Jesuits in the Middle East: Edmund A. Walsh and Baghdad College

Students play a basketball game on the campus of Iraq's Baghdad College, in this undated photograph.

Students play a basketball game on the campus of Iraq’s Baghdad College.

July 26, 2015
by Caroline Kenneally

Father Edmund A. Walsh, S.J., founded the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service (SFS) in 1919. America’s entry into the Great War forced Americans to broaden their worldview. “As unprepared as we were for war, we cannot be unprepared for peace,” Walsh remarked upon the opening of the first US school of international affairs. Walsh designed a curriculum that included the study of language, history, trade, and politics of other regions of the world in the hopes of enhancing intercultural understanding. He believed that education in diplomacy was the starting point for a truly international society.

Baghdad College upon Opening in 1932Although almost 100 years have passed since its founding, the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service has carried Walsh’s mission into the new millennium. Students continue to develop a nuanced understanding of foreign cultures amidst today’s globalized world.

Today, the nation of Iraq is associated with images of civil war and American occupation. Yet tucked away in this war-torn corner of the globe is an extension of Walsh’s lifelong work as an educator and diplomat.

Iraq in the early 1930s was described as “a new world, infinitely old.” A newly-formed state, Iraq emerged from four centuries of Ottoman rule followed by fourteen years of British presence in the region. Different cultures and religions intermingled in ways that are inconceivable in today’s Iraq—now punctuated by divisions.

For years, Catholic Iraqis had asked Pope Pius XI to improve the quality of Catholic education in Baghdad. In 1931, the Pope appointed Walsh to travel to Baghdad to organize a secondary school for boys. Walsh carried out negotiations with the leaders in Iraq to permit the priests from the Society of Jesus to establish a religious presence in the nation and to educate. After meeting with dignitaries including King Feisal I, Walsh negotiated a treaty arrangement between the Arab government and the United States which provided that “Nationals of the US will be permitted to freely establish and maintain educational, philanthropic, and religious institutions in Iraq.”

Father Walsh demonstrated his skills as a diplomat through quick and effective negotiations. Baghdad College opened on the banks of the Tigris River a little more than a year later, during the fall of 1932. More importantly, however, Walsh developed a vision for the school.

An article from The Hoya in 1932 announced the opening of Baghdad College. The writer offers exotic descriptions of the capital city— “familiar to the Americans chiefly through the capers of Haroun al Raschid in the Arabian Nights”—and notes, “the new school overlooks the famous Tigris River with a view of the traditional site of the Garden of Paradise.” This piece in the Georgetown student newspaper reveals how little Americans knew of the distant city. Father Alfred J. Hicks, S.J., a teacher at Baghdad College during the 1960s, notes that the mission of the school was for “the Christian and Muslim children [to] learn together and share cultures.” Back in 1931, Walsh recognized this unique opportunity for Jesuit teachers from the United States to engage with Iraqi youth.

From 1932 to 1969, Baghdad College was operated by a group of American Jesuit priests, mainly from New England.  Before being ordained, Fr. Hicks was sent to teach at Baghdad College in 1960, and he would spend four years at the school throughout the next decade.

Father Hicks remembers the initial 21-day journey to Baghdad back in 1960. Aboard the Excalibur of the American Export Lines, he watched the Statue of Liberty fade into the horizon as he departed from New York Harbor. After crossing the Atlantic, the ship landed at the ancient port city of Cádiz in Spain. Father Hicks and the other priests then sailed through the Mediterranean to Alexandria, Egypt before taking another sail to Beirut. At last, the group took an overnight bus through the Syrian Desert, entering Baghdad at sunrise. “It was hard to take in all in—the sights and sounds of a real Arab city. We arrived at last at Baghdad College,” he recalls. It is easy to imagine the shock of entering a lush, green oasis furnished with yellow brick citadel-style buildings after the long stretch of desert. The buildings at Baghdad College were designed by Father Leo Guay, S.J., in 1931 to mirror the Iraqi style.

Hicks remembers summer nights spent sleeping on the roofs of the buildings. Down below, visiting camels would drink from a soaking pool tucked behind the basketball courts. “We were assigned first year students; Math, English and Religion.  We had no idea how to teach, we spoke no Arabic, the students spoke no English; it was perfect.  By Christmas we began to understand each other. There was a great deal of respect for the students, Jesuits, and school.”

Father Hicks and his first year students in 1961.

Father Hicks and his first year students in 1961.

Baghdad College took on more than just the architectural style of Iraq— “An Iraqi School for Iraqi Boys” became the motto. In order to fully engage with the culture, the priests set up a school for themselves to learn Arabic. By the 1960s, the student body was half Muslim and half Christian.  Muslims were not required to attend chapel services and proselytizing was forbidden.

The Jesuits made it their mission to educate students of all backgrounds. Upon arriving, Hicks served as a prefect to students from distant parts of Iraq living in the dormitory. “It was an amazing quilt of kids. Christians, Muslims, Azidis, Mandeans, Kurds, Assyrians. You name it.”

In many ways, the school that Walsh built transcended the cultural barriers between the two worlds, providing the opportunity to gain a deep understanding of each society. The sepia-tinted pages of Baghdad College Yearbooks, Al Iraqi, are preserved and document the students’ study of Shakespeare’s sonnets and Arabic poetry. Father Hicks fondly remembers teaching the students to play basketball and softball—two distinctly American sports—and reading the Brothers Grimm fairy tales with his first year students during English class.

Baghdad College Academic BuildingsThis group of American Jesuits faithfully carried out Walsh’s vision until tensions between the United States and Iraq reached new heights when the Baath party assumed power. Hicks briefly returned to the United States to become ordained in 1966, returning to Baghdad in 1968 to teach Math. His work at Baghdad College was cut short by the expulsion of the Jesuits from Iraq in 1969. “As Americans, we carried the weight of our support for Israel,” notes Hicks. Tensions between Iraq and the United States heightened after the Six-Day War of 1967 and the rise of the Baath-Socialist Party in July of 1968. On August 4, 1969, 33 Jesuit faculty and administrators were expelled from Iraq as all education was handed over to the state under the rule of Saddam Hussein.

Father Hicks taught in Boston for many years, but returned to the Middle East in 2002, where he worked for 13 years at the Jesuit Center in Amman, Jordan. The Jesuit Center offers courses in theology and hosts the Jesuit Refugee Service, providing assistance in Jordan to thousands of refugees fleeing strife in Syria.  “While in Amman I traveled over a dozen times to Baghdad to attempt to recover restitution for our properties, to no avail,” Hicks noted. “I remember the city [Baghdad] as beautiful, vibrant and hospitable.  It has been largely destroyed.”

Yet Baghdad College endures. In 2016, Baghdad College still is considered the top secondary school in Iraq. The school continues to educate future Iraqi leaders, albeit without the influence of the Jesuits who founded and staffed the school for 32 years. Baghdad College remains one small part of the impactful legacy of Edmund A. Walsh, S.J.