A Jesuit's Journey:
Fr. Donald Rowe, SJ
November 2021—Many of us grow out of our childhood career aspirations, but for Fr. Donald Rowe, SJ, those career aspirations were a vocation. Father Rowe recalls, “I remember coming to my mother after school one day and saying, ‘Mom, I want to be a priest,’ and my mother said, ‘That’s nice, dear.’ And she would have said the same thing if I said I wanted to be a fireman or a spaceman.” But after spending time with the Jesuits while attending Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Illinois, he took this vocation more seriously. Father Rowe graduated high school in 1958, entered the Society of Jesus in 1959, and was ordained as a priest in 1972. His childhood aspirations had come to fruition.
Of course, Jesuits’ works extend to teaching, administration, research, and work in missions and social apostolates. When it came time for Fr. Rowe to attend graduate school, he chose architecture. After receiving his master’s from Columbia University, he went to Loyola University Chicago for his regency, where he taught art and architectural history and helped establish the school’s new art department. After ordination, Fr. Rowe returned to teaching at Loyola and was settling into a profession he enjoyed. He says, “I was enjoying teaching and working well with the students, offering Mass and counseling, and writing articles and a book.”
He certainly didn’t expect to receive a call from the chairman of the search committee for Saint Ignatius College Prep’s next president. “That just came out of the blue.” He had no background or experience in secondary education or administration, but he was grateful, citing “a fine grace where opportunities open to you.” And despite his inexperience, he got the job. “I went in cold,” Fr. Rowe says. “I hadn’t been in a high school since I was a boy.”
It was sink or swim, with rough waters for a first-time president. The Chicago high school was falling apart, with dilapidated buildings and poor finances. Father Rowe jumped in. “I’m very entrepreneurial, and I like to try things,” he says. “And I’m open to change, so I said, ‘I think I can do that.’ I didn’t know what ‘that’ would involve in particular, but I knew it would involve getting the building fixed up and then getting to the students and making sure the curriculum was up-to-date and incorporating Jesuit values.”
Father Rowe made sure each student received support as an individual. For example, he got copies of about 250 report cards after each term and hand-wrote personal praise and encouragement on the pages and mailed them to the students at home. He also noted their involvement in sports and clubs and the personal, social growth he hoped for each student.
During his 17 years at Saint Ignatius College Prep, Fr. Rowe worked 90–100 hours a week and went from being the green first-timer to being named “Second Founder” by the board of trustees. By the end of his tenure, the bankrupt institution he inherited had an endowment of over $54 million. Additionally, he renovated the historic buildings and constructed two new buildings in the historic style; expanded the campus from four to 21 acres; developed a board of trustees; established pastoral ministry, computer, and service programs; and upgraded the resources of every department, as well as salaries and benefits. To do all of this, he was very involved in asking for the help of friends, parents, alumni, and faculty/staff.
After leaving Saint Ignatius College Prep, Fr. Rowe spent time as a part-time chaplain at the Little Sisters of the Poor and worked part-time for Loyola’s School of Education as a consultant to Catholic schools. For health reasons, he moved to the St. Camillus Jesuit Community in 2016, where he has enjoyed more time for prayer and reading. The change of pace is well deserved, and it becomes his aging. “Those were graced years at St. Ignatius. I am very grateful for the priestly opportunities they offered.”