Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Jesuits hoping to reclaim a school...

Al Hicks was a young Jesuit priest from Needham in 1960 when he boarded a steamer in Hoboken for a three-week passage to the Middle East, and toward a dream that would transform his life.

His destination was Baghdad College, a Jesuit-run high school that had become a 20th-century oasis of elite education and Christianity in Iraq. For Hicks, a mathematician, this ''school at the end of the world'' would teach him and other Jesuits the meaning of their mission as ''men for others'' -- offering a warm hand and rigorous education to both Catholics and Muslims who would later become the backbone of Iraq's middle class as doctors, engineers, and intellectuals.

But real-world politics soon intruded on this lush Eden in desertlike Baghdad. Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party expelled the 33 priests in 1969 and seized the school in retaliation for what it saw as America's pro-Israel policy in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. The loss was heartbreaking for the ''Fatheria,'' as locals called the Jesuits; many wished to join their five brothers someday in a tiny graveyard near the school's playing fields.

Now the fall of Hussein has given fresh hope to New England's branch of the Society of Jesus, which dominated the school's faculty and now is seeking to reclaim a piece of the school or else revive a new ministry here.

''The question of Baghdad College -- who it belongs to -- will come up now that the war is over,'' Hicks said in an interview in Amman, Jordan, where he is working at a Jesuit mission after stepping down as principal of Boston's Nativity Preparatory School. ''We created the school. And we still love it.''