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Verbum Dei's Story - It's Place in History

"Teaching the Word of God, truth, is the purpose of all Catholic education. The purpose of Verbum Dei High, then, is to bring the Word of God into the praying, playing, studying and learning of its student body. Thereby more facilely will you come to learn that ‘truth which makes men free’, free not only from the universal, widespread ignorance that binds human minds but free also from the undue dominance which bind the human soul."

- Fr. Joseph Frances
Principal (1962-1967)

Early Roots

Verbum Dei, the Word of God, is an Archdiocesan Jesuit school in Los Angeles, California. Nestled in the tiny neighborhood of Watts, Verbum Dei opened its doors in September, 1962 at the request of Archbishop John McIntyre. Fr. Joseph Frances, SVD was named principal. Fr. Frances is believed to be the first African American to become principal of a Catholic high school in the country. The school was under the governance of the Society of the Divine Word. Fr. Francis was passionate about creating an exemplary educational institution for the Watts community. In 1962 he wrote about his progress and goals stating, “We intend to be second to none.” This goal continues to this day!

Naming the school proved a task on its own. A total of thirteen names were submitted to Archbishop McIntire. The Society of the Divine Word campaigned for Verbum (Latin meaning Word) High School. They considered it meaningful because it referenced John 1:1, In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. After reviewing the submissions, Cardinal McIntyre made the final decision with a slight change. The new Catholic high school in Watts was to be called Verbum Dei High School. Verbum Dei is Latin for “the Word of God”.

On its official first day, the sixty-six Verbum Dei High School students crowded into two rooms at St. Leon’s parish that were to be taught by four SVD priests. The rooms were located in the parish hall. Classroom space was limited and classroom equipment modest but the priests along with Fr. Frances was determined to make the students academically successful.

In 1963 construction for the new site was completed. At the time of its opening, Verbum Dei offered the lowest tuition within the high school system of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a tradition that continues to this day. Verb was different than other schools attracting working class students of color; all classes were college prep, a strict uniform of collared shirts, tie, dress pants, and dress shoes was strictly enforced, and vocational courses were not offered. Fr. Frances was passionate about the dress code. He believed, “If a boy dresses like a gentleman, he will act like a gentleman”.

Committed to the Community

From its inception, the community recognized the importance of Verbum Dei High School and wanted to ensure its success. There is no better example of this commitment than the response of the community to the Watts riots of 1965. Having only been open for two years the members of the SVD feared that the rising unrest would destroy the school community they fought so hard to build. To their surprise, Verbum Dei suffered no damage during the Watts riots. The school was protected by several residents that stood watch over the school. The relationship with the residents solidified Verb’s commitment to the larger structural problems impacting the community. In order to show his commitment to addressing these concerns, Fr. Francis allowed the McCone commission, a commission appointed by Governor Edmund Brown, to investigate the impetus for the riots, the opportunity to hold meetings, press conferences, and inquiries on the Verbum Dei campus.

In 1967, Fr. Francis was appointed Provincial for the Western region of the Society of the Divine Word and appointed Fr. Fisher Robinson principal. Under his leadership the student body increased to 332 students. Fr. Robinson was instrumental in establishing fundraising efforts which allowed Verbum Dei to remain open despite financial issues occurring in the Archdiocese. This was also the time when Verbum Dei began its athletic legacy. From 1969 to 1974, Verbum Dei won an unprecedented six consecutive CIF basketball championships and compiled an overall record of 263-21. Verbum Dei produced some of the most prominent basketball players including Raymond Lewis, Keith Baptiste, Lewis Brown, Dwight Slaughter, Ricky Hawthorne, David Greenwood, Roy Hamilton, Leonel Marquetti, and Maurice Williams.

The Jesuit Influence Instilled

Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s the school faced surmounting financial struggles. The Archdiocese being unable to provide the subsidies it had contributed previously along with a change in the immediate neighborhood contributed to a smaller personnel and student body. Even with those obstacles, Verbum Dei remained committed to educating the young men of the community.

In the spring of 2000, Cardinal Mahony asked the Society of Jesus (the Jesuit Order) to bring their vast educational experiences and expertise to Verbum Dei High School. The Jesuits agreed to enter into a partnership with the Archdiocese and with the dedicated lay faculty of Verbum Dei. The Jesuits, looking to save the school, brought on the Corporate Work Study Program (CWSP), an internship program that provided a method to help our students pay for a college preparatory school education AND receive real world experience. The program was patterned after the highly successful Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago that now educates approximately 550 students annually using this model.

The CWSP program has become a stellar addition to Verbum Dei’s academic program in addition to our strong campus ministry, student support and athletic programs. Verbum Dei’s commitment to creating young men who are Open to Growth, Intellectually Motivated, Spiritual, Loving, Commitment to Doing Justice, and Work Experienced continues the legacy that began more than 50 years ago. There is no school like Verbum Dei!

Adapted from Oasis or Mirage? Catholic Education in the Context of a Declining Economy by Eduardo Lopez