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May 8, 2007 > Moreau Catholic High School President Joe Connell

Moreau Catholic High School President Joe Connell

An interview by Steve Warga

In 1978, a young man, still in his thirties and known then as "Brother Joe," walked onto the Moreau High campus full of energy and high expectations. He was the new principal, already cultivating "big picture" planning that would culminate with his appointment seven years later as the school's first-ever president.

Viewing life as a journey, Dr. Connell feels the time is right for new directions at Moreau. As his current, three-year contract draws to a close, Connell prepares to hand over the reins to a successor yet to be named. Warm, thoughtful and optimistic, the president sat down with TCV to share some reflections on his remarkable journey.

TCV: You've considered retiring before, why are you following through now?

Connell: It's one of those things I didn't understand when I was younger. People would say, 'You'll know when it's time.' Back then, I didn't think there would ever be a time. But now I do.

There were a number of factors that all seemed to come together earlier this year that prompted me to retire. My present contract expires June 30. We're finished now with our first capital campaign and I don't think I'll have the energy or desire to go another three years that would involve another major fundraising effort. We are ready for someone else to step in and take us to the next level.

I'm also encouraged to retire because our current principal, Terry Lee, and his staff are doing a marvelous job.

Then, finally, the Holy Cross brothers approached me with an offer to become the first Director of Holy Cross Associates, their growing movement of lay persons in the ministry. I took this exciting offer as a sign from the Lord that it really was time for me to move on. It's been a very peaceful decision.

TCV: Were you seeking the open principal's position back in 1978?

Connell: I was a brother in the order and found myself principal of a small parish high school in San Pedro at the tender age of 30. Can you imagine that? During my fourth year there, my superiors asked me to apply for the Moreau position. I went through a complete application and interview process, but it was pretty much decided by the order that I would get the job, as Moreau was established and operated by Holy Cross.

These days, it's very different. We have multiple applicants competing for open positions. And we've been fortunate to attract some excellent talent.

TCV: How difficult was it to leave the Holy Cross congregation and become a lay associate?

Connell: If it had happened before Vatican II, I would have been railroaded out of the country. But after the Vatican II changes took effect, the emergence of lay people in responsible positions made it possible for me to change paths on my personal journey without leaving Holy Cross behind.

You can be on the path of a religious life when certain events happen that suggest changes may be in order. My decision wasn't prompted by a desire to marry or have a family. Rather, my thinking evolved over time to the point that I looked at myself, middle-aged, and wanting to expand my personal horizons beyond those of other middle-aged bachelors.

I thought I could still work with Holy Cross as a lay person, so I had some heart-to-heart talks with Sister Rosemarie Hennessey, superintendent of Oakland diocese schools around 1990. I also conferred with Bishop John Cummins. Both of them, along with the Holy Cross Brothers, were very supportive of my decision. Their only real concern was that I remain as president of Moreau. I'm very grateful it was a seamless transition.

TCV: As you look back, what highlights of your tenure come to mind?

Connell: We pioneered the president-principal model of administration back in the '80s. The board felt that we needed a big picture planning, public relations, fundraising, CEO-type person who would operate apart from the day-to-day affairs of the school. It was all new back then, and I'm proud we made it work so well.

Our Christian Community Services operation has been successful too. That's the program that moves our students into community service roles as part of their curriculum.

And I take pride in proving that a Catholic school can run well with an all-lay administration. Unlike Holy Cross, other orders have closed their schools when they couldn't staff them with priests and nuns. We were the first all-lay facility worldwide under the Holy Cross umbrella.

Establishing our first board of trustees was another highlight. That board has been most effective in guiding our efforts.

Finally, I am proud of our capital campaign. We worked hard to raise the money we needed to take us into the new century at the cutting edge of high technology education. Our new rotunda out front symbolizes Moreau's continued leadership in college preparatory programming. The rotunda attracts a lot of attention from the outside, but inside, it really expands our offerings with a technology center, spacious new library and even a fully operational broadcast studio.

TCV: You're optimistic by nature, but have there been significant lows for you?

Connell: It's not so much a black cloud, but more of a frustration with what Catholic education is facing all over: increased costs. It is becoming so expensive for families to send their kids to Catholic schools and there's very little we can do about it.

Beyond that, we've also been fighting a Bay Area trend of families moving to where housing is more affordable. In the early '80s, our enrollment was close to 1,500 students. Right now, it's a little over 900. That drop is partly due to declining student populations, and partly due to more blue-collar demographics around us. Tuition costs are moving well beyond the means of many families in our area. This has been disappointing.

TCV: Does the future bode well for Moreau?

Connell: Oh, yes! We're finding more and more new students from Hayward and south. And we are up a bit in enrollments for next year, which I attribute to our new facilities and programs.

I'm excited by the thought of someone taking the school to the next level and I understand that person is someone other than me. The school has always been on the cutting edge and will make every effort to continue this legacy. We believe Moreau has a place in southern Alameda County and I take great pride in helping lay and build the foundation of our future.

The time is right for me to move on in my journey, but I'll miss Moreau, all its bright and promising students, great staff and supportive alums. I'll be a great patron forever.

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