by Amy Korpi
When the Jesuits of the Midwest came together for an annual “Province Days” meeting in June, one of the key themes was the importance of lay colleagues. While the numbers of Jesuit priests and brothers are still strong, they are smaller than a few decades ago. Such trends have resulted in laypeople taking on greater leadership and support roles at the many Jesuit institutions throughout the Midwest.
Yet Jesuit-lay collaboration is certainly nothing new.
As Chicago-Detroit Provincial Fr. Brian Paulson, SJ, recalled, “My first two years of high school were at Campion, in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Upon Campion’s closure, I moved on to Chicago’s Loyola Academy and, even back then, all my teachers were laypeople. When I entered the Jesuits, I could have joined through various provinces, but my experience at Loyola had been so positive that I thought, ‘if this place can be so well run with a small Jesuit presence, I want to cast my lot with this team.’”
Unsurprisingly, however, when a Jesuit-sponsored institution is run largely by laypeople, there is a concern about its ability to maintain its “Jesuit-ness.” But Province Days participants made it clear: Energetic, dedicated lay colleagues who are highly committed to Ignatian values and the Society’s way of proceeding are making great strides in leading Jesuit-related ministries.
A case in point is Andrew Stith, president of Milwaukee’s Cristo Rey High School, set to open in 2015. In charge of the feasibility study that led the Society to make the commitment to proceed with the high school, he became a natural contender to lead it.
But the story begins much earlier. A communications and business major at Marquette University, Stith had plans to go into business after graduation. However, Fr. Frank Majka, SJ (now pastoral minister at Marquette High School) asked him whether he’d consider something different. Ultimately, that new path turned out to be the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame (ACE)—a graduate program providing academic, experiential, and personal formation to aspiring teachers and school leaders while placing its participants in schools whose missions help ensure that social and economic hurdles will not bar children from an excellent Catholic education.
As part of the ACE program, Stith taught at Holy Name School in Kansas City, Kansas, where he learned of the need for Catholic education in the inner city. “The hunger for parents and students to have a place where they can find God, community, and people who care for their whole being was so significant,” he said. “It also opened my eyes to a personal mission. While I discerned my calling wasn’t in the classroom, I realized it was in education.
With his master’s degree in hand, Stith went on to work in the development office of Notre Dame High School in Niles, Illinois. Two years later, in 2005, the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth invited him to return to Kansas City to serve in advancement for a new Cristo Rey High School the order was opening. Finding, among other things, the mission of the high school’s work-study program compelling, he decided to make the move, and oversaw communications, fund development, and community outreach for seven years.
In 2012 came the next step in the journey for Stith—by then a husband and father. It was an opportunity to become involved on the ground floor of another Cristo Rey school, this time in Milwaukee. He felt clear it was something he must consider. “I kept feeling this calling,” he said. And, after directing the feasibility study, when he was offered the position at the helm, “it just seemed right.”
The move to add a Cristo Rey high school in Milwaukee is welcome news to Melodie Wyttenbach, Nativity Jesuit Middle School’s president. “The need for good schools in our community is great,” she explained. “And Cristo Rey, like our program, is transformative. I believe we are all called to this Jesuit notion of magis to do more and to be more for the greater glory of God.”
It’s the kind of transformation with which Wyttenbach is personally familiar, having earned her undergraduate degree at Saint Louis University (SLU), and a graduate degree at Marquette.
“My education at SLU deeply influenced my development,” she said. “While there, my involvement in campus ministry and community service work helped me develop an understanding of good work in action and the reflective tools necessary to make meaning out of each experience. I also came to know a number of Jesuits who inspired me and connected me with various ministries, including Camp Thunderhead, Nativity Jesuit’s summer camp program. These experiences were life-changing and I continue to ground my experiences in prayer and reflection.”
Such life-changing experiences and reflection have formed Wyttenbach into the only woman to lead a Jesuit middle school, high school, or university in the Midwest.
“That distinction is a humbling honor,” she said. “Having been trained in the Jesuit tradition, my leadership platform allows me to challenge other laymen and laywomen to further develop their understanding of Ignatian pedagogy and their own faith formation. Further, as a wife and working mother, I believe I can be an example for others who are passionate about their work and share my love for my faith and my family, while serving the mission of Nativity with others.”
That passion is evident in everything Wyttenbach does. “The students and their families inspire me daily,” she remarked. “They bring great joy to this ministry and, even when the road is rocky, their persistence, optimism and gratitude demonstrate the impact Nativity Jesuit has on each individual who enters our doors. It’s truly a place that transforms lives—of the students, families, teachers, volunteers and guests—as all come thirsting to know and leave inspired by the work happening here. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to lead Nativity Jesuit, and excited to help realize the full potential of our mission, as we serve more students and deepen the quality of our outcomes.”
“At a fundamental level, Jesuit education is about freedom,” said Stith. “We provide freedom in many ways with different stakeholders. For the students and their families, it is most apparent. They bring unique gifts to the table and find the ways and means to transcend circumstances and glorify God with those gifts. For benefactors, too, it is a freeing thing to see their wealth—the gifts they’ve been given—making a difference, having a meaningful impact on others.”
“If Cristo Rey can offer freedom to those who believe in its mission, then God’s truth, love and work become more apparent in our world. I feel privileged to be part of this great work and am excited to see Cristo Rey Jesuit become reality in Milwaukee,” he added.
It is such understanding of and commitment to Jesuit traditions and values among lay leaders that led Fr. Joe Daoust, SJ, then general counselor at the Curia of the Society of Jesus in Rome to tell Province Days attendees, “Some of our children—our schools and other ministries—can grow up and do okay without us. Lay leaders allow us to remain flexible to go where the need is greatest.”
Fr. Paulson agreed. “If the mission at a given Jesuit institution is so fragile that it will fall apart without Jesuits, we haven’t done it a great service,” he explained. “We are blessed with colleagues like Andy and Melodie who represent the human, spiritual capital of our ministries.”