By Fr. Ralph Houlihan, S.J. ‘52
April 21, 2018
In today’s gospel Jesus is portrayed as the Good Shepherd, and His followers truly belong to him because they were not deaf to, but heard his call. And so we inaugurate the observation of our educational story by celebrating Christ’s sacramental presence among us in today’s Eucharist, for He is at the heart of Jesuit education and our institution.
Today we mark 200 years of the opening of an academy for boys in the house of Mrs. Alvarez on November 16, 1818. By 1820, it was called St. Louis College.
St Louis University High School’s history reached into the early days of the United States starting only 32 years after the Declaration of Independence, 15 years since the Louisiana Purchase, and in the year that saw the conclusion of the War of 1812. At the request of Bishop Rosati, the Jesuits took up the work at St. Louis College from the diocesan clergy in 1829.
Fr. Peter DeSmet, the great friend of the Native peoples of the Midwest and West, a tireless traveler back and forth to Europe to raise funds for the school, the man for whom our fellow Jesuit school, DeSmet, which celebrated their 50th anniversary this year, is named—he became treasurer of Saint Louis College in 1830 and wrote to his Jesuit superior, “what troubled me most is the $300 debt to the bank of Saint Louis to be paid within two months. It is impossible to cancel without help from other quarters.”
From 1830 to the present day the support of our benefactors has been critical. The ground on which we stand at this moment with its surrounding buildings is further testimony to the continuing generosity, of open-handed alumni, faithful faculty, helpful friends, proud parents, civic partners, loyal students to whom we are most grateful. But it is more than treasure because it revealed the deep faith of our benefactors not only in our school but in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In the Spring of 1848 a terrible cholera struck the city causing six thousand townsfolk to lose their lives. The faculty and student body called on Mary Our Blessed Mother to protect them, promising to adorn her statue with a silver crown, if all are preserved unharmed. Mary answered their request positively; to the amazement of the whole city, not one of 700 succumbed to the deadly disease. To this day the school colors of both St. Louis University High School and Saint Louis University have remained blue and white, Our Lady’s colors, while the crown is kept in the University’s museum on Lindell boulevard.
Speaking of the University, we are proud to have been a partner with them from the time when the Jesuits assumed direction of the institution in 1829. The connection has existed to this day since we share the benefits of the 1-8-1-8 Program whereby high school students receive college credit from the university in many important academic disciplines. But in 1924 we left the Grand Avenue campus moving to Backer Memorial, our fifth and present location.
Obviously, this was the result of the vision, generosity, love of Anna Backer, a deeply devout Catholic woman whose affection for her deceased husband George brought us to the current site. This beautiful lady recognizing the need for additional space, wishing to fund a fitting memorial to her late husband, graciously donated the cost of the entire relocation to 4970 Oakland, a sum of $500,000 in 1923, which is about $7.5 million today. At that time it was the largest gift to Catholic education in the archdiocese.
Mrs. Backer’s gift built a school whose main chapel was at its heart, underscoring the Christocentric element of Jesuit spirituality, which is the most important characteristic of Ignatian education. Even today with fewer Jesuits on campus that remains the school’s raison d’etre, a lofty goal, but quite achievable due to the outstanding quality of our lay faculty. Another of our foundress’s deepest desires for the new school was that many candidates for Catholic priesthood emerge. She obtained her wish because from Backer’s opening to 2018 the Holy Spirit has gifted the school with 300 priests, deacons, brothers, seminarians—209 to the Society of Jesus, and 91 to the archdiocese and other religious orders. This was but another example of Christ’s loving concern and Anna Backer’s faith-filled care for our school, city and archdiocese.
On September 21, 1936 Anna Backer went home to the Lord and her faithful husband George; three days later her funeral was celebrated in the College Church, attended by the entire faculty, staff and student body, whom she affectionately regarded as “her boys.” They became the first recipients of the bulk of her estate which was the beginning of the endowment that this year helped directly support the education of 440 of our 1,000 young men. That was the gift that keeps on giving. Mrs. Backer was also known for saying “there were no pockets in death shrouds,” another sign of her extraordinary largesse. In return the Jesuits designated her a founder of the province, one of only seven in our history, a gift that entailed the offering of masses for the repose of her soul by members of the then Missouri province upon her death.
In the modern era, we were also beneficiaries of four truly outstanding administrators:
- Fr. Richard Bailey, the originator of our storied annual auction, Cashbah.
- Fr. Gerald Sheahan, who was the architect of much of our current curriculum, a man who perceived the need for the study of the Chinese and Russian languages, co-authored the 1-8-1-8 program, created excellent fine arts programs with the help of legendary faculty members such as Joseph Schulte, Charley Conway, all of this more than 50 years ago.
- The attractive campus we enjoy today was the result of the diligent fundraising and planning of Fr. Paul Sheridan and Mr. David Laughlin, our first lay president. Both earned high marks as President but not only for the beautiful physical improvements—Paul for having reduced class size to about 22 students, while David fashioned an admission-blind-budget meaning qualified applicants receive whatever they need to enroll. Additionally, these marvelous educators articulated the Ignatian vision at the center of authentic Jesuit education eloquently.
Mrs. Backer must clearly approve of these developments. How proud she must be of “her boys” playing for the Holy Father in Saint Peters Square this spring, our chorus performing in Carnegie Hall today, of our Chinese students learning in the middle kingdom, Russian scholars in Saint Petersburg, of gifted young men spending their break in Honduras, and Appalachia, of meeting migrants at the Mexican border, of an innovative robotics program reaching out to eager grade school pupils.
Jesus’ preaching on the bread of life is fitting for us today because he said that “one who eats the bread He gives will live forever.” Some of the followers of Jesus found this a hard teaching, leading to their walking away in disbelief, but Peter replied for the 12, saying, “we have come to believe and know you are the Holy one of God.”
Anna and George Backer, along with thousands of other benefactors over the decades, have not walked away but responded positively to the words of Jesus by their generous sacrifices, to the benefit of generations of young men; they acted because like Peter, they believed Jesus has the words of eternal life, and because “they did not work for food that does not last, but for food that endures to eternal life.”
In the Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius asked the question what are we doing for Christ?
With respect to St. Louis University High School, who can accurately measure the number of amazing achievements the firm faith of so many strong supporters of Backer has caused? Who can assess how many graduates’ lives have changed in their four years here? Who can calculate the hours of effort by dedicated faculty? Who can list the bonds of brotherhood forged? Who can count the great things the alumni of Backer accomplished in later life by promoting the Common Good through living Christ-like lives?
One thing does seem certain: Anna and George Backer are smiling on this day because their legacy of strong academics, suitable facilities, Ignatian, Christocentric spirituality, for “her boys,” has thrived regardless of their ability to pay. May this magnificent tradition flourish under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and our blessed Mother for another 200 years in their memory!