The next president of Creighton Prep just might be the first in the high school's 134-year history to wear a necktie in place of a clerical collar.
After several months of searching, the all-boys Catholic school was unable to find a qualified and available Jesuit priest to succeed the Rev. Thomas Merkel, who will depart in July for the next phase of his training.
So the school recently hired a search firm and launched a national hunt for a new president. In the meantime, the Rev. Andy Alexander, Creighton University's vice president for university ministry, has been tapped to serve as interim president for the 2012-13 school year.
Merkel said the school hopes to find a Jesuit priest. But given the Catholic order's reduced ranks and high demand for its members, it's possible that Creighton Prep could go the way of a number of other Jesuit high schools and name a lay leader.
While many would like to continue the tradition of a Jesuit president, he said, the school's Jesuit culture runs deep among students, faculty and staff, including longtime Principal John Naatz.
A number of traditions started by Jesuit priests, including the school's freshman retreat and Operation Others, a program to help needy families that now includes hundreds of area Catholic high school students, now are run by lay people.
"A place like Creighton Prep is in a better position to handle that change, if it happens, because it has a strong sense of identity," Merkel said. The school enrolls just over 1,000 boys.
Alexander, a Prep graduate and member of its governing board, agreed. "I believe Creighton Prep is more Jesuit today than it's ever been," he said.
Sean Mullen, chairman of the governing board, said he is confident that the school will end up with a good result, whether its next president is a Jesuit priest or not. Either way, that person will be someone steeped in Jesuit teachings and those of the order's founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola.
"The priority is the best man for the job," Mullen said. "And within that priority, all things being equal, we'd sure like to have a Jesuit."
In many ways, Creighton Prep's situation mirrors that of Creighton University in 2010, when the university was seeking a replacement for the now-retired Rev. John Schlegel.
The university, too, faced the possibility that it might have to break a long tradition of Jesuit leadership. Ultimately, the university selected the Rev. Timothy Lannon, a Creighton graduate who became a Jesuit priest and ran Creighton Prep for seven years before becoming a college administrator.
At the time Creighton launched its search, nine of the nation's 28 Jesuit universities had a permanent or interim president who wasn't a Jesuit.
The situation is much the same today at the high school level. According to the Jesuit Secondary Education Association, 15 of the 59 Jesuit-sponsored or Jesuit-affiliated high schools in the United States and Canada now are led by lay people.
For one thing, the pool of priests to draw from continues to shrink. Today, there are about 2,600 Jesuits in the United States, less than half the 6,000 a half-century ago.
Mullen said the school's initial search was relatively low-key. The search by Boston-based firm Carney, Sandoe & Associates will cast a wider net and is expected to draw more interest. The school sent emails recently to parents, alumni and others notifying them of Prep's plans, and people already have chimed in with suggestions of possible candidates for a permanent president.
"This is, frankly, a way to get visibility," he said.
Merkel said the school's aim is to name a new leader between Thanksgiving and Christmas and install that person in the summer of 2013.
Meanwhile, he said, he and Alexander already are talking. Merkel will hand over the reins July 1 but most likely will stay in the area until August. He's scheduled to report to Australia in January for the next phase of his training, which will run through August 2013.
The timing, Merkel said, is good for both himself and for Prep. He has been recognized for spearheading a $37 million capital campaign that provided funds for facility upgrades, teacher innovation and student needs. The facility upgrades — some $20 million in construction projects — included a new gym, a baseball stadium and concourse, an artificial turf playing field, renovated classrooms and a new auditorium.
"It's hard to leave," said Merkel, who has served as Prep's president since 2003. "You develop a rich set of friendships, and it's been a privilege to give to students and faculty and alumni. And yet the flip side is that our people are tremendous and have been extraordinarily good to me and the institution in return."
He described Alexander as a "very keen, insightful and deeply experienced man" who will serve the school well. Alexander also is co-creator of Creighton's Online Ministries website, which offers daily reflections, online retreats and more.
Alexander said his appointment will be considered by the school's governing board on May 3. But he already has approval from Lannon and his Jesuit superiors. He will continue to help at St. Robert Bellarmine Church on weekends. His father was one of the church's first deacons.
"People often are nervous about what they can't imagine," he said. "And we're going to help people imagine something pretty extraordinary."
Mullen said Merkel has done a great job. "I have every confidence the next guy will pick up the baton where he leaves it and take it to higher heights."
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