St. Michael's Passion

Whose truth prevails at Austin's Catholic high school?

At St. Michael's new chapel, Mass is celebrated daily and required weekly for students.
At St. Michael's new chapel, Mass is celebrated daily and required weekly for students. (Photo By John Anderson)

St. Michael's Academy is, for the moment, Austin's only Catholic high school. But it's not your parents' Catholic school. The students wear no uniforms. There are no nuns whacking kids on the knuckles with rulers, nor any larger-than-life statues of the school's namesake, the Archangel, casting Lucifer's sorry butt out of heaven. Until last year, St. Michael's didn't even have a chapel; the liturgy was read, when it was read, in the gym.

What St. Michael's has, or had, is a growing reputation for preparing the best and brightest young Austinites (of the faith) for future success. It was a college prep school that was Catholic enough for the bishop, and its students' SAT scores were 17% higher than the Texas average. It did not seem to trouble anyone -- students, parents, faculty, administrators, the board of trustees, or the diocese -- that it wasn't your parents' Catholic school.

Since Thanksgiving 2000, however, two heads of school have come and gone. More than one-third of the staff has quit. The board of trustees felt the need to include gag orders in key administrators' severance packages. Even the students are asking pointed questions: Basically, what the hell happened? And what does it all mean?

The school's motto remains "Veritas Vincit" -- "Truth Prevails" -- but St. Michael's has been bitterly divided over whose truth will indeed prevail. Whether you think the school has gone through healthy change or baffling chaos, the answer to "what happened?" is the same: Power has shifted to people who have tried to strengthen St. Michael's Catholic identity, and they've changed the place without worrying much about meeting the rest of the school halfway. Turmoil has ensued, naturally enough.

And so what? If St. Michael's were just an exclusive, west-side prep school, struggles over its mission and management might not matter much to most of Austin. But in an age where public schools -- especially on the Eastside, which is more Catholic than the other side -- are held in minimal esteem, Catholic schooling offers an attractive, well-proven alternative. As the only Catholic high school in town, St. Michael's has to serve the whole community, whose ideas about "Catholic identity" differ just as much as the rival visions of St. Michael's.

Starting next year, St. Michael's will be joined by another Catholic high school -- as yet unnamed and unlocated, but intended to be more accessible to poor Eastside kids. Austin's new bishop, who's more conservative than the old bishop and has spent most of his career in Catholic education, has definite ideas about how Catholic a Catholic school should be, and what role it should play in the education of the community at large. That question has nearly torn apart St. Michael's, and may soon confront Austinites who live far from Barton Creek.

'Upon This Land, We Will Build Our School'

Good Catholic youth in Austin used to attend St. Edward's, an offshoot of the university run, like it, by the Congregation of the Holy Cross. St. Ed's got out of the college-prep business in 1972, and for more than a decade thereafter Austin was the largest American city without a Catholic high school. In 1984, a group of parents organized and opened St. Michael's, the first -- and still the largest -- Catholic high school in the country to not be run either by a religious order such as Holy Cross, or by a diocese itself (i.e., a true parochial school, attached to a parish church). St. Michael's board of trustees, whose 13 members are mostly parents of students at the school, owns the school as well as the land in Barton Creek -- originally donated by Ben Barnes and John Connally -- on which it sits.

Despite St. Michael's organizational independence, like any institution that calls itself "Catholic" -- school, hospital, charity, etc. -- the school is subject to the dictates of the bishop of its diocese. From 1986 until last year, the Bishop of Austin was John McCarthy; during his tenure, the diocese basically left St. Michael's alone, if only because a nontraditional high school was better than none at all. "The Diocese didn't have a Catholic school, and parents put it together, and there's been a real respect both ways in the relationship," says board member Chris Dehan. "There has to be."

For the parents who founded St. Michael's, "Catholic identity" was never an issue. Had faith not been critically important to them, they would have sent their kids to other prep schools instead of starting one themselves. "It was the Catholic community of Travis County that said, 'We have to have a Catholic high school,'" says Mark Curry, the Wells Fargo Bank executive who currently chairs the St. Michael's board of trustees. "And through determination, and faith, and support from a community that agreed, they were able to create one. That was the fundamental premise, and I'm not sure it's changed since the day it was opened."

But St. Michael's has become, willingly or not, a successful elite school in a fast-growing market where demand for such options exceeds supply, and where parents who are only mildly religious send their kids to faith-based schools with good academic reputations. Catholic identity did not appear to weigh heavily on the minds of Barnes and Connally, whose original intent had been to dedicate land in Barton Creek for a public high school to anchor the development. They were turned down by Eanes ISD, and the result was St. Michael's.

