December 17, 2021

‘Gift of a lifetime’

Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp honored for work in founding Providence Cristo Rey High School

Providence Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp and John Lechleiter pose on Oct. 22 during a fundraising event for Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis with awards that the school gave them during the event for their role in its founding. (Submitted photo)

Providence Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp and John Lechleiter pose on Oct. 22 during a fundraising event for Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis with awards that the school gave them during the event for their role in its founding. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

The seeds of Providence Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp’s vocation to religious life were planted as she grew up in her faith-filled family in Indianapolis and was educated at the former St. Andrew the Apostle School and the former Ladywood School.

What she didn’t realize for a long time after joining the Sisters of Providence in 1975 was that this experience also prepared Sister Jeanne for a special mission in her hometown—the founding of Providence Cristo Rey High School on Indianapolis’ west side.

Since it opened in 2007, Providence Cristo Rey has provided a Catholic education, work study experience and an opportunity for a bright future to students living in poverty.

Recognizing the work of God’s providence in her life is made easier for Sister Jeanne with the passage of time.

Looking back on her years growing up in Indianapolis in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, she sees the guiding hand of God in the Providence sisters who educated her at St. Andrew.

“There was a lot of talk about being of service and the mission to the poor,” Sister Jeanne recalled. “It seemed like we were always collecting money for the missions. And at home the message was very much the same.”

That was in part because her mother Peggy had been orphaned when she was a teenager and was then cared for by her sisters.

“She was so focused on worrying about the underdog, really,” Sister Jeanne said. “Somehow, along the way, the driving force became for me Jesus’ mission [that he described as], ‘I came to bring glad tidings to the poor and release to prisoners’ (Lk 4:18).

“That message became central to my life.”

She carried out that mission for many years as an educator at Providence St. Mel School in Chicago, which serves students who live in poverty.

Later, Sister Jeanne sought to pass on the lessons she had learned about serving such students at the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco in San Francisco.

While there, the leadership team of the Sisters of Providence asked her in 2005 if she would be willing to return to Indianapolis to start Providence Cristo Rey, which the archdiocese had asked the Sisters of Providence to develop and open.

“It took me about 15 seconds [to say yes],” Sister Jeanne recalled. “That’s really been my calling. I entered the Sisters of Providence with the dream that I would be able to work with low-income kids. I’ve been blessed to be able to do that.”

But she would need a lot of help to make this dream a reality in Indianapolis.

That’s why this humble religious sister turned to John Lechleiter, who in 2005 was soon to become the chief executive officer of the Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Company, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical firms.

“He was a godsend,” Sister Jeanne said. “I can’t overstate how influential he was.”

Lechleiter was already familiar with the network of Cristo Rey schools around the country through knowing the network’s founder, Jesuit Father John Foley.

The Cristo Rey network, of which Providence Cristo Rey is a member, is distinguished by having its students go to classes four days per week and one day each week do a work study job in fields in which they have an academic interest. The businesses at which they work in turn sponsor part of the students’ tuition.

“I thought it was a brilliant idea and also figured that Lilly would be in a position to host some of the work study students,” Lechleiter said in a recent interview with The Criterion. “That turned out to be true in spades.”

While Lechleither “beat the drum” early on to get other businesses, not-for-profits and universities to sponsor students, he gives much of the credit for Providence Cristo Rey’s strong beginnings to Sister Jeanne.

“She’s a brilliant person and thoughtful educator,” Lechleiter said. “So, from an academic point of view, we couldn’t have had anyone stronger. She’s also got a wonderful caring spirit.

“Yet, she was as tough as nails when she needed to be in matters that pertained to the school—regarding discipline and structure. She guided and led with a firm hand.”

Sister Jeanne also shared at Providence Cristo Rey another lesson she had learned while at

St. Andrew School, Ladywood and at home: holding students to a high standard.

“The sisters always expected the best that we could do. And my parents did,” she said. “That’s all they expected. They expected me to do my best. If my best was a C, fine. If my best was an A, fine. That was the measuring stick.”

At Providence Cristo Rey that’s been a challenge because many students who start there as freshmen are a grade or more behind where average students might be. Yet since Sister Jeanne’s time, the faculty and staff have been dedicated to helping students get to where they should be in a four-day school week.

“It’s a matter of catching them up and then moving them ahead in a compressed time,” Sister Jeanne said.

“If there is one thing that has led to the school and its students being successful, it’s that the school does hold its students to a very high standard,” Lechleiter said. “It sets a high bar. It says, ‘You are going to leave here not only prepared for college, but in most cases with college credit. We’re going to do our best to ensure that you get the best post-secondary education you need and deserve.’ ”

Sister Jeanne stepped down as Providence Cristo Rey’s president in 2013. She now serves on the leadership team of the Sisters of Providence.

She and Lechleiter were recently honored by Providence Cristo Rey with their inaugural awards that the school named after them.

Sister Jeanne received the inaugural John C. Lechleiter Award while Lechleiter received the Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp Award.

“We loved it. We both just laughed,” Sister Jeanne said. “He didn’t know he was getting my award. And I didn’t know that I was getting his award. It was perfect.”

Providence Cristo Rey’s current president Tyler Mayer said that Sister Jeanne’s legacy still shapes the ministry of the school today.

“The foundation laid by her hands is the key to our success past, present and, God willing, the future,” he said. “ … Sister Jeanne’s accomplishments are far-reaching and exceptional. However, what is most impactful about Sister Jeanne is not what she does, but the way she goes about her work. In every interaction, under the spirit of Mother Theodore [Guérin], Sister Jeanne makes you feel loved and challenges you to be better. I can think of few other leaders who inspire better outcomes than Sister Jeanne.”

Eight years after she stepped away from Providence Cristo Rey, Sister Jeanne is gratified for her role in getting it started and that the school continues to carry out its special mission.

“It was a gift of a lifetime to be able to do that and work with so many like-minded women and men who wanted to see a miracle happen,” she said. “To see that continue and to know that the desire to do good, to make good, quality Catholic education affordable for everybody is continuing on and to see the students after they graduate—it sometimes reduces me to tears and sends chills up my back. What a grace.”
 

(To learn more about Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis, visit www.cristoreyindy.org.)

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!