Jesuit Father T.J. Martinez’s enthusiasm is hard to miss, especially when he’s talking about the school he founded, Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory School of Houston. His devotion to the school, which opened for the 2009-10 school year, has experienced explosive growth. In one school year, it has grown from 60 to 160 kids and from 19 to 40 corporate sponsors for the work-study program. Additionally, $9 million dollars have been raised for the $10 million campaign that was launched just a year and a half ago.
Before his assignment to open Cristo Rey Jesuit, Fr. Martinez was busy on what he called his “Plan A” path. With a law degree already under his belt, he was newly ordained and finishing up a graduate program in school leadership at Harvard in 2008. From there he thought his first assignment would be working at Loyola University New Orleans Law School.
A call from his provincial changed that plan. Jesuit Father Fred Kammer, then provincial of the Society of Jesus’ New Orleans Province, told him a group in Houston had done a feasibility study to open a new Cristo Rey style school and asked if he’d be interested in heading it up.
Martinez told Fr. Kammer he wasn’t interested. “I just got ordained. I hadn’t even worked in a parish,” he remembers.
Kammer’s response: “Let me rephrase what I just said: Congratulations you are the new president of Cristo Rey Jesuit.”
Martinez’s orders were to graduate and then report to Houston to found and launch the school.
“I thought this was crazy,” he says. “This was my first assignment — to go start a Jesuit high school? No money, no faculty, no staff. Fr. Kammer told me, ‘The great news with all this is the only way you can go is up!’”
Luckily Martinez was used to adapting to “Plan Bs”. Growing up in South Texas, as the oldest son, he says his expected role was to join his father in business, in his case, by becoming a lawyer. But while in the middle of law school, Martinez describes his calling to a religious vocation: “One day I woke up during my second year in law school at 2 a.m. and said ‘I have to go to Mass.’ I went off to the Catholic Church and it felt amazing. The next day I was back at church with this almost desperate need to go to Mass. It woke up old thoughts from earlier on in my life of joining the priesthood.”
Martinez went on retreat with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, because he grew up with the Oblates in South Texas. They were his “Plan A” for religious life. So he was stunned when at the retreat’s end, the vocation director told him that he didn’t have a vocation for the Oblates — he was meant to be a Jesuit. Martinez was put in touch with the New Orleans Province vocation director, and, after finishing law school, he joined the Society of Jesus. “The pathway to God, in my experience, was all about following the crooked lines in the right way,” he says.
Just over ten years after joining the Jesuits, Martinez, newly ordained and with several graduate degrees under his belt, arrived in Houston to work with the feasibility study group putting together a plan of action for the new school. Then he hit the streets and talked about the school to anyone who would listen. He also sat down with the Cardinal to negotiate buying property and came away with nine acres that included an old school building, a gym and a football field.
“By buying that piece of property, we became the real deal. People started saying they’re really serious about starting a new high school in an era when the Catholic Church was closing schools, at a time when there was an economic recession and then Hurricane Ike hit the city,” says Martinez.
Martinez talked to anyone who would listen to him — any group, grandmother or corporate sponsor. He says, “We need everything and we need everybody. Door’s open; come in, no exclusivity; this school needs the city to survive. And people responded.”
Cristo Rey Jesuit opened its first school year in 2009 with 60 students, and Martinez oversaw an exciting first year that included a visit from First Lady Laura Bush. He began emailing Bush with the school’s progress each month until he got a call from Secret Service that she wanted to visit. Bush toured the school, talked to Martinez and students and gave a speech to 500 people attending a luncheon at the school, in which she called Cristo Rey “the sun that is now rising over the southeast side of Houston.”
Getting others, like Bush, excited about Cristo Rey Jesuit is one of Martinez’s favorite parts of the job. “I love being a cheerleader for the school and drum majoring that message to the rest of the city. It’s about galvanizing the troops and rallying people rather than speaking at people.”
He also loves interacting with the students. “When looking at numbers and finances and spending and fundraising and strategic planning gets too much for me, I put it all aside and I walk out my door, and I dive into the ocean of kids that are the favorite part of my day.”
Martinez has seen a number of positive changes in the students. He says they walk and talk more professionally, partly because of the corporate boot camp each takes part in to train for their five-day-a-month corporate job that helps pay their tuition, making the school affordable for low-income families. They’ve also dramatically improved academically.
The building also continues to be improved. Money from the capital campaign has been used to renovate the old facility a section at a time as money becomes available.
Now in the middle of its second school year, Martinez sees Cristo Rey Jesuit as more than just a school. Once the first capital campaign is complete, he plans to launch another, with dreams of having a health care center on the property to serve the surrounding neighborhood. He’s already in talks with Catholic Charities about partnering with the school for the clinic.
Also on his wish list is opening a Jesuit community near Cristo Rey Jesuit once the school graduates its first class. With a new community he could get more Jesuits involved at the school, he says.
His ultimate vision is a campus “that provides multiple services — education, guidance and health care — to the southeast side of Houston and becomes a beacon that could transform a neighborhood that is desperately looking for a symbol of hope in a place that hasn’t had that symbol in a long time.”