Since the time of St. Ignatius, the Society of Jesus has served at the frontiers — whether four centuries ago when the first Jesuits left their homes in Europe to establish missions in China, or today at the U.S.-Mexico border where Jesuits serve undocumented residents.
The Jesuits’ call to teach, pray and serve was reaffirmed this past summer when Pope Francis said: “Your proper place is on the frontiers. This is the place of Jesuits.”
Frontiers can be found in many forms: geographic, inter-religious, educational and social justice, to name just a few. This week, meet Jesuit Father Michael Corcoran, who was missioned to a frontier thousands of miles from home, a densely-vegetated island called Yap, where he had just five weeks to start a new school.
A New Jesuit High School in Micronesia
On July 31, 2011, the Feast of St. Ignatius, Jesuit Father Michael Corcoran arrived on Yap Island in Micronesia to embark on a new assignment in a place he’d never been. He, along with Jesuit Father John Mulreany, would open a new Catholic high school on the island — just five weeks later.
So how did this New York Province Jesuit end up 8,000 miles from home? The answer requires going back almost 70 years to just after the Second World War. After the war, the New York Province of the Society of Jesus was given responsibility for what were then the United States Trust Territories in the Pacific, and Jesuits were sent to the frontiers to serve the people through pastoral ministry and education.
Today, the islands are known as the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau and the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. They are still served by Jesuits from the New York Province, along with indigenous Jesuits, New Orleans Province Jesuits and Jesuits from Japan, Myanmar and Indonesia.
While his province has a long history in Micronesia, Fr. Corcoran had spent his career as a Jesuit teaching in U.S. Jesuit high schools and then in Nativity middle schools, including Canisius High in Buffalo, N.Y., Xavier High School in Manhattan, Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx and Regis High School in New York City. When he felt it was time for a change, his provincial told him the province was going to build a new high school in Yap, and Fr. Corcoran was intrigued.
“I thought I could make a great contribution, and I liked the idea of working at a start-up school,” he says. “It’s exciting to see the school grow and help build the culture.”
According to Fr. Corcoran, the state of education is fairly poor in Yap, and Catholics on the island had been working for five years to get the Catholic Church to open a high school there. The school would fill an important void — it would aim to prepare students for college.
“We set the standard pretty high,” says Fr. Corcoran. “We decided we were going to make the school a college prep school, modeled on the Jesuit schools back in the U.S.”
The school would also take into account the students’ backgrounds, given that many would first need to be brought up to high school levels. To address this need, the school uses many elements of the U.S. Nativity middle school model: extended school days, small classes, a summer program and volunteer teachers. The tuition was set at $65 a month, and families who needed help would receive financial aid.
Starting from Scratch
When Fr. Corcoran and Fr. Mulreany landed in Yap in July 2011, they started work on the new school immediately. “The first thing we did, the day after we arrived, was to decide who would be accepted into the school,” Fr. Corcoran recalls. “To add to the challenge, the kids who applied had been told that the school would make the decisions, and then after they were accepted, they would give the school a copy of their transcripts and recommendations — definitely different than the process in the States.”
As important as the students were, they also needed a place to hold classes, so the next task was to create makeshift classrooms in space at a local parish. Then in September 2011, Fr. Corcoran, Fr. Mulreany and two volunteers welcomed its first classes of freshmen and sophomores, 35 students total, to Yap Catholic High School.
In addition to helping found the school, Fr. Corcoran is the principal, director and treasurer and a math and physics teacher. Additionally, he’s the “basketball coach, garbage man, and maintenance man,” he says, laughing. He also oversees construction projects, and shortly after the new school opened in the borrowed classrooms, Fr. Corcoran and the staff found a site to construct a new building for the high school five miles outside of town. Family and friends of the school pitched in, with hundreds of volunteers coming out each Saturday to clear the land, which was basically a jungle, says Fr. Corcoran. Construction began in January 2012 on three classroom buildings, which were ready for the school’s second academic year.
In the U.S., a school five miles away from home may not sound far, but Fr. Corcoran said in Yap it was a gamble. “Getting the kids to come to school and getting them to come on time is a huge problem at schools here,” he explains.
“We had great success our first year when we were in town, and we were a little nervous when we moved to the new campus, and yet our attendance rate this year is 99.6%. It’s been way beyond what they thought was possible.”
Fr. Corcoran and his team continue to adapt and take each challenge as it comes. For instance, the admissions process was revamped, and student turnover has improved significantly from the first year, when students weren’t required to supply transcripts until after acceptance.
Now in its third year, the school has grown to 63 students. There are classrooms for each grade level on the new campus, and Fr. Corcoran is currently overseeing the construction of an administration building that will include a science lab and computer center, a meeting space and an activity room.
The school now has five volunteer teachers, graduates of U.S. Jesuit colleges and universities who commit to one or two years of teaching. “The volunteer teachers are the real heart and soul of the school,” says Fr. Corcoran. “We’ve been really blessed with the teachers we’ve had.”
And the end of this academic year will mark a major milestone: the school’s first graduating class. Seniors are now applying to colleges, and Jesuit scholastic Pat Nolan arrived in Yap this year as the school’s new director of college counseling to help with the process.
“People here are very excited about the school, but some are skeptical,” admits Fr. Corcoran. “This year, with our first graduation and our first students off to college, I think that will make a huge impact on the community.”
After his many years working in education in the U.S., Fr. Corcoran says, “In some ways I feel like this ministry, in this place is something I’ve been prepared for throughout all the different assignments I had as a Jesuit in the U.S.”
Click here to watch a 2012 video from the New York Province Jesuits on the building of Yap Catholic High School. Click here to watch the entire series about the New York Province Jesuits in Micronesia.