Then, three years ago, Eanes voters decided not to gore the sacred cow of Westlake High football by building a second high school in the district. After that, "there was a letter from Bishop McCarthy," says Dehan, "saying he expected an increase in interest from Eanes parents. And he wanted to make sure that kids from throughout the diocese -- especially a more diverse student body -- had access to the school, and that it not only serve people from west of Austin."

Thus the board begot a committee, currently chaired by Dehan, to examine the school's Catholic identity and ensure the trappings of west-side wealth and privilege didn't overshadow it. "As a Catholic school, you need to re-evaluate from time to time," Curry said. "Do we as a school think we're doing enough on our Catholic mission? You're always evaluating that, to be true to your mission of being a Catholic school and meeting the needs of the faith."

Kennedy's Character Assassination

While the board evaluated and examined, St. Michael's head of school, Jack Kennedy, seemed to make all the right management moves. During his four-year tenure, applications and enrollment grew steadily. Student performance -- measured by SAT scores, growing numbers of National Merit Scholars, and acceptance letters to prestigious colleges -- was on the uptick. During Austin's boom, St. Michael's attracted a fair share of attention from philanthropists, who helped the school build its new athletic center and chapel, among other projects.

In the summer before the 2000-01 school year, the board voted to renew Kennedy's contract. Two months later, they fired him.

To most at St. Michael's, the reasons behind Kennedy's dismissal are still nebulous -- speaking to the strained relations that have vexed the school ever since. "The faculty all along knew very little," says Margaret Zinn, who retired this year after chairing the English department last year and who was the designated faculty liaison to the board. "I'd love for the board to tell me what changed in two months."

At the November 2000 groundbreaking ceremony for St. Michael's new athletic center, a group of parents voiced concerns about the previous year's faculty turnover, among other things. (Depending on the source, from nine to 11 staffers had quit; at the beginning of the 2000-2001 school year, St. Michael's had 64 staff members.) Some weeks later, the board called a special meeting at which the same parents hung Kennedy out to dry. Greg Gallagher, the then-president of the board, announced "with great sadness" Kennedy's resignation on January 23, and the appointment of Avis Wallace -- a former member of the board -- as interim head of school.

The Rev. John Payne, S.J., St. Michael's director of faith and community formation, says his job is to help the school clarify its Catholic identity.
The Rev. John Payne, S.J., St. Michael's director of faith and community formation, says his job is "to help the school clarify its Catholic identity." (Photo By John Anderson)

The board had actually decided to force Kennedy out before Christmas, but after lawyers got involved, they agreed to pay out his contract for the year. The settlement placed a gag order on Kennedy, who now works in Virginia. (Kennedy declined to comment. Mark Finley, the board's designated spokesperson on this matter, did not return phone calls for this story.)

Even though a St. Michael's teacher had organized this outpouring of parent criticism, it came as a surprise to most of the faculty. "It was the most painful meeting I've ever sat through in my whole life," Zinn said. "We, the faculty, wanted to have an open forum to address these issues -- and to support Mr. Kennedy -- and were told it wasn't necessary. For a school that seeks to promote a Catholic identity, the manner in which Jack Kennedy was dismissed was very un-Christian."

The parent concerns amounted to -- as another ex-teacher put it -- "disagreements, rather than allegations." Other faculty members note that Kennedy was known to reject parents' requests for special treatment, "which didn't go over very well," and that his personal style was not particularly compelling. "He did his job," one teacher says, "but he wasn't the kind of person a lot of people look for in a leader."

Nonetheless, the swiftness of Kennedy's dismissal, right in the middle of the school year -- a very rare event in the life of any school -- stunned faculty members. "Why wouldn't they let him finish his year and avoid the chaos they put the school through?" Zinn says. Erin Tierney, a former theology teacher at St. Michael's, suggests that Kennedy's ouster was motivated by something other than disgruntled parents. "I thought he was a visionary who really understood what Catholic education was about, and it was the same understanding I had. But he didn't communicate it very well, and I don't think he agreed with the board's view on the subject."

Becoming the House of Payne

At the time of Kennedy's firing, the existence of the board of trustees' Catholic-identity committee was not widely known. "Maybe some would argue this point," board member Dehan says, "but it's not like we were pushing the agenda of the school through that committee."

But Erin Tierney's husband Rich Kohut -- hired by Kennedy to form and head the school's campus ministry, and the lone teacher serving on the committee -- "picked up pretty early that there was more to it," says Tierney. "At the meeting where Jack was pretty much dismissed, Father Payne noted to Rich that 'there's a lot more going on here.'"

