HISTORY OF ST. JOHN'S COLLEGE
St. John’s College was founded in 1887 with the establishment of the "Select School" for young men at the Catholic Presbytery, Holy Redeemer Cathedral in Belize City. The founder of St. John’s College was Father Cassian Gillett, one of the four brothers, all British Province Jesuits priests who arrived in Belize in the 1880’s. Father Gillett’s school opened its doors in1887 with a grand total enrollment of twelve day-students and two boarders.
According to the 1897 catalogue, the school’s mission was "To afford the youth of the Colony, and the neighboring Republics, the means of obtaining a solid mental and moral training." The Prospectus added that Belize needed “a school of Higher Studies so that our youth would not have to go abroad for preparation for university work.” From its earliest history St. John’s College has attempted to live this twofold mission: providing quality, value-centered education for Belize’s young people while attempting to respond to the country’s need for well-educated and motivated citizens.
The school grew quickly. In February, 1896, it moved out of the Catholic Presbytery into a newly constructed, nearby building. Its name changed from the Select School to St. John’s College under the direction of Fr. William J. Wallace. The enrollment continued to expand, and included boarding students from neighboring Central American republics such as Guatemala and Honduras. This steady expansion forced a second move, this time to spacious but swampy quarters in the mangrove fields one mile south of the edge of town. The government provided the Jesuits with the property for a new campus as a free grant, on the condition that it be used for religious and educational purposes. On July 17, 1917, the faculty and students moved into spacious wooden buildings with wide verandahs and windows open to the sea breeze. The campus was called Loyola Park. More construction followed in later years including a gymnasium and chapel. By 1929 there were 90 students at the College.
The first two major crisis in the school’s history occurred in August, 1921, with the outbreak of yellow fever in Loyola Park. The Government health authorities ordered the college closed. Day students returned to their homes and were required to report to the local city hospital daily. The boarding students were first taken to a small island just off the coast, Moho Caye. From there boarders from the rural areas of Belize and from Yucatan and Guatemala eventually returned home, but those from Honduras were refused admittance in their country. The unfortunate students were returned to Belize and quarantined at another island, Sargent’s Caye, under the care of two Jesuits, Father Muffles and Brother Jankowski. Two students and two faculty members died before the fever passed.
The Hurricane of 1931
The second major crisis was even more deadly and destructive. Eleven Jesuits were killed September 11, 1931 when a hurricane swept across the shallow coastal waters and completely destroyed not only the wooden building of St. John’s but also much of the town of Belize. The buildings collapsed in the storm trapping teachers and students who drowned in the rising waters. Among the victims were the first Belizean Jesuits, Deodato Burn, a scholastic. One of the survivors of the tradegy, at that time a layman, Teodocio Castillo A., later became a Jesuit brother and continued working among Jesuits and lay colleagues at St. John’s College for the rest of his life. The total destruction forced the school’s return to the cathedral in the center of town for “temporary” quarters.
Temporary became twenty years, but St. John’s College finally moved to a new site in 1952 to begin building again. The land was low and swampy, about one mile to the north of Belize City. The new campus was named after the Central American poet and renowned scholar, Rafael Landivar, S.J. Pumps dredged up sand from the nearby sea to fill in the low ground.
The abundance of space on the Landivar campus is a luxury for people used to the crowded streets of Belize which is built on a narrow spit of land where a branch of the Belize River empties into the sea. Swamp and ocean don’t leave much room for more than small yards and narrow alleys. By contrast the Landivar campus has 2 full soccer fields, plus even more unused space surrounding widely-spaced classroom buildings. The land is low and floods with a high tide or heavy rain, but there is room. Even today, with several more classroom buildings, a science lab, chapel, and a huge fieldhouse, the campus is the largest open area in the city. With thirty years of growth, the city has arrived at the campus; houses surround the school on two sides and only the mangrove swamp by the airport remains wild.
The Establishment of the Extension School
After the grim experience at Loyola Park, the new St. John’s College was built with reinforced concrete which has withstood with hurricanes. The buildings were damaged when Hurricane Hattie hit Belize in the dark of night in September, 1961, but they survived the storm with only the loss of a few months of school.
St. John’s College pioneered adult evening education with the inauguration of an adult education program, called the Extension School, in September, 1947. The press release announcing this important, innovative expansion described the program’s goals well: “One of the most valuable educational techniques of our day, co-operative search for truth gives adult learners an opportunity to meet together, face a problem in common, think it through as a group, and solve it if possible.” Initial courses were entitled, “The Art of Thinking,” “Effective Speaking and Parliamentary Practice,” “Capital and Labor,” and “Business Ethics.” The first class of 55 men and 27 women began a program aimed at providing leadership training for people who had finished high school and wanted post-secondary education which wasn’t available in Belize at the time. The roster of students in those early days included the names of men who went on to lead Belize’s independence movement.
