Sean Hagerty, SJ, joined the Society of Jesus in 2012 after serving in the Army and working for Budweiser. Banner photo: Hagerty at Xavier High School with JROTC cadets. (Mike Benigno)

Sean Hagerty, SJ: From Army Captain to God's Soldier

By Tracey Primrose

January 11, 2016 — Sean Hagerty, SJ, 31, was climbing the corporate ladder in the beer distribution business when he decided to become a Jesuit priest. And even by Jesuit standards, that’s a pretty uncommon path. But there hasn’t been anything routine about Hagerty’s life to date, so it was no surprise when he decided to ditch the King of Beers for God’s Kingdom. 

Raised on the Upper West Side of New York City in a bilingual household, Hagerty’s dad, Ed, is of Irish descent and his mother, Maru, is from Colombia. A former model, buyer and personal shopper, Maru was quick to point out when the teenage Sean needed a style makeover. “Thanks for crushing my confidence, Mom,” he’d say as he headed out the door.

As a freshman in high school, Hagerty and his twin brother first met the Jesuits at Xavier High School in Lower Manhattan. Back then, a vocation wasn’t really on his mind.

Hagerty (right) with Father John Cecero, SJ, provincial of the USA Northeast Province.

The Jesuits, however, made an impression. “They were smart and kind and loved what they were doing. They were very present in our lives — whether helping out with the yearbook, moderating the Chess Club or attending games,” Hagerty remembers. He threw himself into life at Xavier, becoming an outstanding cadet in the school’s JROTC program and swimming for the varsity team.

During Hagerty’s senior year of high school, the country was attacked on 9/11. Xavier was little more than two miles from Ground Zero, and the impact of that tragic day was palpably felt.

“There were a lot of deaths — Xavier alumni, parents and others closely linked to the school.  When you’re 18 years old and your city is subject to a terrorist attack, you get pretty pissed off.”

Hagerty serving in the Army in Iraq.

Hagerty channeled his anger into a plan: He would continue his ROTC training at Fordham University and graduate with an Army commission. While he excelled at his ROTC duties, he’s the first to say that partying and playing water polo ranked far higher than academics on his priority list.

During sophomore year, he was going through a rough patch and decided, implausibly, to go on a silent retreat. The decision was pure hubris. He had already done a more traditional retreat in high school and thought there was little to gain from a repeat performance. He was ready for the next level.

(Photo: Michael Marmora)

In silence, he met young Jesuit scholastics, and like the Jesuits at Xavier, they made an impression.

“Growing up, like many high school kids, I thought that the only reason you would become a priest is because you couldn’t get a date. But these were good guys, they were respected, they made an active decision not to be in a relationship, they chose to do this.”  

Hagerty started spiritual direction with one of the scholastics and began attending daily Mass.

Hagerty surrounded by his extended family after he professed First Vows as a Jesuit.

In 2006, he graduated from Fordham and was commissioned a second lieutenant. After training in Georgia and Oklahoma, the kid from Manhattan was assigned to the one place he simply couldn’t fathom: Fort Wainwright, Alaska. “I boarded an aircraft, landed and the weather was 47 below zero. I was unhappy.”

Ten years after the fact, Hagerty now laughs about the deep freeze he experienced during his years in The Last Frontier. “I actually lived in the town of North Pole, Alaska.”

He started going to the local parish, “St. Nicholas Catholic Church in North Pole, Alaska — I kid you not,” and teaching Sunday school and confirmation classes. The idea of becoming a Jesuit was still “rattling around.”

Hagerty served in the Army in Alaska after graduating Fordham University.

After several years in Alaska, Hagerty was deployed to Diyala Province, Iraq, where he commanded a forward observer team and was later made second in command of an infantry company.

Deployments are terrible. “You go 284 days without a day off and are under constant threat of getting shot at,” Hagerty remembers. And if, like Hagerty, you’re considering a vocation to the priesthood, Iraq — where there’s one Catholic chaplain for 5,000 soldiers and a two-hour, dangerous drive to Mass — is not an ideal place.

Hagerty finished his service in 2009 and resigned his commission in 2010.  He knew the Army wasn’t for him, but he also wasn’t quite ready to confront the thought that had lingered for years:  Maybe God was calling him to the Jesuits?

Some young men considering a vocation to the Society of Jesus work at a Jesuit high school; not many go to work for Budweiser. Hagerty got a job as a night warehouse supervisor in the Bronx and quickly rose through the ranks. Within a few months, he was transferred to Oklahoma and then to Los Angeles, where he was responsible for all of Budweiser’s warehousing distribution. But something was missing.

Hagerty (right) with fellow veterans at Saint Louis University.

“I get to Los Angeles and I’m making more money than I know what to do with, I’m dating a great girl, I have a nice car and renting a house in Laguna Beach, but I’m just not happy. But when I thought about being a Jesuit, I was happy.”

Such is the nature of discernment. “I wanted God to throw out a neon sign that said ‘YOU SHOULD BECOME A JESUIT,’ but then I realized that if I had been thinking about this for eight years, maybe I had been told already, and I just didn’t want to listen.”

Telling no one, he applied to the Jesuits. The Jesuits accepted him.  He walked down the hall to his boss’ office, where he learned that Bud had plans to promote him again. The boss learned that his star manager was not interested in the transfer because he was leaving to become a Catholic priest. “They were a little thrown by that,” Hagerty laughs.

Hagerty (far right) participated in a panel discussion with fellow Jesuits on the various stages of Jesuit life.

In August 2012, Hagerty entered the Jesuits and is now a philosophy student at Saint Louis University. About his vocation, Hagerty says, “I had this sneaking suspicion that if I didn’t do this, I would never be happy.”

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The Sioux Spiritual Center, nestled amid the hills of western South Dakota, is the heart of the Diocese of Rapid City’s efforts to develop native clergy and leadership on the reservations.