Graduation finally comes for Cristo Rey’s first class

Arthur Williams was 17 days from graduating from Cristo Rey Jesuit High School as he signed an acceptance letter for a scholarship offer from McDaniel College June 1.

Williams thought about the 14-year-old version of himself from three years ago.

“I would have been one of the guys in the back cracking jokes,” Williams said. “This place changed my life.”

Each of the 78 members of Cristo Rey’s first graduating class had been accepted to college, unlocking a future many thought was impossible in 2007, when they entered the new institution at the former Holy Rosary School.

Cristo Rey is part of a national network of schools that operate under the motto, “Transforming Urban America One Student At A Time.” The Cristo Rey model includes a corporate internship program in which students spend several days a month in a work environment. The money earned goes toward deferring their tuition cost at Cristo Rey.

The Catholic Review chronicled the educational journey of the school’s senior class during the 2010-2011 academic year, and this is the last installment of that series. Throughout the series, the class members gave insights into their personal struggles and achievements. The biggest highlight came June 18 as the class received its diplomas at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Homeland June 18.

“Truthfully, when I was in middle school I didn’t apply to any high schools,” Williams said. “I didn’t know if I’d be going to high school to be honest. Now, I get to go on a full ride to college. If it wasn’t for this school, I wouldn’t be here. If it wasn’t for my teachers yelling at me to stay focused, I wouldn’t be here. We might take it for granted, but we went to a very good school.”

Marvin Mullens stood with his son, Steven, just a few feet from the altar of St. Ignatius Loyola at the cathedral following graduation. Marvin marveled at his son’s growth. He was emotional several times throughout the commencement exercises.

“The time just flew by,” Marvin said. “They’ve done an amazing job with these kids.”

Steven clutched his diploma and allowed a relieved smile.

“I don’t know what to say,” he said. “It feels good. We’re finally done. Now, we start four years of college.”

Steven will likely attend the Community College of Baltimore County and has his mind on becoming a police officer.

Dreams were a recurring theme during Cristo Rey’s graduation ceremony. Salutatorian Jonathan George told those in attendance that graduates must believe that they can reach their dreams and work toward them. He said the students showed anything was possible.

“We believed this day would come and we worked tirelessly to make it for four long years,” George said. “Today, we have achieved our goal of receiving our high school diploma from Cristo Rey.”

The graduates were survivors. When the school opened in 2007, there were 121 students in the class.

Jesuit Father John W. Swope, president of Cristo Rey, watched the fresh-faced teenagers mature during the last four years into young adults. He said they set a standard for students that will follow.

“When they were ninth graders, they were it,” Father Swope said. “They were just looking at each other. We’re pretty pleased with the example they’ve given to our underclassmen. They’ve had to invent what it means to be an upperclassman at this school and show the example of the Cristo Rey way. They’ve stepped up.”

Now, they’re stepping out into a new world. Chris Ellis, featured throughout this series, hugged his mother Cornelia as he exited the cathedral. Cornelia adopted her son as an infant and imagined a world of endless possibilities for Chris, who will attend Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg this fall.

“She was crying,” Chris said of seeing his mother. “It felt like winning the World Series. I dreamt of proving to my mother I could do this. This feels like a real accomplishment.”

Father Swope beamed with pride as he watched the class celebrate. As the graduates trickled out of the massive cathedral, Father Swope knew they were walking toward a brighter future.

“They,” Father Swope said, “are on the road to becoming the people God wants them to be.”

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.