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Photograph of Mario Powell '03


As a sophomore, Mario Powell '03 won an Amanda V. Houston Fellowship, which typically supports travel and study in the break after junior year. A native Californian, he spent his summer digging through archives in St. Louis, Missouri, researching the impact of Catholic education on African-American families. He also tutored at Loyola Academy, a Jesuit inner-city school for boys.

I grew up in the suburbs. I am a product of Catholic education. When you're going through it, you don't realize how important or how unique your education is. I chose to study other people's experience of Catholic education and to learn about my own through their lenses.

There are only 60 students at Loyola Academy--they're sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. That's about the same age that I entered Catholic schools. I converted in the eighth grade. From my research, I've learned that Catholic schools, especially in the South, had an evangelical purpose. They were one way that a white Catholic priest could go into a predominately black area and be totally trusted. It was eerie to see that my path was the same one that thousands of other African-Americans took.

I didn't know anyone in St. Louis. I stayed on campus at St. Louis University. It was up to me to discipline myself and to get the research done. I found out that I work in spurts. I guess I look for inspiration. I spent a lot of time writing in Forest Park, which is a huge park in the middle of St. Louis. And I spent a lot of time writing at a coffee shop. I bought a calendar. I structured my days, which I'd never really done before.

I had an advisor at St. Louis University, Fr. Bentley Anderson, a Jesuit, and we had dinner once a week. The last time we met, I ran through all the research that I'd done in the archives of the archdiocese and the university, all of the documents that I'd gathered--I had 40 or 50 interviews on tape. And he asks me, "Mario, how much time are you going to have to present this?" And I said, Maybe 30 minutes. We talked about eventually developing the project into a thesis during my senior year. And if I decide to go to graduate school, of doing more research.

The St. Louis archdiocese integrated its school system early--in 1947. A lot of that history hasn't been told.

While I was in St. Louis, I started attending a predominately black Catholic church, St. Alphonsius Ligouri, "the Rock." It's about 70 percent black, 30 percent white. Ligouri is probably the most involved church I've ever seen. They're building 70 low-income homes for parishioners. They have a community computer center and a community gym. For the longest time, ever since high school, I've been trying to figure out what the ideas of social justice and vocation mean specifically for me. One thing I've been thinking about since I got to Boston College is, Do they mean that I should become a Jesuit? Do they mean that going to law school, earning a lot of money--and maybe once in a while volunteering to make myself feel good--is not the life I want to lead?

Before St. Louis, I'd never been in a large metropolitan area that was so run down. I remember driving in north St. Louis, where a lot of the students at Loyola live, and seeing 20 percent of the houses boarded up. Maybe 30 percent were inhabited but seemed like they were off their foundations. And the other half--you would not want someone you knew to live in them.

The kids come to Loyola Academy for an extended day. They start school at 8:15 and they're there until 6:30. They have a full meal. They know that they're going to be safe. They know that they're going to learn. It's hard to see that and then come back to Boston College in Chestnut Hill and forget about it. It's very hard.

Photo: Mario Powell in St. Louis: 'I didn't know anyone."
Photo by James Visser

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