Jesuit Fr. Warren Sazama, the 10th president
In 2010, Jeff Monday was starting a new job as principal of his alma mater, Marquette University High School, and he needed to catch up. The school had changed a lot since he graduated in 1984. It was a different generation of students, but Jesuit Fr. Warren “Saz” Sazama, 69, the school’s president, had the principal’s back and knew what he needed.
“Immediately, Fr. Sazama invited me to experience the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius,” Monday said. “Which was so significant in my mind in that he extended to me a real experience of Ignation spirituality, by inviting me to the exercises.”
This invitation to daily prayer came one month into his job as principal, and it lasted 10 months.
“As I think back, I think, ‘Wow,’” Monday said. “It’s pretty amazing that he would consider an invitation to someone who was coming in and had a lot to do.”
Catholic education has always been a focus for Fr. Sazama and he passed it along to his students.
“I had him as a student in theology of Christian discipleship class,” Monday said. “Fr. Saz, as a teacher, was really able to reach all of his students.”
For the past 10 years, Fr. Sazama has served as president of the school. He is leaving to become pastor of St. Thomas More Parish in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Growing up in what was then Holy Spirit Parish (now St. Rafael the Archangel) on Milwaukee’s South Side, Fr. Sazama attended the parish grade school and then MUHS, graduating from the latter in1964.
“It’s been a great place throughout its history,” Fr. Sazama said of Marquette. “It’s always been a strong Catholic, Jesuit, all boys, college prep, urban school. That’s the foundation of it.”
As a student, he was the manager of the football team and a member of several clubs.
“My experience here at Marquette High was a real important part of my faith formation,” Fr. Sazama said. “It’s hard to put into words, but I definitely grew in my faith here.”
During a silent retreat at Holy Hill, he began to think seriously about the priesthood.
“The retreat director asked us to pray about how we would serve Christ in our daily lives,” Fr. Sazama said. “I thought I would really serve Christ as a priest, as a Jesuit.”
After graduation, he entered the seminary to become a Jesuit with the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus.
“I saw the Jesuits here doing good things, doing good work but also being good, happy, holy men that got along with each other,” Fr. Sazama said. “I doubt I would’ve been a Jesuit or a priest if I hadn’t attended Marquette High.”
Returned to MUHS as a teacher
He came back in 1971 as a seminarian to teach and began making connections with students.
“Some of those students that were 10 years my junior I’m friends with today,” he said. “I did a lot of their weddings and baptized a lot of their babies and things like that.”
He was ordained in 1977 and returned again to Marquette to teach.
He served the school in a variety of ways — from teaching science and theology to being the guidance director and pastoral director.
“As a high school teacher you definitely reflect on your own experience (as a student),” Fr. Sazama said. “I think some of the struggles I went through helped me be more empathetic to the kids … that would be pretty universal because every teacher was a student once.”
In 1989, Fr. Sazama helped bring the Kairos retreat program to the school. The Kairos retreat is student led and consists of different talks and small group discussions.
“It’s a very powerful retreat that’s still going on today … most of our students elect to take it their junior or senior year,” he said. “I think it’s really made Marquette High a more caring and faith-filled place.”
Leaves for the reservation
In 1993, Fr. Sazama left Marquette to teach at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
“The positive thing is there were a lot of great people; it was a great cross cultural experience learning about the Lakota religion,” he said, but he added life there was difficult for a lot of people and it was “like living in a Third World country.”
He saw how issues of alcoholism, drugs, suicide and “abuse of different kinds” took their toll on people.
“That kind of got to me. I started to feel down and feel sad; it was hard not to feel so sad out there because you’re surrounded by so much sadness,” he said. “I felt, for a while, dragged down by all of that. And that was probably one of the most difficult moments of my life.”
In 1995, Fr. Sazama left the school and became president of Jesuit partnerships. Four years later, he became director of vocations. He served in that position until 2006 when he returned to Marquette to be president of the school.
Community has faced difficult times
Looking at his time at Marquette, Fr. Sazama said he feels “very blessed,” but there have been some difficult times for the Marquette community.
One such time was in 2014. On Jan. 21, Andrew Boldt, a 2010 Marquette graduate and Purdue University engineering senior, was shot and killed on the Purdue campus in West Lafayette, Indiana. The next morning, Greg Von Rueden, a Marquette sophomore who had been battling bone cancer for nearly 19 months, passed away.
“Having those two deaths … that was a very difficult time for the community,” Fr. Sazama said. “It brought out the best in us and we really came together as a community of faith.”
During his time at Marquette, Fr. Sazama said he’s been through the dying process with parents of students, and recently he anointed the spouse of a faculty member before surgery.
“It’s hard to describe, but sometimes even in very sad situations there can be opportunities to minister to people in a very profound way,” he said.
Some of his proudest achievements have been the growing ethnic diversity of the school, where he said 27 percent of the 1,080-member population are students of color, and growing the financial aid endowment to $40 million.
“We give out over $2 million a year in financial aid,” he said of the nearly 37 percent of families who are assisted.
Monday said the endowment is an example of how Fr. Sazama tries to reach out to all kinds of students.
‘Champion of Catholic education’
“He’s just a champion of Catholic education,” Monday said. “His strong belief is just that students, in general, shouldn’t be turned away from benefiting from a Catholic education because of a family’s inability to pay.”
Fr. Sazama said teachers at the school get “roughly 95 percent pay equity with public schools.”
“Which means that really helps us in recruiting and retaining faculty and staff,” he said.
Monday said Fr. Sazama helped oversee five major building projects on the school grounds.
“All of those building projects have been projects that have been centered on the mission. We’re a school that promotes faith, scholarship and community,” Monday said. “And everything that he’s about has been about embracing those areas of the school.”
The priest also serves on the boards of Nativity Jesuit Middle School and Messmer High School, Milwaukee.
Despite the demands of the job, Fr. Sazama, up until the very end, continued to be an advisor to students at the school. Ben Sinense, junior, was one of his six advisees.
“There was a homily he gave my freshman year during an optional Thursday liturgy which really grabbed my attention and I realized I wanted him to be more involved in my life,” Sinense said. “We got to choose our advisors and I chose him because he was a Jesuit, he was always a kind man, he greeted the students sometimes in the morning … he would always say goodbye to us at the end of the day.”
Sinense said their meetings were initially about school and goals but eventually a friendship formed.
He took a more empathetic role, described Sinense, adding, “He was trying to understand me and what it’s like to be in my position.”
Sinense said Fr. Sazama would help him with problems that affect many high school students.
“Sometimes I haven’t had the best relationships with teachers and he’s given me tips and ways to work with people,” he said.
Sinense recently participated in the Kairos retreat and felt it helped improve his high school experience.
“The whole concept of the Kairos retreat really connects the whole Marquette High mission and the community together,” he said. “I know a lot of the teachers say the senior class is generally a lot more connected.”
Sinense said Fr. Sazama has been a “father figure” to him and although he begins his new role as pastor in Minnesota, July 1, he’ll still be available to offer his wisdom.
“I can pretty much email him about anything,” he said. “(I can) ask him for help about anything.”