Anthony J. Azzarto, S.J., blesses a new statue of St. Peter at Prep. Mark Wyville

When St. Peter’s Prep’s doors were first opened, the world was a lot different than it is now.

Think of these realities.

Ulysses S. Grant was the President of the United States. He was up for re-election that year and won.

The Civil War had ended less than a decade before ago.

And New Jersey’s first — and still only — Jesuit high school opened its doors for the very first time.

Cars? What are those? Phones? Maybe in a limited sense. Downtown Jersey City? Let’s just say there were likely cobblestone roads and the buildings were nowhere near as tall as they are now.

Enter 2022 — and it’s Prep’s sesquicentennial. The world has, indeed, morphed into something no one in 1872 could have dreamed of. But throughout those 150 years, in Paulus Hook, one thing has remained constant — and that is St. Peter’s Prep. Countless young men, including scores from The Observer’s readership, are alums.

The school took to celebrating its 150th over the last school year and the first portion of this school year. And fittingly, just a little over a week ago, at its annual Mass of the Holy Spirit, Prep unveiled a statue of a young St. Peter, installed on the corner of York and Warren streets, created by acclaimed master sculptor Brian Hanlon. (We’ll get back to why Prep is such a special place — but first, the statue.)

Hanlon is the founder of Hanlon Sculpture Studio and is the official sculptor of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as well as Rose Bowl Stadium.

At seven feet in height, the impressive bronze statue is a major addition to the landscape of Prep’s downtown Jersey City campus, located in the historic Paulus Hook neighborhood, four blocks from the waterfront and in view of the Statue of Liberty.

Speaking about the statue, Michael Gomez, the school’s president, who is also a 1991 graduate of the school, said:“ In short, he represents us: imperfect and imperfectable, but someone with the entire world in front of him, someone who is loved by God, who has vast potential to change the world and who is a masterpiece and a work in progress all at the same time. He is us.”

The statue was then blessed by Anthony J. “Tony” Azzarto, S.J., Prep’s retired chaplain, teacher and guidance counselor, who spent most of his Jesuit life in Jersey City, starting as a scholastic in 1963 (think seminarian, though the Jesuits don’t use that term.)

There is probably no one more fitting to have blessed the statue than Azzarto, because there are few who have modeled the “Men for Others”way of life the way he has. Azzarto is and will always be that perfect of example of what Pedro Arrupe, S.J., meant when he challenged us to be men and women for others.

During the Mass, Azzarto delivered a stirring homily, where he challenged the students — everyone really — to not fear risk-taking. Take them, he said, when they are called for. But what has kept him so close to the Prep community for almost six decades (with a few breaks to go to Nigeria and other places; Jesuits accept all assignments and display incredible obedience to them, even if they’d rather not move around) even in retirement?

“I am a former alumni chaplain and was at Prep for years. Prep is for life, not just four years,” Azzarto, a diehard LA Dodgers fan, said. “I have been blessed to celebrate baptisms, weddings, wakes for former students and parents. The graduates have kept up their friendships and as someone said, they live out or try to be ‘Men for Others.’ It is real. No ‘fake news.’”

Azzarto, though not a Prep graduate himself, did go to the (somehow) defunct Brooklyn Prep, itself a Jesuit institution. Three others who administer to the school are the aforementioned Gomez; Christopher Caulfield, who took over as principal in July and who is an alum of the Class of 2003; and James Horan, Class of 1970, who has been at Prep a staggering 48 years — since 1974 — after he graduated Marquette University in Milwaukee. We didn’t ask him, but it seems like after his undergrad studies, he’s had one full-time employer — Prep. We also spoke with Trish Fitzpatrick, Prep’s longtime director of Public Relations and Marketing. So what draws alums (and non-alums, too) back and keeps them there so long?

Let’s start with the non-alum first, Fitzpatrick.

“Prep offers a very unusual package for high school boys: superb academics, diversity, excitement, a plethora of clubs and sports and the independence that only comes from making your way to school via public transit,” she said. “When you add Jesuit values, the idea of ‘finding God in all things,’ you have a truly magical experience.”

Horan, meanwhile, started the school’s Office of Public Information (OPI) shortly after he joined the staff — and has been at the school 1/3 of its entire existence if you include his four years as a student, which began in September 1966.

“All-boys’ schools have a unique culture … and Jesuit schools are particularly noteworthy for having extremely loyal alumni bases. Part of that seems to be based on each school’s amalgam of academic rigor, code of conduct, sense of mission and heightened degree of school spirit — not to mention the fact that teenage boys enjoy hanging out together,” Horan said of his alma mater.

“Added to this is the Jesuit ideal of producing students who are ‘Men for Others,’ in terms of both their service and their worldview.  Among our alumni, we often hear a reference to Prep’s ‘brotherhood,’ which was forged during their student days in the classrooms, on the athletic fields and in cocurricular activities. Also, the school’s diversity plays a role, including the fact that students from Prep’s urban neighborhood bond daily with classmates who may live 40 miles away in exurbia.

“Certainly, no school is perfect — nor is any cohort of 900 teenage boys. But across the board, this school seems to turn out many graduates who make us proud, and who credit their days on campus for their ability to discern, to face challenges and to pursue their aspirations.”

The principal, Caulfield, (three of four-ever Prep lay principals are grads, too, including Jack Raslowsky, Class of 1979, the recently retired Jim DeAngelo, Class of 1985 and Caulfield) who spent the previous year as acting vice principal and who, before that, was on the faculty, was asked to think ahead 50 years, to Prep’s bicentennial. Just 50 years ago, if we posed this question, it’s doubtful anyone could have ever dreamed of the advances of the world, especially technologically. But remember — throughout the years, Prep has remained a constant despite these changes.

So Caulfield’s words should come as no surprise at all to anyone.

 In my mind, Prep will continue to be at the forefront of educational theory and practice, so we may prepare our students to enter an ever-changing world,” Caulfield said. “After all, our mission calls us to ‘foster in students an understanding of the world and the courage to advance the common good.’ Though our classrooms and facilities will most likely look different, I am confident that our graduates of the class of 2072 will leave our halls, rooted in the hope of Saint Ignatius, on a mission to set the world on fire.”

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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.