From Spiritus Magis: 150 Years of St. Ignatius College Preparatory

by Paul Totah ’75

It is hard to imagine a less auspicious start for our school. When Fr. Anthony Maraschi, SJ, opened the doors of the first St. Ignatius Academy on San Francisco’s Market Street, expecting to see a crowd of Catholic boys eager for Jesuit education, only three small faces peered at him on that October day in 1855. As the day progressed, no one else came. When the term ended early in February, the school had managed to attract only 23 students in all.

Despite a slow start, St. Ignatius College (which later split into the University of San Francisco and St. Ignatius High School) took root in the shifting sands of Market Street, and then transplanted itself five times before landing at the sixth and present site in the Sunset District.

Many themes capture the spirit of the Jesuits who established SI and who persevered despite earthquake and fire, poverty and debt, and the social upheavals that have marked San Francisco since its founding. Of these themes, one word stands out: magis — the greater good.

When Jesuits use this Latin word, they use it in the specific context of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the group’s founder. In his guide to mystical prayer, Ignatius asks us to bring before God any decisions we have to make, and to ask for divine help to discern and choose the option that “leads more to the original purpose for which we were created”; i.e., to “praise, reverence and serve God.”1

This idea of magis helps to explain why the Jesuit fathers John Nobili and Michael Accolti set out from Oregon for San Francisco in 1849. Initially drawn to the Pacific Northwest (headquartered in Oregon’s Willamette Valley) to stake out the territory for the Catholic Church and evangelize among the Native American tribes, they saw the epicenter of the West suddenly shift when James Marshall discovered gold in the American River. They left Oregon because they believed they could do greater good in California, ministering to a greater number of immigrants, many of whom had come from Catholic Europe, in that mad rush for gold that changed California and the West forever.

There’s another way to look at magis. Over the years, the word has taken on a different connotation from the one envisioned by Ignatius. Some see the word (for better or worse) as an invitation never to be complacent, never to be satisfied and always to strive for excellence. That spirit of competition, with oneself and with others, has been as much a guiding force for SI since its inception as the Phoenix has been a symbol for San Francisco.

Why did the first Jesuits come to San Francisco and Santa Clara? Simply put, to beat the Protestants to the punch and to claim for the Roman Catholic Church the cities named for St. Francis and St. Clare through the education of their children.

By the time Fr. Maraschi opened St. Ignatius Church in 1855, a few months before the school, San Francisco had only four other Catholic churches among a sea of 23 Protestant churches. By building St. Ignatius Church and Academy on Fourth and Market Streets, west of the established city, the Jesuits were doing what gold miners were doing in the hills: staking their claim to a place that one day might reap rich rewards.

Their efforts paid off. Over the years, the Jesuits struck the mother lode time and time again, though certainly not financially; in fact, the school was in debt throughout most of its history. The Jesuits measured success by the number of students they attracted, by the depth and breadth of education they could offer, and by the sheer goodness of the students who graduated from SI.

Their choice of locations also proved fortuitous. Just look at the sites of the first three campuses. The Market Street site of the first two campuses would later become the home of The Emporium department store (soon to be a new Bloomingdale’s), its third site (the one destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and fire) is now the Louise Davies Symphony Hall in the center of the city, and the fourth site is now adjacent to St. Mary’s Hospital.

The spirit of magis, of seeking the greater good, has kept SI competitive with itself and with other institutions. Each year teachers try to do their jobs better than the previous year. Each semester students try to move from a B+ to an A- in one more class. Each day athletes train to shave a tenth of a second off their time or jump a little higher. When alumni look back at their glory days at SI, they sometimes think of the Bruce-Mahoney Game or the Doc Erskine Trophy, symbols of that same competitive spirit that pushes SI and its students to attempt to excel in all things.

The U.S. Department of Education recognized that desire for excellence when it named SI as one of the top 60 prep schools in the nation in 1984. Also, from the late 1990s to the present, the school has consistently ranked in the top 30 nationally in the Advanced Placement program and was recently named as one of the top 12 Catholic schools in the country for professional development.

Some would say that this push for excellence has its downside. Over the years, SI has been called elitist, and its students have been accused of arrogance. Certainly some of this is true. But if we look at the big picture, we see that the spirit of magis has created generations of Ignatians who know how important it is both to lead and to serve. Look at the number of great public servants who have graduated from SI, and expand your definition beyond “politician.” Think of all the priests, bankers, teachers, doctors, police officers, firefighters, lawyers, carpenters, plumbers, CEOs, judges, writers — you name it — who do what they do AMDG (for the greater glory of God), echoing in their adult lives what they once wrote out every day in class atop each piece of paper they used.

Also, this talk of competition may be a little misleading. The Jesuit priests who founded SI and who have worked here these past 150 years did so not just to beat the Protestants to the punch, win athletic trophies or rack up top SAT scores. They came here and stayed a century and a half for reasons far more profound. Ask today’s faculty at SI — lay or Jesuit — why they teach, and they will tell you that they are devoted to helping their students. What this bespeaks is a genuine love for these young men and women; a desire to give them knowledge and skills; a hope to shape them into men and women of competence, conscience and compassion; and a deep conviction surrounding their own vocations. This is why the first priests came from half a world away, why they stayed and why they prospered.

Finally, magis connotes a spirit of balance. As the late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, SJ, noted “unless we operate on a principle of spiritual balance and the Magis, there is a danger in life of self-centeredness, a danger of going from one excess to another.”2 This sense of balance defines the modern SI. We tell our students that the three parts that make up the school day — academics, extracurriculars and campus ministry — are equally important. SI hopes to educate the whole student and to touch the creative, athletic, intellectual, emotional and spiritual heart of each young Ignatian.

With this book we celebrate 150 years of Jesuit history in San Francisco. We also celebrate a great school that, from the days of the Wild West, has turned boys (and, since 1989, girls) into people for and with others, into servants who know how to lead and leaders who know how to serve, and into educated and civilized people actively building the Kingdom of God.

We are grateful for this long and rich history and for the giants on whose shoulders we stand — all the great teachers and priests, scholastics and brothers, alumni and administrators, benefactors, parents, and students — who have come before us. May all of us continue to serve the youth of the Bay Area for the next 150 years with the same spirit of magis that has marked the first 150. If we can do this, we will truly be blessed.

— Paul Totah ’75