BC High Graduates and Teachers who served at Baghdad College
Fr. Francis H. Belcher ’48 Fr. William D. Ibach ‘46
Fr. Joseph T. Bennett ’45 Fr. Edmund Kelly ‘45
Fr. Denis R. Como ’53 Fr. Thomas Kelly ‘35
Fr. Neil F. Decker ’45 Fr. Charles Loeffler
Fr. Charles G. Crowley Fr. John L. Mahoney ‘38
Fr. Charles M. Crowley Fr. Frederick G. McLeod ’49
Jack Dempsey ’55 Fr. Thomas F. McDermott
Fr. Joseph A. Devenny ’25 Fr. Joseph P. Merrick ‘13
Fr. Charles J. Dunn ’42 Fr. Joseph Paquet ‘46
Fr. Stanilaus T. Gerry Fr. Joseph D. Quinn
Fr. Thomas J. Gibbons ’47 Fr. Joseph L. Ryan
Fr. Vincent A. Gookin ‘08 Fr. James P. Shea ‘23
Fr. Charles J. Healey ’51 Fr. Simon E. Smith ‘48
Fr. Alfred J. Hicks Fr. James P. Walsh ‘49
John R. Houston Ph.D. '61 Daniel C. Keleher '60
NPR on Baghdad College And America's Shifting Role In Iraq (September 7, 2011)
The origins of Baghdad College can be traced back to the 1920’s when Catholics in Baghdad began petitioning Pope Pius XI to start up a school in their city, so their kids could get a Catholic education. In 1931, Pope Pius XI sent Father Edmund A. Walsh to Iraq to conduct a study on the feasibility of opening a high school in Baghdad. Later in 1931 the General of the Society of Jesus assigned the project to the American Jesuits. In 1932 four Jesuits arrived in Baghdad, and so Baghdad College became a reality. Over the period of 37 years, 145 Jesuits were assigned to the school. The New England Jesuit Province was the main source of Jesuits for the Iraq mission. From 1932 to 1969 at least 30 individuals associated with Boston College High School (either graduates or teachers) worked at Baghdad College, ‘B.C. on the Tigris’, including Fr. Joseph T. Bennett, S.J.
Initially, the academic program was based on the British system with three years of intermediate school followed by two years of secondary school. The enrollment was small in the early years. During World War II, limitations were placed on travel, and large numbers of Iraqi youth applied for and were accepted into the school. After the war there was an influx of new Jesuit teachers and they were assisted by Iraqi teachers who helped to strengthen the program and studies. A strong athletic program made Baghdad College one of the best schools in the country in all sports.
From the beginning the school followed a policy of accepting new students only in the first high class, because students who wished to transfer from other schools into the upper classes were usually below standard, particularly in the English language. The first year introduced the student to the world of classes in English so that the difficult courses which came later would proceed more smoothly. All subjects at Baghdad College were taught in English with the exception of history, geography, and the Arabic language.
The majority of the students were drawn from the middle and upper classes because of the fact that Baghdad College, unlike government schools charged tuition. Some of the Iraqi capital’s most prominent families sent their sons to Baghdad College. Three prominent classmates went to Baghdad College in the 1950’s – Ayad Allawi, Ahmed Chalabi and Adel Abdul Mahdi.
From the start, the Jesuits refrained from any effort to convert their students. The Muslim religion forbids its adherents to convert, and proselytizing is strictly prohibited. The Jesuits taught religion to the Christians and ethical principles to all the students.
The school continued to grow rapidly from the late 40s through the 60s, until it was taken over by the government in 1969. In 1950, the total enrollment was 556 (including 157 Muslims and 3 Jews); in 1960, it rose to 797 (including 357 Muslims and 9 Jews); and in 1965, it reached its highest level of 1097 (including 514 Muslims and 5 Jews).
After the Six-Day War in 1967, a wave of Anti-American feelings swept through the Middle East. The days of Baghdad College were numbered when the Baath Party seized power in 1968. In 1969, Iraq expelled the 33 priests and seized the school. At the time most viewed this as retaliation for what it saw as America’s pro-Israel policy in the aftermath of the Six Day War. Later the Jesuits learned they were expelled because the secular Baath party saw the nation’s religious Shiites as the major threat to their power. The Baathists wanted to close the Shi’a religious schools, but they could not close Muslim schools without also closing Christian schools.
Today Baghdad College is run by the Ministry of Education and is still the top high school in the country. Even Saddam Hussein sent his two sons, Uday and Qusay, to Baghdad College. Classes are still taught mostly in English. The physical plant of the campus is still the same, but the gardens are not as green as they used to be. A visible difference now is that the church and the former Jesuit residence are separated by a wall from the rest of the campus.
Every two years hundreds of graduates of Baghdad College and their Jesuit teachers gather together and reminisce about their time spent in Baghdad. Any hostility that exists between Iraq and the United States has not weakened the bonds of friendship between the Jesuits and their former students. Even today there is hope the Jesuits can return to Iraq, reclaim their school, and give a new generation of Iraqis a Jesuit education.
--Information compiled by Mr. L. Hutchinson
Jesuits in Baghdad
Cover of the 1952 Baghdad College yearbook, courtesy of Fr. Joseph Bennett '45.
Fr. Bennett was assigned to Baghdad College during 1952-1954 and again for the years 1962-1969.