By Lelah Byron
What distinguishes a high school as belonging to the Jesuit mission? Not sheer statistics, but heart. With roughly a thousand students and just two Jesuits on staff at Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, the priests may not be numerous, but Ignatian spirituality is abundant.
“How can we still be called a Jesuit school with two Jesuits?” Fr. Don Petkash, SJ, director of mission and identity at Walsh Jesuit, asks. “It’s because of the work that has been done with the teachers and staff.”
The lay faculty and staff at Walsh Jesuit have been entrusted with preserving Jesuit values—they are formed in Ignatian spirituality—and the students embody those values in a special way through service, Fr. Petkash says.
“I’m extremely proud of our students and the graduates we turn out,” he says. “They’re really fine people. They are really cognizant of wanting to be a man or woman for others.”
Guidance from both teachers and the broader community allowed Chloe Gunther—a Walsh Jesuit graduate who is now a sophomore at Seattle University— to discern a mission of her own, as she discovered her passion for activism and social justice.
“We can’t live our faith without doing service work and meeting people on the margins,” Gunther says. “That is always, and was always, the best form of prayer for me.”
Following in the footsteps of her two older brothers, both of whom were involved in service work, Gunther enrolled at Walsh Jesuit. As a freshman, Gunther grew more attuned to global injustices, particularly the refugee crisis. It was on Instagram where Gunther scrolled past a photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi who had drowned in the Mediterranean fleeing Syria.
“I was shocked into discomfort and disgusted that I didn’t know what was going on,” Gunther says.
Ardent in her desire to raise awareness about the refugee plight but uncertain of what direction to take, Gunther turned to campus ministers and then-assistant principal Sean Lynch for guidance. She was pleased to find that they immediately embraced the idea.
Walsh Jesuit takes pride in the administration’s accessibility, enabling students’ development both spiritually and academically. “We want students who are going to be open to growth, intellectually competent, religious, loving, and committed to doing justice,” says Lynch, an alumnus of the class of ’94, who became principal in May.
Gunther founded a Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) team, an extracurricular organization on campus intended to educate about and advocate for refugees. Utilizing the JRS Walk a Mile program, Gunther and other club members crafted their own refugee camp simulation for Walsh Jesuit. The exercise allowed students to confront a representation of the hardships war-displaced peoples face. “You know, how can you simulate being a refugee?” Karl Ertle, president of Walsh Jesuit, asks. “But [Chloe] did an amazing job.”
At Seattle University, another Jesuit school, Gunther became one of nine students in her graduating class to receive the Sullivan Leadership Award, which covers tuition, housing, and meals for leaders in service. There she continued her advocacy, working to start a JRS team on campus. It was her biggest goal going into college, she says.
“I would not be there without Walsh and the way they cultivated the different aspects of my life,” Gunther emphasizes.
Cultivating students’ God-given talents to change the world remains integral to the mission of the school, Ertle says. Theology classes aid students in their academic and spiritual discernment, and Justice League, a club where students learn about faith and service matters significant to the Church, is the largest club on campus.
Edward P. Sloan, a ’76 graduate, emergency medicine professor and medical director of physician assistant studies at Dominican University, says it was in a theology class where the class received an essay exam prompt with just one word: “Why?” The late Fr. Clement Metzger, SJ, and all of the Jesuits emphasized sound thinking as students considered God and one’s role in the world.
“We were always being challenged to think critically,” Sloan says. “The faculty and students were all motivated by the pursuit of excellence in thought and deed.”
But outside of theology classes and extracurriculars is the heart of Walsh Jesuit: campus ministry, strategically located in the center of the school, serves as a conduit for faith, liturgy, service, and justice. “We’re a one-stop shop here,” Tim Dunn, campus minister, says. “We look at ourselves as the ‘lab’ to theology, if you will. We’re where you sink your teeth into it, like you would in a biology lab.”
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the offerings of campus ministry look slightly different right now. Immersion trips to Arizona and tutoring programs in Akron continue, albeit in virtual form. “Students couldn’t be there physically, but in every other way it was so impactful,” Ertle says.
Walsh Jesuit was able to have two socially distanced Kairos retreats. Gavin Carr, a senior, was a leader on one. Even without the simple intimacy of a hug or unmasked smile, Carr says the retreat demonstrated what his school is all about: being with and for others.
“Kairos is a big part of Walsh,” he says. “My experience was so amazing, and with how much it touched me, I wanted to help someone else with that.”
With or without a sizable Jesuit presence, Lynch says he is proud that students, as they receive their diplomas at graduation, embody Catholic characteristics of compassion and servitude. Their care for others, he says, will stay with students long after they leave Walsh Jesuit.
Attending Walsh Jesuit “is not a four-year decision,” Lynch says. “It’s a lifelong decision.”
Lelah Byron is a junior at Marquette University studying journalism and political science and a former intern for the USA Midwest Province Jesuits.