The Rev. John Payne, S.J. (Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits), the school's director of faith and community formation, is today the most powerful figure at St. Michael's. An old friend of Austin's new bishop, Gregory Aymond, Payne had been at the school for a year when things started to hit the fan. In the opinion of Tierney, who quit St. Michael's (along with her husband and their colleagues in the theology department) after repeated conflicts with Payne, he "was hired to make the school more Catholic, as if a cleric was inherently more Catholic than a bunch of well-trained lay people."

Payne doesn't exactly disagree. "There's been a demise of the people involved in religious communities" -- for instance, the Jesuits -- "who conduct Catholic schools. The critical mass of people who knew the legacy of Catholic education, and could clarify its Catholic identity, has diminished." A school like St. Michael's, run by the laity, "needs someone to help it understand the origins of the Catholic mission and [to] explain how to continue it. So I was here to help clarify and foster that identity. There's a tremendous legacy here and the clarification has gone to the benefit of the institution."

Though in past years priests had served as headmasters at St. Michael's, Payne is now the school's only full-time staff member who wears the collar. (Rev. Isidore Ngadizamana, the school chaplain and the only cleric on the board, is also rector of East Austin's predominantly black Holy Cross Catholic Church. He also chaired the Catholic-identity committee before Dehan.) Payne agrees, at least tacitly, that heads started to roll once he got to work. "We had people who had been hired here who simply misunderstood the mission," he says. "They took one word out of the mission statement -- 'independent' -- which simply means independent financially, but they took it to mean independent of responsibilities of a Catholic institution."

By the end of the year, 20 St. Michael's faculty and administrators had joined Kennedy on the outside looking in. Losing one-third of your staff may seem like a pretty high price for clarifying your mission, but Payne says, "Our turnover wasn't really all that massive; there's a fairly high turnover rate in secondary-school teachers." He also notes, as does head of school Wallace, that not all of these departees left out of frustration or disgust. However, Margaret Zinn notes that one of the claims made against Kennedy was that the previous year's substantially smaller turnover -- which also included people who left for "innocent" reasons -- was unacceptable.

"There were people who didn't like the clarification of the Catholic identity," Payne continues. "They were confused." In his view, the question of whether St. Michael's could have better handled his "clarification" effort answers itself. "If you wanted this to be simply a college-prep secondary school, you think this wasn't an effectively managed transition. If you wanted it to integrate faith and learning, then it turned out the way it should."

Payne's either/or argument is both offensive to and disputed by the St. Michael's faculty diaspora. "We thought the Catholic identity of the school was firmly in place," Zinn said. "We sponsored social services. We had daily mass offered. Teachers tried to permeate the Catholic identity and mission into their teaching. I've worked in several Catholic schools and thought St. Michael's was comparable to anywhere else I'd been."

Erin Tierney and Rich Kohut both graduated from a highly regarded graduate program at Boston College (a Jesuit institution) for training lay Catholic educators, and both had taught at nationally recognized Catholic prep schools in Boston and in the Bay Area. They came to St. Michael's precisely because it was a model for the future of Catholic education, and it was Jack Kennedy who first envisioned an active campus ministry (run by Kohut, but after his departure taken over by Payne) at the school. However, Tierney said, "Father Payne wasn't able to validate anybody's experiences other than what he thought they should be.

"A lot of people have him on a pedestal, when he's just a human being," she continues, "but he wants to be Father. He wanted colleagues to call him Father. And the board and the new head of school see him as Father, and so he can tell them we're not Catholic enough and take control." (When meeting with this reporter, Payne passed a student in the hall who addressed him simply as "Payne." One baleful glance was enough to correct him. "Father Payne ... Father Payne," the kid repeated, as if this had happened before.)

No Dove of Peace

St. Michael's "new head of school" is Wallace, an African-American woman and former principal of Oak Springs Elementary in AISD who was a board member at the time of her hire. She is also a lifelong Catholic, one of the Rev. Isidore's parishioners at Holy Cross, and the mother of a St. Michael's graduate. "I can't tell you how fortunate we are in having her," says Teresa Sullivan, UT's dean of graduate studies, who is likewise both a board member and parent and headed the search to find Jack Kennedy's replacement.

When Wallace was appointed ad interim head to replace Kennedy, she told faculty she wasn't pursuing the position, says Margaret Zinn, adding that it wasn't until well into the search process that she and others learned that Wallace was a candidate. "She told us she wouldn't make any changes," Zinn said, "but then changes occurred from the very beginning, which had us perplexed." Adds Dehan, "At the time we appointed her, we didn't ask her [whether she wanted the job permanently]. But she liked it and thought she wanted to apply. That was a surprise to me."

