By William T. Clew
SHREWSBURY – Michael W. Welch, who has announced he will retire as headmaster of St. John’s High School at the end of the school year, said that he has been “very blessed” to have led the school that he loves for 15 years.
A graduate of St. John’s in 1978, Mr. Welch succeeded Xaverian Brother J. Conal Owens on July 1, 2001, as the first lay headmaster in the history of the school. A Catholic high school for boys, it has been under the sponsorship of the Xaverian Brothers since 1898.
Mr. Welch praised the alumni and the parents of the students for their support.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “our alumns don’t have to support the school. But they choose to do so. It’s wonderful to have their unwavering support…. The parents don’t have to send their sons here. But they do, often at great sacrifice. And that’s a privilege for us. Why? Because people believe in our mission.”
He quoted what he said is one of the Xaverian mottos: “The gift you have, give as a gift.”
He said the alumni had a great experience at St. John’s and they want the students to have that experience.
Alumni gifts have funded all the new buildings and fields at the school. The administration has not had to take money from tuition revenue to pay for any of it, he said.
“We have been able to keep tuition within reach of middle-class families,” he said. “Many schools like St. John’s have tuitions of $30,000. We are at about $12,000 because of alumni support.”
He said the school would look different programmatically without that support.
“We want to remain faithful to the two adjectives, ‘Catholic’ and ‘Xaverian,’ and to the noun ‘high school,’” he said. “That is the big challenge of Catholic education today. Too often, some Catholic schools are choosing one or the other because of the challenge of being faithful to both.”
Mr. Welch said he decided that now, after 15 years as headmaster, is the time for him to retire because he believes that the time to change leaders is when the institution is strong.
He said the enrollment is strong, the endowment is strong, the school is unparalleled, and the extra-curricular program and campus ministry are on solid ground.
When he came to St. John’s in 2001 “it was a great school,” he said.
“Hopefully, in my 15 years, that has continued. None of it would have happened without those who came before me. They set the bar high.
“All the exciting things (that have happened at St. John’s) have been due to others, not to me,” he said.
That does not seem to be the opinion of Carl D. Rapp, chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees.
In a letter to members of the board announcing Mr. Welch’s retirement, Mr. Rapp stated that “Michael‘s contributions during his tenure at Saint John’s have been profound. Under his leadership we have seen the transformation of our core curriculum, our campus and our finances. Throughout his tenure he has remained a passionate, optimistic advocate of our mission and remained faithful to the importance of a Catholic and Xaverian education, as evidenced by the growth and success of our Campus Ministry program.
“His positive outlook, capacity for hard work and love of Saint John’s has been an inspiration within our community since his first day on the job almost 15 years ago. He will leave Saint John’s in excellent condition, with experienced and committed leaders positioned throughout the administration, faculty and staff.
“In his performance as headmaster – as our leader and friend – he has honored those who taught him, who preceded him in the job as headmaster, his fellow classmates from the class of 1978, his family and a generation of grateful students and alumni.”
Under his watch the main building was renamed “Conal Hall” in honor of the former headmaster, Brother J. Conal Owen; the gymnasium was renovated and several buildings were built, including Ryken Center’s Black Box Theater, Remillard Hall and Founders Hall. The latter is a $15 million building, with a 350-seat theater with an orchestra pit and band practice room, an art studio, classrooms for the language laboratory and the social studies department.
The Abdella Center for Ethics has invited world-renowned speakers to lecture.
The school has maintained an enrollment of about 1,000 students. Mr. Welch oversaw the $21 million fundraising campaign called “Transforming Lives.” The school’s annual fund has surpassed $1 million each year since 2012.
“Programmatically,” a school history states, “Saint John’s High School has seen incredible growth under the leadership of Mr. Welch. Offerings in the world languages department have expanded to include a full curriculum in Mandarin, which is now one of the most popular language tracks at the school. In 2007, Saint John’s received the Siemens Award for best science, technology, and math program in the state. The arts have expanded exponentially at the school since 2001. With the addition of the Ryken Center’s Black Box Theater and Remillard Hall, and now Founders Hall’s performance spaces, opportunities for students interested in the arts have grown significantly, and include several dozen music, theater, and visual arts events and programs throughout the year.”
Mr. Welch said St. John’s has added Advanced Placement courses over the years and is one of the highest ranking Advanced Placement schools in New England
He said St. John’s students are very much involved in the school ministry programs.
“We are on fire at St. John’s High School,” he said. “Kids are flocking to our campus ministry. They want to be a part of it. We don’t need to require anything.
“They sing at Mass! When have you seen that? Kids come back at night for prayer services. They are longing for God.
“I believe Catholic education is more important than ever for the future of the Church.”
He said he announced his retirement early to give the Board of Trustees ample time to find his successor. He said he has not made definite plans for the future, but he expects to continue in Catholic education.
A native of Worcester, he graduated from Marquette University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He earned a master’s degree in pastoral ministry and a master’s degree in secondary school administration from Boston College.
After college he worked as a teacher, campus minister, director of religious education and director of development at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Before he came to St. John’s, he was the assistant principal/academics and faculty formation, and director of admissions at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood.
He and his wife Bridget have four children; Elizabeth, John (SJ 2008), Patrick (2009), and Peter (2011).