Viva Cristo Rey!

George Weigel

In the 1920s, when the United States had a quasi-Stalinist regime on its southern border, “Viva Cristo Rey!” was the defiant battle cry of the Cristeros who fought the radically secular Mexican government’s persecution of the Church. “Viva Cristo Rey!” were likely the last words spoken by Blessed Miguel Pro, SJ, whose martyrdom in 1927 may have been the first in history in which the martyr was photographed at the moment of death. Today, in the United States, “Cristo Rey” has a different, although not wholly-unrelated, meaning – for it’s the name of an important experiment in Catholic education for poor children.

The Cristo Rey network of Catholic high schools, which began in Chicago in 1996, is something different in U.S. Catholic education today. Many Catholic schools are closing because of decreasing enrollments and financial pressures; the Cristo Rey network is opening new schools. Instead of losing students, Cristo Rey is attracting new students. And the Cristo Rey schools are doing this by serving low-income families in inner-city areas, through a distinctive combination of Catholic educational commitment, partnerships with local businesses, and creative financing.

As a recent report by the Massachusetts-based Pioneer Institute put it, Cristo Rey schools “are returning Catholic education to urban areas. In its unique model, students receive a college-preparatory education and participate in a work-study program in which they learn employable skills and earn money to help pay their tuition.” And while other approaches to funding Catholic high schools in inner-urban areas – parishioner tithing, soliciting alumni, raising tuitions, and so forth – have had what the report delicately calls “uneven” and “disappointing” results, schools in the Cristo Rey Network are experiencing real success: since the first Cristo Rey high school opened in Chicago twenty-one years ago, thirty-one other Cristo Rey schools have opened across the country, and the network hopes to open eight more by 2020. More than 11,000 students are being empowered in Cristo Rey schools today, and some 13,000 have graduated from the schools in the past two decades.

The local business connection is one key to Cristo Rey’s success. As the founder of this remarkable experiment, Father John Foley, SJ, put it, getting high school kids entry-level jobs as part of their education, was, at the beginning, simply a way “to pay the bills.” But then other factors came into play. To cite the Pioneer Institute study again, over time, “the corporate work study program took on a more meaningful, transformative role. It became a self-esteem builder as teenagers saw they were earning money to help pay for their own education. They learned office skills in environments in which many had never envisioned themselves working. And they developed interpersonal skills with people outside their peer networks including supervisors, company presidents, and coworkers.”

All of this was made possible by local businesses that saw the point of giving impoverished local kids whose parents agreed to pay some tuition a chance at higher education; family financial buy-in is as important to the Cristo Rey model as corporate partnerships. Cristo Rey also works because of a more demanding, and lengthy, high school schedule in which the Cristo Rey students work five eight-hour days per month in their jobs while attending classes during a longer school day (and year), fifteen days a month.

It’s real work in the businesses and hard work in class, yet the demands appeal to students. As Father Foley put it, “When you go to any of our schools and say to the kids, ‘What do you like about our school?’ inevitably it’s the job. The kids feel like an adult. They’re treated like an adult. They feel like they’re part of something and they’re taken into account.” And the corporate partners seem to agree: the partnerships have an 88% retention rate.

This is Catholic social doctrine – which teaches the empowerment of the poor and the unleashing of their potential – in action. Catholic schools in inner-city America have always been the Church’s most effective anti-poverty program. Keeping those schools alive under very different circumstances than those portrayed in The Bells of St. Mary’s means meeting serious challenges through creative educational programs and imaginative funding. The Cristo Rey schools, which are some of the best news in U.S. Catholicism in 2018, are shining examples of both.

Blessed Miguel Pro would approve.

COMING UP: Centro San Juan Diego to celebrate its ‘Quinceañera’ Oct. 11

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“The more prosperous nations are obliged… to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin” (CCC 2241).

With the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in mind and the vision and mission of answering the Church’s call to welcome and aid the newcomers, Archbishop Charles Chaput and Monsignor José Gómez created Centro San Juan Diego in 2003.

Fifteen years later, the mission of Centro continues more urgently than ever. On Oct. 11, the institution will celebrate its 15th birthday — or as it’s called among Hispanics, its ‘Quinceañera.’

Centro was created to meet the urgent needs of the growing Hispanic immigrant community in Colorado after the arrival of what was considered one of the largest wave of immigrants to the U.S. between 1996 and 2004, explained Juan Carlos Reyes, Executive Director of Centro San Juan Diego.

“The creation of Centro was necessary, not only so Catholic immigrants could find the Church welcoming them, opening its doors and helping them to actively participate in the Church’s life, but also, for the immigrant community in general, regardless of their faith, to offer them an area of social work,” Reyes explained.

Since its creation, Centro has helped thousands of people. In fact, nearly 5,000 Hispanics reach out to Centro every year to receive faith formation and educational services. With the Pastoral Institute, the family, children’s and young adult’s ministries, and the educational and leadership programs, Centro has become the main resource center for both long-term residents and newcomers in Colorado.

At Centro, students start by learning English, preparing for their citizenship, and/or becoming entrepreneurs by attending small business classes.

Twice a month, Centro offers a legal night (Noche Legal) to provide legal advice from lawyers in different areas of law to those seeking help but with no financial means to do so.  During tax season, Centro provides tax preparation services at a low cost. Additionally, a tax preparer certification is available for those who want to pursue it.

“One of the programs that has given us more recognition is the partnership Centro has with Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP), a university in Puebla, Mexico that offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Spanish that are valid in both countries,” said Reyes. This partnership began in 2012 and provides online education at low cost to any Spanish-speaking individual, regardless of their citizenship status.

A positive effect on families

One of the most touching testimonies shared by a Centro student came from Monica Chavez, who was the first graduate from the UPAEP program.

“During her graduation ceremony speech, she paused and, addressing her children, she said, ‘There are no excuses now [for them not to graduate],’” recalled Reyes. “The services at Centro are offered to help families, to help parents be the best parents they can be. The education this student [received] has had a direct effect on her life. We are almost certain that her children will graduate [due to her mother’s example].”

Centro San Juan Diego’s mission is continuous. Earlier this year, the “Sister Alicia V. Cuarón Education Fund” was created to honor the legacy of Sister Alicia V. Cuarón, the founder of the previous family services program and a lifelong advocate for Hispanic issues in business, leadership and empowerment. The education fund supports the family services and programs at Centro.

“This education fund is an effective tool to respond to the Church’s call to help immigrants, regardless of their ethnicity or economic status,” stated Reyes.

The future of Centro

When asked about Centro’s future, Reyes enthusiastically responded that among its promising plans, there is a great opportunity “to establish regional offices on the Eastern Plains and Western slope to reach the immigrant community in those areas.” They also plan “to extend vocation and education courses through the archdiocese and create new programs that will address the growing and diverse needs of immigrants, such as education, leadership development, job training and readiness, while ensuring easy access to its award-winning services.”