December 1, 2014 — Jesuit Father TJ Martinez, a charismatic, cowboy-boot wearing priest and founder of Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory of Houston, died on November 28 at age 44. Fr. Martinez passed away after an eight-month battle with stomach cancer.
Fr. Martinez founded Cristo Rey Jesuit College Prep in 2009 with just 80 students, but the school has grown to nearly 500 this year.
“He had a gift for taking people where they were and saying ‘let's go to the next level,’” said Brian Branda, chairman of Cristo Rey's board. “Whether it was a group of students or people who were working, building the school.”
Fr. Martinez was born in Brownsville, Texas, and joined the Society of Jesus after graduating from Boston College. During Fr. Martinez’s Jesuit formation, he earned five graduate degrees, including a law degree from the University of Texas and a school leadership degree from Harvard University. While at Harvard, Fr. Martinez was honored with the 2008 Harvard Intellectual Contribution & Faculty Tribute Award and was selected to deliver the Harvard Graduate School of Education Student Commencement address.
Twenty-four hours after receiving his Harvard diploma, he returned to Texas to found Cristo Rey Jesuit College Prep as a school for children whose families lived at or below the poverty level. The only Cristo Rey Network school in Texas, it charges no tuition and is instead supported by donations and a work-study program in which students are employed at local corporations one day a week. In 2013, every member of the school's first graduating class was accepted to college, as was also the case this year.
In six short years, Fr. Martinez and his leadership team have added 150 blue-ribbon corporations so that every student has a job; have renovated a nine-acre facility into an award-winning 21st century educational institution; and have raised over $22 million to fund the operating and capital projects of the school.
In 2010, Fr. Martinez was knighted into the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher, a Papal Knighthood that recognizes outstanding service to the church, for founding the only Catholic high school in the state of Texas that exclusively serves underprivileged children. In 2014, Notre Dame University bestowed on Fr. Martinez the Father Theodore Sorin Award for Service to Catholic Schools, the highest award the university offers for Catholic high school leadership. And later that year, Boston College awarded Fr. Martinez the Alumni Ignatian Award, which recognizes an alum who lives the mission of “men and women for others” to an exemplary degree.
"We know that Fr. Martinez was so many things to so many people, and that each person who had the honor of knowing him — whether as a spiritual leader, mentor, role model or friend — was better for it," interim Cristo Rey President Paul Posoli said in a statement.
In March, as Fr. Martinez started treatment for cancer in Houston, he spoke to the school, calling the staff and students “the highlight of my life.