronted many difficult situations and had the fortitude to lead the Brothers and to lead  the school. Simply put, Brother Paul was a man of God. The following quote from Saint Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy captures the essence of Brother Paul Van Gerwen.

“The Spirit of God has given us no cowardly spirit, but rather one that makes us strong, loving and wise” (2 Tim. 1:6-7). Today leadership that is “strong, loving and wise” continues. I have had the privilege to work with Perry Sangalli for ten years as a fellow administrator and esteem his contribution to the life and mission of St. X. I have had the privilege to be a fellow administrator with Frank Espinosa, Joe White, Arnold Drury, Sarah Watson, Tony Scheler, and Sorin Spohn and hold them in esteem for their “strong, compassionate, loving, and wise” leadership and service to the faculty and students. As a school community, we are blessed with leaders who have the humility and courage like the first Principal to lead. I am particularly grateful for the women and men of faith, be it in Campus ministry, be it on the faculty or in the counseling department, who help today’s students experience God’s love, feel they belong, motivate them to learn and do their best and inspire them to serve.

As General Superior I am also thankful to our Sponsorship Office, Ms. Alice Hession, Sister Pat Ells, and Brother Richard Mazza for the work they do in helping the schools understand and practice the Xaverian charism of education, the gift that has been given to us. .

I want to mention the one Foundational Belief that I feel characterizes St. X’s long
history and I pray will guide the school into the future. It is a simple belief, yet a
powerful one.

Omnia cum Deo,  nihil sine Deo. All with God, nothing without God.

The Xaverian Brothers are celebrating our 175th anniversary this year. Certainly Saint X has been a real part of our story in the USA. At the same time Pope Francis is asking all religious orders and congregations to celebrate the place of Consecrated Life in the life of the Church. The pope asks us to gratefully remember our past—we are doing that tonight. Then he asks us to embrace the future with hope. I ask your prayers and support as we Brothers embrace our future. Lastly the pope asks us to live the present with passion. The Saint X community gives us the inspiration we need to continue to live the mission we share with you with passion. And we do that when we follow the command that Saint Ignatius gave to Saint Francis Xavier, “Go forth and set the world on fire.”

Saint Francis Xavier, Pray for us.

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