Two months into his new job as president of Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, Salesian Father Michael Conway feels right at home.
The school, which opened in 2007 and is cosponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington and the Salesians of Don Bosco, embodies the faith and spirit of St. John Bosco, the order’s founder, for whom the school is named.
August 16 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of that Italian-born saint who dedicated his life to providing educational opportunities and job training to poor youth, and most of all, helping them to know and love Christ.
That legacy unfolds every day at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School, where nearly 400 youth from low-income families receive an education to prepare them for college, and also participate in an innovative Corporate Work Study Program, where they gain professional work experience at leading Washington-area businesses and earn money to pay for a significant part of their education costs.
“The most touching thing for me is to know kids who come here want to be here and are determined to be successful, no matter what obstacles they face,” said Father Conway. “….It’s awesome. To give them the opportunity to dream to do that (succeed) is a beautiful gift to pass on to them and their families.”
The priest added, “These are the future leaders of our community. It doesn’t matter what background they come from. If you give them an education and opportunity, they thrive.”
Father Conway said the school’s program is a “natural fit” for the Salesians, whose mission flows from the life and work of St. John Bosco, who wanted to instill youth “with a sense of faith, and the fact that God loves them and has a plan for them.”
The second part of the school’s name – Cristo Rey, Spanish for “Christ the king” – reflects a key emphasis for the school, that its students, like those taught by St. John Bosco, encounter Christ and make him a priority in their lives.
Speaking of the education offered at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School, he said, “I think what they take away first and foremost is a personal relationship with Jesus. That is the ultimate goal of any Catholic education. That is the greatest gift we can give any young person. Because they have Jesus, they have the hope and faith they need to keep going.”
His experience attending St. Dominic Savio High School in his native Boston inspired Michael Conway – the oldest in a family of eight children – to become a Salesian himself. “I was enamored by the spirit of family that permeated the school,” he said, noting the Salesians’ support in the classroom and at school events. “Everywhere we went, they were there with us.”
Inspired by their example, he wanted to join their work with young people, and he entered the community in 1980, made his first profession three years later, and was ordained as a Salesian priest in 1992.
Father Conway served from 2008-15 as president at St. Petersburg Catholic High School in Florida, and earlier served as a principal, teacher and youth minister at Archbishop Shaw High School in Marrero, Louisiana. He also served at Salesian high schools in New Jersey and New York.
At Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School, he succeeds Father Steve Shafran, the school’s founding president who was appointed to serve as provincial of the Eastern U.S. and Canada Province of the Salesians of Don Bosco.
“His leadership was of paramount importance to see that the school got off on a great footing,” said Father Conway. “It’s not every day you replace a founding father of a great work, but I feel every confident in the foundation that was established and more importantly, the community that has bought into it… We have to build upon what’s been started and continue to move ahead.”
A key goal for Father Conway is to get to know the students, families, faculty, corporate partners and community supporters of Cristo Rey.
A highlight of this fall at the school will be Pope Francis’s visit to Washington, and Cristo Rey students have already taken the Walk with Francis Pledge and made a commitment to support the work of Catholic Charities. Having the first Latin American pope come to this area will be especially meaningful to the school’s Hispanic students, the priest said.
“It’s one thing to go to Rome and sit in St. Peter’s Square. It’s another thing to have Peter come to you,” said Father Conway, who as a high school student attended Pope John Paul II’s Mass in Boston Commons in 1979. “I still get goosebumps to think about it. I know he was there for us.”
Being there for students is what inspired Father Conway to become a Salesian, and it guides his work today. A highlight of his priesthood, he said, is to celebrate weddings for graduates, and later to baptize their children. “To see a kid come in, graduate and make something of their lives is very important to me, and to know you had a part in that,” he said.