September 28, 2012

New Brebeuf leader stresses faith in school’s 50th year

Jesuit Father Jack Dennis, second from left, the new president of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis, poses on Sept. 19 with sophomores Michael Vieth, Levante Bellamy and Olivia Malatestinic. (Submitted photo)

Jesuit Father Jack Dennis, second from left, the new president of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis, poses on Sept. 19 with sophomores Michael Vieth, Levante Bellamy and Olivia Malatestinic. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

He has quickly gained a reputation for his dynamic personality, his personal connection with students and his emphasis on prayer being a constant part of the school day.

As the new president of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, Jesuit Father Jack Dennis has also been quick to make changes and add touches that stress the Catholic character of the north side Indianapolis private high school.

He has changed the school’s religion curriculum to connect more closely with the directives of the bishops in the United States, teaching the foundations of Catholic community to freshmen, the study of Scripture to sophomores, social justice and morality to juniors, and world religions to seniors.

He has taken a painting of St. Ignatius Loyola—the founder of the Jesuits—that was on the floor of the school’s chapel and hung it prominently on a wall of the school’s main entrance.

He has required teachers to begin each class with a prayer. And he also has plans to showcase the statue of St. Ignatius that stands outside the school’s entrance, a statue that he views as being hidden among too many surrounding shrubs, trees and plants.

“We’re a traditional, Catholic Jesuit high school with a non-traditional student body,” Father Dennis says. “We’re going to own our identity. The Jesuits run Catholic schools. And Catholic comes before Jesuit. We’re owning that. There’s a place at the table for everyone—Catholics and non-Catholics. I was talking to a Muslim student this morning. He said, ‘I don’t think of myself as different because no one here thinks of me as different.’ ”

At 59, Father Dennis has a lean build that reflects his love of exercise. And while he has hit the ground running with making changes at Brebeuf, he has also made an immediate impact on the school community with his outgoing personality.

“He’s amazing,” says Sean Buehler, 17, a senior from Carmel, Ind., who plays football and is president of the school’s student-athlete leadership team. “He’s always smiling. That’s awesome because it really brightens up the school. He makes a real effort to go to the sporting events and into the classrooms. Everyone loves him so far.

“He’s also been making a lot of pushes in the school to make more of a focus on the Jesuit education and the Catholic education as a whole. People are realizing the value of it.”

Father Dennis’ approach shined through during a Mass in August when he was inaugurated as Brebeuf’s president, according to Providence Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp, a member of the school’s board of trustees and the presidential search committee.

“At his inauguration Mass, he had students speaking about their experiences at Brebeuf,” says Sister Jeanne, who is also the principal of Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis. “It showed his focus is on the students and not himself. He wants Brebeuf to be the very best school it can be.”

Father Dennis is already impressed by the school, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding this year.

“The kids add a diversity I haven’t experienced before. It’s such a positive thing,” says Father Dennis, who previously served as director of campus ministry at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, his hometown.

“I’ve watched the white kids and the black kids, the biracial kids, the Latino kids and the Asian kids—and how they socialize together. At the heart of this school—of every Ignatian school—is inclusion. And I find this school includes everybody.”

He also views Brebeuf as a school that challenges students academically, as a place where they can learn to develop their talents.

“I want them to learn to discover who God wants them to be,” he says. “I want them to learn to love themselves for who they are. I want them to lead a higher, moral, ethical life. That’s really important to me.”

So is wearing his Roman collar as a sign of his priesthood.

“I wear a collar every day,” he says. “I feel it matters that the kids see it every day. It says a lot to the students, the parents and the community. I went to a Jesuit high school. I would say definitively that the young Jesuits had a huge impact on me. Somewhere in my heart, my mind, my soul, I wanted to be like them.”

He hopes to have that same impact on Brebeuf students. They have already had that impact on him, he says.

“My faith has become stronger since I came here,” he says. “[On a recent weekend,] there were thousands of Special Olympics athletes on campus, and 75 percent of our students were here to help. It was all volunteer. They didn’t get service hours for it. In the end, that’s a valuable part of our education, of who we are.

“I’m excited to be here. I tell people, ‘Every day is good here.’ I know that won’t last, but every day has been good here. I think about how do we move into the future and not lose the great things we have.” †

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