By Jerry Duggan
As Fr. John Nugent, SJ, grew up in the Houston area, his grandmother was his first Spanish teacher at his Catholic grade school. At the time, he had no idea how the little seeds she planted in him would guide his own trajectory in life.
Fast forward to 1996. A 13-year-old Nugent walks into Strake Jesuit College Preparatory of Houston for a tour. It is his first time on campus. Knowing nothing about the Jesuits, he is initially struck not by the sprawling campus or impressive list of accolades but rather the distinctive attitude of the (overwhelmingly lay) faculty members. It was difficult for Nugent to put his finger on what he found so appealing about them.
“They seemed like teachers who were concerned with much more than just teaching,” he said. “Sure, they had a rigorous curriculum, but I could tell right away that they cared about their students as people, too.”
The ideal that Fr. Nugent could not quite articulate at the time turns out to be the Jesuit concept of cura personalis – that is, to care for the whole person. Although the phrase can be applied in many contexts, it is often used to describe the holistic approach employed by a Jesuit educator.
Two decades later, Fr. Nugent is principal at Arrupe Jesuit High School in Denver and finds that the impressions left on him by his grandmother and the faculty at Strake Jesuit all those years ago still guide his approach today.
“Seeing my grandmother dedicate herself to teaching for decades in Catholic schools made such an impression on me,” he said.
In addition, thanks to her fluency in Spanish, Nugent began to acquire mastery of a second language, which he uses every day at Arrupe Jesuit, a Cristo Rey school that serves a predominately Hispanic student body.
After an enriching experience at Strake Jesuit, Nugent enrolled at Texas A&M University. He had inklings of a Jesuit vocation coupled with a strong desire to teach, particularly in the sciences. He recalled the example of his high school teachers and considered his own calling to be an educator.
“One of my science teachers at Strake was exactly the kind of teacher I wanted to be – she had high expectations for students but also invested in them as people and helped them grow in faith,” he recalled.
Immersing himself in A&M’s vibrant Catholic campus community, Fr. Nugent became increasingly confident that he had a vocation to the Society of Jesus, with the hope of being able to give back an educational setting.
Nugent entered the novitiate in 2006 and, after rewarding experiences as a novice and in first studies, was assigned to Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas as a chemistry teacher.
His three years at Jesuit Dallas reaffirmed why Nugent joined the Society in the first place.
“At Jesuit Dallas, I was able to teach chemistry, a subject I had great passion for, but more importantly, I was able to connect with my students and be a formative influence in their lives,” he said.
At the conclusion of his time in Dallas, Nugent was recognized by the student body as the school’s “Ignatian Educator of the Year.” This assured Nugent that he had truly made an impact on his students and was following God’s will.
Following theology studies and priestly ordination in 2015, Nugent has worked at Arrupe Jesuit since 2016, serving first as an assistant principal and now as principal.
“At Arrupe Jesuit, I am able to utilize what I feel are my greatest gifts in service of those who deserve great opportunities but cannot always access them,” he said. “My Catholic and Jesuit education has taught me that where there is greater need, that is where I need to be.”
Nugent uses the Spanish he first learned from his grandmother to connect more deeply with families. “My Spanish is by no means perfect, but I hope that reminds our families that we do the best we can to partner together, going outside our comfort zones to relate on a personal level.”
Special moments like when Nugent presides at weddings of former students or friends from Strake Jesuit are delightful reminders of the lifelong impact he has had on others through Jesuit education.
“To be able to use my faith to educate and grow in friendship with so many wonderful young people has been most rewarding for me,” he said. “The lessons instilled in me by my grandmother, at Strake Jesuit and at Jesuit Dallas have stuck with me all these years, as I seek to respond generously to the call of being a man for others.”