Go where the needs are greatest

Fr. Martin Connell’s assignment brings him back to Cleveland after stints in California and Africa

By John Walsh

In March 2009, Fr. Martin Connell, S.J., was content as an assistant professor in the School of Education at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles when he received a call from his provincial, the Very Reverend Timothy Kesicki, S.J., ’84. Fr. Kesicki – who was in Rome meeting with the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, the Very Reverend Adolpho Nicolas, S.J. – wanted Fr. Connell to help start a coeducational boarding high school in the East African country of Tanzania, one of the poorest and educationally underserved countries in the world.

“Fr. Kesicki had been asked if there was anyone in the Chicago-Detroit Province of the Jesuits available to help start a coeducational boarding high school in Tanzania, and he said he immediately thought of me,” Fr. Connell says. “I said, ‘Yes,’ on the spot.”

Such is the life of a Jesuit.

Fr. Connell had never been to a developing country before, but he had administrative experience as the principal of University of Detroit Jesuit High School and has a doctorate in the anthropology of education from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He was a solid candidate to establish a strong educational foundation permeated with the Jesuit ethos for the proposed 1,200-student school, which was built with funds provided by the foundation of a generous Canadian family who had previously helped finance the construction of Jesuit-sponsored primary schools and parish churches in Tanzania.

Fr. Connell

Fr. Connell

“I never guessed this would’ve happened,” says Fr. Connell, adding he visited Dodoma, the legislative capital of Tanzania where the school was to be built, for 10 days before formally committing to the new role based on Fr. Kesicki’s advice. “But my education and work background, coupled with my desire to follow St. Ignatius of Loyola’s principles of a universal Society of Jesus and Jesuit availability to go anywhere in the world where the needs are greatest, led me there.”

As one of the assistants to the Jesuit general noted at the time of the initial phone conversation with Fr. Kesicki, Fr. Connell had been caught in the crosshairs of the province.

Fr. Connell, who was ordained at Gesu in 1994, became provincial assistant for education of the Eastern Africa Province of the Jesuits and headmaster of St. Peter Claver High School, which opened initially with 140 boys and girls in January 2011. As a boarding school, St. Peter’s puts girls on equal footing with boys.

“When girls return home from day schools, they’re expected to perform domestic duties while their brothers study,” Fr. Connell says. “At the boarding school, they can devote themselves to their studies.”

The 500-acre campus includes two four-story dormitories housing 640 students each, a library, a church designed to accommodate the entire school, faculty housing, and a multipurpose building. Additionally, a dispensary serves the students and, in the future, as funds are available, the local villagers. Fr. Connell also initiated several projects to help the school remain self-sufficient: a dairy, pork production project, bakery, and bee-keeping project.

“It’s no surprise to those who know the Jesuits that the Society believes in the transformative power of education – as a link between learning and a better future for students,” says Fr. Connell, who first met the Jesuits at St. John’s Jesuit High School in Toledo, where he grew up. “But education also empowers individuals and should impel them to work to improve the lives of their fellow citizens. It not only helps improve students’ and their communities’ quality of life, it supports a more informed democracy and helps Tanzanians diminish the poverty many face daily.”

The notion of building capacity is a fundamental value of the democratic way of life.

“St. Peter Claver cultivates these democratic ideals, which dovetail with Jesuit values,” Fr. Connell says. “Students are encouraged to build their capacity as individuals, always with an eye to how this positively affects their fellow citizens to the greater glory of God.”

St. Peter Claver isn’t the Jesuits’ first high school in Tanzania. In 1994 the Chicago-Detroit Jesuits were instrumental in opening Loyola High School in Dar es Salaam. Loyola has the reputation not only for producing graduates who are critical thinkers and excellent writers and speakers but also for instilling the importance of service. These two Jesuit schools are the only schools in the country with community service as an integral part of their curriculum.

“When people heard the Jesuits were opening another school, they were very excited,” Fr. Connell says. “But there are so many kids who aren’t prepared for secondary school.”

This is why the Jesuits sponsor two primary schools in Tanzania, one in Dar es Salaam and the other in Dodoma. These schools serve as important feeder schools, and their graduates who matriculate at St. Peter Claver serve as valuable resources for helping to remediate struggling students’ knowledge and skills.

During his time in Tanzania, Fr. Connell was encouraged by the hope of the people even in the face of severe poverty. The common greeting among Catholics in Swahili is “Kristu: Tumaini letu – Christ: Our hope.”

“The students celebrate every opportunity to flourish in ways that are meaningful, productive, and rewarding individually and collectively to the good of society,” he says.

After three years (2009-2012) in Tanzania, Fr. Connell was called by Fr. Kesicki again. This time to come to Cleveland – where he taught at St. Ignatius High School (1988-1990) and served as assistant principal (1994-1997) – as the rector of the Jesuit community at John Carroll. He was supposed to stay in Tanzania longer to start a teachers’ college, but that didn’t happen because of a change in priorities for the Eastern Africa Jesuits.

“Fr. Kesicki said, ‘I have the perfect place for you, and that’s John Carroll,’” Fr. Connell says. “It was a repeat of the call to go to Tanzania.”

Fr. Connell succeeded Fr. Gerald Sabo, S.J., associate professor of Slavic languages and literature, who had completed the customary six-year term of office. Fr. Connell’s job as rector is to coordinate the Jesuits to be as effective as possible in the apostolic work it does at JCU and Gesu parish, as well as attend to the practical matters.

“We talk about cura personalis in education, the care for each person as an individual, but who cares for those who are caring for these individuals?” Fr. Connell says. “That’s the job – the internal focus – of the rector.”

The external focus is to be a resource for the University, principally by supporting the work of the president and the vice president for mission and identity.

“I’m devoted to the mission of University,” he says. “I love working with Fr. [Robert] Niehoff, S.J. It’s exciting to see him in his commitment to the Jesuit identity of the school.”

Fr. Connell, who knew Fr. Niehoff previously when they both served on the board of directors at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia during the 1990s, reiterated the importance of Jesuits on campus because they’re a reminder of the legacy of St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits as well as custodians of the school’s institutional memory.

“Jesuits are a unique gift to the University because of their life experiences, formation, and pastoral qualities,” he says. “These complement the work of our lay colleagues, and together, we do a great job of carrying out the University’s mission. Carroll’s great commitment to its mission made my work in Tanzania easier. I was able to cultivate the Jesuit ethos more easily because I had amazing help from Laura Heid ’10, who volunteered with us for the school’s first two years and whose life exemplified excellence in learning, leadership, and service.”

It isn’t difficult for Fr. Connell, who’s also an assistant professor in the education and school psychology department, to make connections between his present work and his earlier work in Tanzania.

“St. Peter Claver’s motto is to learn, love, and serve,” he says. “I can’t help but see the connection between the high school’s motto and the University’s mission statement. It’s the difference a word – love in St. Peter’s motto and leadership in Carroll’s mission statement. But there’s really no difference. As former Ivy League professor Cornel West once said, ‘You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people.’” JCU

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