Jesuit Father Jack Stochl found his heart’s home when he first went as a Jesuit scholastic in 1948 to Belize, where he remains today at age 87.
The government of that Central American nation recently recognized his commitment when it presented him last fall with the Meritorious Service Award for his 64 years of helping the people of Belize by teaching English and, more recently, caring for prisoners.
This disciplined man followed the same daily routine for years, rising at 4 a.m. to exercise, pray and teach English each morning at St. John’s College in Belize City. He ran the Extension School in the late afternoon and evening, returning home in time for bed at 9:30 p.m.
Fr. Stochl founded the Extension School in 1957 in the heart of Belize City. The school’s academic offerings were limited but effective, and were aimed at helping students earn a grade school diploma or “leaving permit” that would qualify them for a government job. He had great organizational skills and was ready to take charge of things.
Jesuit Father Jim Short, who now lives at Bellarmine House in St. Louis, worked with Fr. Stochl for years, including time together at St. Martin de Porres Parish in Belize City. “Jack had a good touch with people and chose good teachers,” he said. “He had goals and knew what he wanted to achieve.”
That keen sense of focus was evident in his various roles over many years in the Jesuits’ mission in Belize. He was first and foremost a dedicated and demanding teacher of the English language, constantly pushing his students to master English.
He served as headmaster of the secondary education division of St. John’s College from 1965 to 1969 and from 1987 to 1992; he was the mission superior from 1977 to 1983.
The Meritorious Service Award noted his radio work as well, saying that “his voice may be familiar to some early risers because for the past 34 years, going back to the days of Radio Belize, he has delivered a brief Morning Devotion talk each week.”
He took up residence at St. Martin’s parish in 1987 and served as its pastor from 1995 until 2004.
“He turned out to be an excellent pastor,” Short said, someone who continued the good relationships with people in the parish that his predecessors had begun.
In 2005, when he turned 80, Fr. Stochl became pastoral minister to inmates of the Belize prison. At the urging or a parishioner, he reluctantly visited prisoners who were reading the Bible. Fr. Stochl said he was not sure at first whether they were sincere or just faking, but “we got along comfortably and I continued to visit them each week. So when I retired from the parish and looked for something to do, the prison was the obvious choice”
Fr. Stochl’s work has grown. He goes to the prison at least five days a week and offers Mass on Saturdays for around 100 inmates with no guard present. He also runs three weekly counseling groups and visits men in the Maximum Security and punishment sections.
“Being present to them and interested means a lot,” he said. He is secretary of the Belize branch of Prison Fellowship International, and is involved in two rehabilitation programs. “The work grows on you, and so do the inmates once you get to know them as persons.”
The thread that connects these different areas of Fr. Stochl’s ministry is his sense of identifying with the Belizean people.
He became a Belizean citizen in 1974, not as a political statement but as a sign that he would remain with the people. Early on he developed a great affection for the Garifuna, Afro-Caribbean people who live along Belize’s southern coast and other parts of Central America. As a scholastic, Fr. Stochl worked with a number of Garifuna students to create a way of writing their language. He continued this project during summer vacations in theology with the help of now retired Bishop Martin. The result was a dictionary and a small prayer book,
In Belize City, he always took time to chat with ordinary people. Now, he talks with prisoners, teaching a religious sensibility that will help them.
“He is where he should be,” Fr. Short said. “His heart is in the right place.”