Avis Wallace, the current head of school, is a former AISD elementary principal and lifelong Catholic whose daughter graduated from St. Michael's.
Avis Wallace, the current head of school, is a former AISD elementary principal and lifelong Catholic whose daughter graduated from St. Michael's.

Even considering all the raw wounds at St. Michael's, opinions of Wallace are startlingly acrimonious. "Dr. Wallace is not very competent at all," said Erin Tierney. "Of all people, I'm going to be sympathetic to her as a woman and an African-American. That's my bias. But she was completely a mouthpiece of the board and completely co-opted by Father Payne. He had her wrapped around his finger. It looked like a progressive and dynamic choice, but it's not. I don't know what it is she actually knows."

What Wallace does know, professionally speaking, was not learned in an elite religious prep school in the hills. "Oak Springs Elementary and St. Michael's Academy are about as opposite as you can get," says one former staffer. "She was given the benefit of the doubt because she was in an awkward position, but I don't think she really appreciates the college-prep aspect or understands a lick of it."

Wallace agrees that the difference between her past and present jobs is not as important to her as it may be to others. "Obviously, there's a difference between elementary and high school, and between a diverse pool of applicants [here] and a student body that's largely low-socioeconomic-status [at Oak Springs]," she says. "But ultimately, students are students and children are children.

"As an administrator, I've been a Catholic all my life; all of my education was in Catholic school and at private colleges," she continues. "So [with] all my training in public school ... I don't see a difference. My relationships with parents, the process in which I interact and provide administrative assistance to teachers and community members, is relatively the same here as it's been elsewhere."

Sullivan's search effort produced two candidates other than Wallace, one of whom would become permanent head of school at the beginning of last summer. Zinn surveyed the faculty to determine its preference. "I think the faculty really tried to make an objective and fair decision, because it was such an important issue," Zinn said. Though they'd seen what she had to offer, all but one faculty member voted against Wallace, instead splitting their votes between the other two candidates. "After that vote, there was no way the board could hire her," says one departed staffer. Yet they almost did: Reportedly, the board's vote was 7-6. One of the outside candidates, Brother Harold Hathaway (a member of the Holy Cross order), got the job.

In the midst of raging turmoil and a score of faculty vacancies to fill, Harold came on board in May. Three months later, on the second day of the current school year, he resigned -- citing family reasons. "He had no idea what he was getting into," says one ex-staffer, "and it just got worse and worse." Two days later, the board rehired Wallace.

"We thought we had a keeper there," says Dehan of Harold. "It was a shock and a disappointment. But [Wallace] was very highly regarded by the board members, so we didn't have any difficulties making a decision [to rehire her], because she was available and could step right in."

When board president Mark Curry came to tell the faculty, "people cried, moaned, groaned, banged on the tables," says an ex-faculty member. "It was near pandemonium; the reaction was so loud. I felt sorry for Mark because he had no idea of what he was walking into. It was a complete injustice to the faculty, after we had made clear that we didn't support her. I remember one of my colleagues -- who had been completely positive the previous year, and who completely identifies herself as a Catholic woman -- she was in tears." Several faculty members turned in their resignations that very day.

The Flock Rebels

One staffer who immediately resigned was Shannon Duffy, the St. Michael's college counselor. Under Kennedy, the school had taken great pride in its College Center and placement record. When Duffy left, the center disappeared and its suite of offices became headquarters for Payne and the campus ministry. "When I moved out of that office and Father Payne moved in the very next day," says Duffy, "that may have confirmed many people's fears about the standing of college prep."

After watching the school begin to self-destruct the previous semester, the College Center flap was too much for St. Michael's senior class, who promptly rebelled. The school has since replaced Duffy, but in the school newspaper, the St. Michael's Word, co-editor Parker Lewis wrote, "[seniors] are still discouraged by the events that occurred during the transition period." (Elsewhere, the Word attempts, or has been required to attempt, to put an overwhelmingly positive spin on recent events: "New buildings, staff, and spirit abound at SMA," reads the Fall 2001 issue's headline. So for the paper to be so blunt about the college-center issue is notable.)

Although Duffy gave two weeks' notice on Friday, August 17, Wallace ordered her to make haste and be gone from her office by the following Monday. Wallace later told students and parents that she only wanted "people who want to be at St. Michael's" on her staff, even temporarily. But she also disputed that faculty had bailed in droves "because they don't want to be a part of St. Michael's ... [They did not] want to desert St. Michael's because it was not the place to be." At the same time, she told parents that "Catholic identity and faith formation will be my very first goal."

