By Kenneth J. Souza
ATTLEBORO, Mass. — For nearly a half-century, Christopher E. Servant has been associated with Bishop Feehan High School, starting as a member of the second graduating class in 1966, joining the faculty in 1972, taking over as principal in 2001, and ultimately becoming the school’s first-ever president in 2006.
For Servant, Bishop Feehan is more than just a Catholic high school, it’s been a way of life.
“People sometimes look askance when I refer to the alliterative ‘Feehan family,’ but that’s exactly what it is,” Servant recently told The Anchor. “It’s a Catholic school family that will celebrate when you succeed and lift you up when you’re down.”
That era will come to an end on June 30 when Servant will formally retire and step down as president.
“We’re in a better situation now, so that’s what brought me to the decision that I will be stepping down in June,” he said.
Now in his 11th year as president, Servant admitted he had originally only intended to “work at it for 10 years,” but he wanted to see some projects through to fruition.
“The 10-year plan has come and gone — I turned 66 this past May — so you may wonder why I’m still here,” he joked. “We’ve been working on converting this building from the former (Sisters of Mercy) convent into a classroom, library and technology center. What I thought would take about three years ended up taking closer to five. I could probably stay on for another 20 years with project after project, but I do think we’re at a point where the major renewal for the school has been done and it’s just a combination of preventative maintenance and planning now.”
While he affectionately refers to the school as family, Servant also has his own family to consider.
“I have four children and they’ve all been married in the past few years and they, among them, have five children under the age of four right now, with more coming,” Servant said. “So I do think I can play a bigger role in their lives. I know my grandparents played a huge role in my life growing up. So that’s part of it. My wife, by coincidence — also a Feehan grad from 1968 — is retiring at the end of this month, so that had something to do with it, too.”
Although he is looking forward to slowing down a bit and spending more time with his family, Servant admitted it won’t be easy to just walk away from Bishop Feehan.
“Just the fact that I’ve spent 44 years here as an employee — and four years as a student — it would be very difficult to say I could ever make a clean break from Feehan, because Feehan is in my blood,” he said. “I would envision that I would have some continued role here, whether it be a full role or something in an adjunct capacity. I don’t see myself moving to Florida and no one ever hearing from me again. But I would also say I don’t see myself giving the keynote address to parents on the first day of school, either.”
Servant’s deep-rooted affection for Bishop Feehan dates back to those early years as a student at the fledgling Catholic high school.
His father had died when he was just two years old, leaving his mother to raise him, his brother and sister. She worked as a waitress to send all three to Catholic schools, including Bishop Feehan.
“My brother paid $200 a year to go to Feehan and financial aid was a reduction of $50 a year, so I paid $150 and my sister paid $100,” Servant said. “People seem amazed that for $450 my mother sent three kids to Feehan — but she only made $2,500 so that was 19 percent of her total salary. Do you think parents today could afford to spend 19 percent of their salary on tuition?”
Servant found a ready-made support system at Bishop Feehan in the coaches and teachers. The faculty — largely staffed by the Sisters of Mercy — made a lasting impression on him.
“Our lives are shaped by the people who affect us — I believe we are all where we are today because of the kindness of someone in our lives,” he said. “I believe that strongly. I am where I am because of where I came from, and because of the kindness of people. And so I’ve always tried to give back. I want all the kids who attend Feehan to have the same experience that I had.”
While tuition at Bishop Feehan High School has gone up considerably since 1966, Servant still believes that people are willing to pay for “a mission with substance.”
“The Catholic mission is a mission with substance: we are asking you to be all that you can be socially, intellectually, Spiritually — and we’re going to assist you with that,” he said. “I know it sounds like a simplistic notion, but the world is crying out for people with values, and I like to think that a Bishop Feehan graduate — or any Catholic high school graduate for that matter — is going to be in demand. They are going to stand out because they value the mission, if you will, of service to people.”
Acknowledging that it’s very difficult for parents to make the sacrifice to send their children to Catholic schools today, Servant said it’s reassuring to see the number of students applying for admission every year.
“We’ve been blessed with a very strong enrollment because I think people value the fact that we stand for something here — and I think Catholic schools across the nation do,” he said. “Our enrollment now is 1,070 and we’ve been blessed that we usually have two to three students apply for every seat. Right now for our incoming freshman class, we have 442 firm applicants and we’ll end up taking about 270 of those kids. We have more applicants than seats — I think that’s a vote of confidence in the school and it’s a vote of confidence in Catholic education.”
And with ever-growing competition from tuition-free public schools, Servant said Catholic schools really need to offer something that is compelling to potential parents and students.
“I like to think it’s the culture, it’s the academic excellence, and in our case we’ve been blessed by physical plant renewal,” he said. “Facilities also draw people in: you can’t underestimate curb appeal.”
To that end, Servant said he’s proud of the improvements at Bishop Feehan he’s helped make over the last 15 years.
“There’s a tendency to say my greatest achievement is either something tangible or financial,” he said. “For example, the ability to raise something like $15 to $20 million could be considered my legacy.”
Upon further reflection, Servant said he’d prefer to be remembered for his loyalty to the school that shaped him, and for his knack to connect with people.
“I’d like to think that my longevity and loyalty to the cause is something I feel very proud of,” he said. “I’d like to think that I am merely a gatekeeper — one of many along the way — and that I have given my all when given the opportunity to teach. I’d like to think I was a pretty good coach, a pretty decent principal and a decent president. But time will tell those things.
“I’d like people to remember that Chris Servant was ‘all in’ for the period of time that he was here and you always knew through his passion and his enthusiasm that you were getting his best.”
As he prepares to retire in June, Servant said the one thing he’ll miss most is witnessing his students’ success first-hand.
“I’m going to miss the joy of seeing the kids grow and progress and come back as college students, as parents of young kids, and come back and sit on boards with me,” he said. “I have former students who are now on alumni boards with me and I get a sense that I may have played a small role in who they are today and that gives you a feeling of great satisfaction. I’m just glad I’ve had an opportunity to play a role in it.”