Ten years later economics, book keeping, and arithmetic were part of the syllabus. The Extension School gradually evolved into the Extension Department of St. John’s College. Under the direction of Fr. John Stochl, it began offering high school equivalency courses in 1965 to young men and women who were unable to attend or complete a regular secondary school program.
The Extension Department is now in its fourth location, still in the center of the city so it is accessible to the students who work during the day and study at night. A computer lab with 10 computers is a part of a modern program that also stresses business and accounting courses. Around 700 students, 70% of whom are women, take Extension courses, which are open by design. The minimum requirement is that students have finished grade school. The school also provides English classes for refugees from the neighboring countries.
The Sixth Form Begins
Early in 1952, in response to the growing need in Belize for higher levels of academic training, St. John’s College expanded its traditional four-year high school program, offering a limited number of post-secondary school courses under the direction of Father Robert Raszkowski, S.J. Over time, these limited offerings expanded into what, in the British tradition, is called Sixth Form, a two-year program leading to Advanced Level Examinations, or simply, the “A-Levels.” These external examinations are set by Cambridge University.
In an effort to provide wider opportunities for further education for graduates of the Sixth Form, St. John’s College, in the mid-1960’s, broadened the program of studies so that it met the requirements of the Associate Degree awarded by junior and community colleges in the United States. This afforded graduates of St. John’s College Sixth Form a choice of further studies: they could enter Commonwealth universities which require Cambridge “A Level” certificates or Unites States universities as transfer students into the third year of a bachelors degree program. In 1960, St. John’s College Sixth Form was granted membership in the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges.
Present and Future
Faithful to its mission of educating young men and women in service to the Belizean nation, St. John’s College today counts more than fifteen-hundred students in its student body. Divided among its three units, the high school, the Extension Department and the Junior College, the school strives to assist young people in developing faith, fulfilled, lives of service to others. Father Pedro Arrupe’s challenge to Jesuit schools to form young people to become persons for others continues to inform the ongoing labors of a combined Jesuit/lay faculty of approximately 80 dedicated men and women. With God’s help, their effort to instill in those they teach both a love for learning and the realization that Belize relies on them as it advances on the path of national development, will continue.
The most pressing challenge facing Belize in the field of education is the need for higher levels of academic training, beyond the junior college level. The government of Belize has taken steps to address this challenge. St. John’s College must decide how best to complement efforts underway to meet the educational needs of Belize’s young people. St. John’s College faces the future with confidence.
Established as St. John Berchmans College, a select school for boys, by Cassian Gillett, SJ
Moved into new building near Holy Redeemer Cathedral; 94 students enrolled, including 17 from neighboring countries
Built new school facilities at Loyola Park
Loyola Park destroyed by hurricane; St. John’s College reopened for classes on the Holy Redeemer compound, with 31 students enrolled
Hosted study groups for adults, using classrooms at Holy Redeemer
Built new facilities on reclaimed mangrove swamp at Landivar; high school enrolment at 300 inaugurated the Sixth Form, under the direction of Robert Raszkowski, SJ, with an enrolment of 3 students
Started the St. John’s Teachers College, on the Landivar campus, under the direction of Clement Andlauer, SJ, with an enrolment of 6 students
Fordyce Chapel built on Landivar campus
Established the Extension Department, directed by John Stochl, SJ, with an enrolment of about 60 students, housed in the Melhado Building at the foot of the Belize City Swing Bridge (in later years moved to corner New Road and Hyde’s Lane, then to the present Regent Street location)
Landivar Gymnasium, open to the public, built on Landivar campus
Yorke and Zinkle Halls at Landivar dedicated for Sixth Form use
Sixth Form started offering Associate Degrees
Jacoby Hall built on High School side of Landivar campus
Science building established on Landivar campus to house science labs and classrooms for High School and Sixth Form
Established the Evening Studies Program of the Junior College
Weber and Raszkowski Halls built on Landivar Campus to accommodate growing numbers of students at the Sixth Form
Sixth Form officially became a Junior College
Established the National Center for Art Education and Cultural Understanding on the Landivar campus
Established the Belizean Studies Resource Center and revived The Journal of Belizean Studies
Offered the Loyola Institute of Ministry Extension Program in Belize to an inaugural cohort of 26 men and women
Student enrolment of 1,139 students in the Junior College Day and Evening Programs, 510 in the High School, 618 in the Extension
Established the School of Professional Studies
Established the Centre for Business and Career Development
Amalgamated the counselling offices to form the SJC Counseling Center
Renovated Jacoby Hall to include science facilities, computer laboratories, drafting classroom, and other general use classrooms for High School division