The Rev. Payne moved into his new office on Tuesday. As Lewis writes in the Word, "The reason for Payne's move into the office was never clearly conveyed. The students felt strongly that Wallace evaded and left their questions and main concerns unanswered." Several students formed a committee to consider where the College Center should be located, and to recommend their choice among the applicants for Duffy's job. Although a solid majority of the senior class said the center should reside where it always had been, those offices are still occupied by Payne. As for the new hire, the Word delicately notes that "the committee was not unanimous." In fact, ex-faculty report, students greatly preferred one candidate, but Payne did not agree, and the other was chosen.

Payne now takes part in all hiring decisions at St. Michael's. He says his role "is to try to be in dialogue with the board, the parents, the faculty, and with candidates to be hired, to talk about the mission of the school to make sure that the confusion of the past doesn't occur" -- in other words, that the wrong people aren't hired. They don't have to be Catholic, but the school does, in Dehan's words, "want to maintain a certain proportion of Catholic faculty and students ... below which we feel we may lose the character of the school. So our goal is to have 70% of the faculty be Catholic. Obviously if we're at 68%, heads aren't going to roll."

During the last school year, the Catholic identity had proposed a hiring policy that would have required all job candidates to provide a letter of reference from a priest, minister, or rabbi. The faculty found this particularly objectionable. But Payne says, "one of the principles of Catholic education is that you model what you teach. If you have faculty who aren't practicing (their faith), then it's hard to communicate to students that faith is a value."

Catholic Questions

One of the saddest aspects of this story is that both sides believe they stand for important values. Payne may have the surety -- detractors would say arrogance -- of one who knows he is doing the Lord's work. His vision of faith, both by his account and others, includes an explicit commitment to serving the poor and rejecting the materialism that is writ large in the Barton Creek homes and golf links around St. Michael's.

"I think if someone is simply looking for a haven from public education, or wanting exclusivity, St. Michael's won't be a good fit for them," he says. "I hope you wouldn't find it an ideal place. You may say that, in a private school, that students going to the best schools are the supreme achievement. But a lot of people go to the best schools and don't care about humanity. You can develop that commitment without compromising the academic character of the school. Research shows that, where you take the faith commitment seriously, you actually enhance the academic achievement of students."

Catholic schools do typically outperform public schools, particularly in inner-city areas where Catholics (Irish, Italians, Poles, and now Latinos) traditionally have been concentrated and where the public schools are lacking in resources and results. Were it not located in Barton Creek, far away from Austin's neediest neighborhoods, St. Michael's might be less self-conscious about its Catholic nature, because it would more closely resemble Catholic schools in other cities. But when the still-unnamed second Catholic high school (also organized by a group of lay people) opens in East or South Austin next year, specifically to serve those poor kids, St. Michael's may instead become even more self-conscious, which means Payne's "clarification" may drive yet more faculty -- and maybe students -- out the door.

As well, St. Michael's version of Catholic education has to jibe with that of Payne's old friend and colleague, Bishop Aymond, the former superintendent of Catholic schools in New Orleans (an archdiocese with 18 high schools, all in the traditional mold). "We have a new relationship to negotiate, with a new bishop," says Sullivan, the board member and UT dean. "People don't know how to deal with a school like this. It's a different relationship, and we don't have an institutional experience with it. It's an important model that we need to make work, because I don't think, in the future, either dioceses or religious orders will be able to open more schools. Right now, Bishop Aymond's problem is building enough churches so that people can have a seat at Sunday Mass."

Payne disagrees, saying he's been "very vocal" in asserting that the best way to resolve the school's identity is to formally place it under the auspices of the diocese. Right now, the school must be financially responsible for itself, he says. "But the diocese has been generous to St. Michael's in the past, and were funds to come available, there could be a different kind of understanding. That's important to the legacy of Catholic education; if we lose that legacy, it would not just be a loss for Catholics."

As these issues unfold -- how the Catholic church, Catholic schools, private schools, public schools, West Austin, East Austin, are supposed to interact -- the jury is still out on whether the last year at St. Michael's has made the school stronger or weaker. "Who are they? Where do they want to go? Do they want to be a diocesan school?" asks one ex-St. Michael's teacher. "With the new school opening, will St. Michael's want to be the diocesan school or the prep school in the hills? They have a lot of questions they need to answer, and they don't appear to have answered them. They've just been grasping, and everything is falling apart."

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