Pestello continues legacy of courage

“It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

As Yogi Berra, that great St. Louis baseball legend from The Hill would say, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” The recent outrage over the Clock Tower Accords, which President Fred Pestello agreed to in October 2014, is nothing new for Saint Louis University. Time and time again, this university community has found itself at the nexus of change in this city’s checkered history in race relations.

71 years ago, on Feb. 11, 1944, St. Louis newspapers reported shocking news: a Jesuit priest called for the integration of Saint Louis University. One reporter observed, “Startled students of St. Louis University at the regular students’ [M]ass heard Rev. Claude Herman Heithaus, S.J., make an impassioned plea yesterday for them to rid themselves of race prejudice and make a pledge ‘never again to have any part’ in the wrongs white men have done to Negroes.”

Fr. Heithaus began his homily with a statement that reads as a diagnosis of a social ill that is as real today as it was in 1944: “It is a surprising and rather bewildering fact, that in what concerns justice for the Negro, the Mohammedans [Muslims] and the atheists are more Christ-like than many Christians. The followers of Mohammed and of Lenin make no distinction of color; but to some followers of Christ, the color of a man’s skin makes all the difference in the world.”

In 1944, racial segregation in public institutions of education was mandated by law in the state of Missouri. Popular – albeit erroneous – belief held that private institutions, such as SLU, were also legally barred from attempting integration. Tensions surrounding the issue could run high. The previous year, as reported in the African-American newspaper, The Chicago Defender, a protest against segregation at Washington University, involving around 500 students, had been dispersed “and ringleaders expelled.” The issue was no less heated in Catholic institutions, for in 1943, the Archbishop of St. Louis, Most Rev. John J. Glennon, had privately intervened to block the admission of Mary Aloyse Foster, an African American, to the Loretto Sisters’ Webster College, now Webster University. The day of Fr. Heithaus’ homily, SLU President, Rev. Patrick J. Holloran, S.J., observed to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “I’m surprised Father Heithaus spoke publically on his personal opinion in the matter at this time.”- This paragraph borrows from and depends on a Heithaus Haven essay on the history of the Heithaus homily.

After 71 years – as a region – we continue to be challenged by racial attitudes Fr. Heihaus sought to confront, and fail to respond with compassion to the needs of those who have been, and continue to feel, marginalized in our society. The SLU community continues to struggle with these dispositions, consciously or unconsciously, as well.

That is why, since February 2013, Saint Louis University’s Campus Ministry has sponsored an annual reenactment of Fr. Heithaus’ homily at the Sunday evening Mass near the anniversary of his historic challenge to our university community, and students and faculty have stood and recited the following prayer:

“Lord Jesus, we are sorry and ashamed for all the wrongs that white men have done to Your Colored children. We are firmly resolved never again to have any part in them, and to do everything in our power to prevent them. Amen.”

Saint Louis University has the “distinction” of being the first historically white university in a former slave-holding state to admit African-American students – a total of five – in the summer of 1944. Some considered that decision a capitulation to agitators and an invasion of our (all-white) campus. I cannot imagine the challenge faced by Mr. Sylvester Smith, and his four African-American classmates. Their arrival on campus was the beginning of a process of claiming a crucial part of our mission as a Catholic, Jesuit university. But it was only a beginning.

In truth, Saint Louis University cannot boast of that moment in our past. We must bear the shame of not having lived out the gospel-imperative, found in Matthew 25, since our founding in 1818. Yet we continue to struggle toward becoming what we aspire to be: a university “dedicated to leadership in the continuing quest for understanding of God’s creation and for the discovery, dissemination and integration of the values, knowledge and skills required to transform society in the spirit of the Gospels.”

It was a remarkable moment in SLU’s history when, just weeks after becoming the first lay president of Saint Louis University, Fred Pestello had the courage to live out that Catholic, Jesuit mission, and provide a space at Clock Tower Plaza for peaceful students and concerned members of our wider community to spend several days reflecting on the reasons for racial tensions in our region, and to explore how this university could be part of much needed solutions. As the first lay person to be entrusted by the Society of Jesus with the apostolic work at Saint Louis University, President Pestello acted with compassion in a time of crisis and lived up to the gospel ideals we aspire to embody as a university community.

I do hope that we commemorate the history of our struggle to become what we claim to be. While this Catholic, Jesuit university will not be a society led by persons who make flawless decisions, neither should it be an island of privilege surrounded by a sea of despair. I believe SLU should to be a place where we strive to live out the higher ideals of both the faith that motivated our founders and act on the consciousness that we now have of systemic challenges that need to be addressed.

I am grateful for President Pestello’s leadership. I stand with him because his visionary leadership looks toward a future in which we live our mission more truly. My hope is that in the future, others will look back at this time and take courage from his resolve, when they face the ongoing struggle to live out Fr. Heithaus’ prayer: “never again to have any part in [racially prejudiced acts], and to do everything in our power to prevent them.” Perhaps in those times they will feel a connection with SLU’s ongoing struggle against racial prejudice and be inspired by the actions of people like Fr. Heithaus and Dr. Pestello. I hope they can say of the righteous actions of their leaders, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”