‘I’m ready’: Deacon Peter McCourt steps down as Cristo Rey Richmond president

Ribbon-cutting of Cristo Rey Richmond’s new Student Life Building on Aug. 25, 2023, with Deacon Peter McCourt and Cristo Rey students. (Photo/Heide Knapik)

Deacon Peter McCourt never planned to work in education. Raised by two parents who worked in the field, he set out on a much different career trajectory, working in medical ministry as the Vice President of Mission for Bon Secours.

Little did he know that this would eventually lead him to Cristo Rey Richmond High School, where he has been president since the school first opened in 2019.

Under Deacon McCourt’s leadership, 100% of the first two graduating classes were accepted to college. About three months ago, he and school officials announced he would step down as president and CEO at the end of the academic year.

“I’m ready,” he said. “It’s just the right moment. I have poured in a lot in seven years, and it’s time for a little rest and renewal for me, and it’s time for the organization to keep growing.”

Former Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo first approached the Sisters of Bon Secours about establishing a Cristo Rey school in the city in 2016. While there are dozens of Cristo Rey schools across the country, there were none in Virginia at the time.

The Cristo Rey Network consists of 39 college preparatory schools across the United States. Founded in 1993 by the Society of Jesus, the network of schools traditionally accepts students with limited economic resources and emphasizes real-world work experience as part of the curriculum.

Bishop DiLorenzo believed in Cristo Rey’s mission-driven approach to Catholic education for lower-income families. The Sisters agreed that Cristo Rey’s mission was consistent with their own mission of providing “good help,” and began working to make it a reality.

As an executive at Bon Secours, Deacon McCourt was asked to help research, plan, fundraise, recruit and participate in community outreach. He thought his involvement would be minimal once the school opened, but his business background, along with his experience in college campus ministry and his work as a deacon, made him an ideal candidate to become the founding president of the school.

“They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he joked, quoting his favorite movie, “The Godfather.”

“I was happy doing medical ministry work, but when two sisters asked, I thought maybe God was trying to say something to me,” he said. “I hadn’t thought about it until they asked the question and then I said ‘OK, if this is part of God’s plan for me, let it come to be.’”

Cristo Rey vision

Deacon McCourt dove head-first into his new role, working toward Cristo Rey Richmond’s vision of “transforming Richmond, one student at a time.”

“I think the reason this work at Cristo Rey appealed to me is because the students we’re serving are deserving of every opportunity that we can provide, and should have access to the resources that higher-income level peers of their age have,” Deacon McCourt stated. “That’s what I’ve always kept in my mind: our notion in Catholic thought that every life is sacred and can contribute greatly to the kingdom of God.”

Many students who come to Cristo Rey are struggling in reading and math. Cristo Rey offers learning plans tailored to individual students. With one-on-one attention, those students have caught up with the rest of the class and graduated on time.

Cristo Rey also uses “reality pedagogy,” a teaching method focused on the reality of student’s experiences. For instance, discussions of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee, might include talking about personal experiences related to the book’s themes, such as racism and social justice.

Another unique aspect of the school is its corporate work-study program, which allows students to intern one day a week at various businesses and organizations, from museums to Fortune 500 companies.

The support doesn’t stop once the student graduates. Alumni advisors are available for former students if they need help with college coursework, are looking for an internship, or need to connect for other reasons.

“If we can create an environment that helps them discover their gifts and uniqueness, imagine what the world could be like,” Deacon McCourt mused.

Cristo Rey principal Lynn Waidelich said Deacon McCourt “has the head and the heart” to lead, as she recalled how he helped carry the school through the pandemic. COVID-19 closed Cristo Rey mere months after they first opened. Deacon McCourt used his healthcare background to formulate a plan to move from remote learning to hybrid to fully reopening in 2022. Despite the major setbacks the first graduating class faced, all students were still accepted to college and earned millions of dollars in scholarships.

Waidelich stated that Deacon McCourt “has tremendous belief in their potential, so he holds the students to high expectations. He doesn’t waiver from his belief that they can meet those expectations.”

‘He draws people to him’

Sister Patricia Eck, chair of Bon Secours Mercy Ministries, first met the deacon when they were both working at St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond. “He’s very visibly committed to living his faith. You can see it in his work,” she noted.

When she saw Deacon McCourt with students at a recent retreat, she said, “It was just wonderful seeing him interact with the students. He has such vibrancy. He has an energy about him that draws people to him. His connections with the youth are pretty amazing.”

Decades ago, Deacon McCourt served in Catholic Campus Ministry at Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). This is when he first met Father Michael Renninger, who was the rector of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Richmond, at the time. The cathedral is on the VCU campus, so the two worked together frequently. Years later, Father Renninger was assigned to St. Mary’s, Richmond, and McCourt became a deacon there in 2018.

“I think he connects so well with teens because he knows the cultural world in which young people live today and he has a creative way in bringing the Gospel message into the language and experience of young people,” Father Renninger said.

“I’ve seen him teach and preach to groups of young people and he just has a natural way of connecting with them and not talking down to them,” he added.

While Cristo Rey’s goal is to transform Richmond one student at a time, Deacon McCourt said the school also transformed him.

“The best thing I could say is just thank you,” said the outgoing Cristo Rey president. “Thanks for the ride, thanks for the memories. Thank you to the community for all the support, thank you to the staff for believing in this mission, and thank you to the students who are the heartbeat of the organization.”

Though he will no longer be president of Cristo Rey, he does plan to stay involved and support the school in other ways. Deacon McCourt said he is open to opportunities and still discerning what comes next for him. In the meantime, he plans to rest, spend time with his wife, and continue serving as a deacon at St. Mary’s.

“I don’t think the work is ever done,” McCourt said. “I am, however, proud of where we’ve come and what we’ve accomplished. I’m excited about the future.”


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