Fr. Robert Niehoff, S.J. B’72

My mother’s life was a struggle; she was born just before the depression and then widowed at the early age of 30 with four children and one on the way.  Both my mom and her husband were Catholic; no one else in my mom’s family was Catholic, leaving my mom alone in her faith. I believe the example and power of my mom’s faith have led me to where I am today.
A few years later, my mom remarried.  Her new husband, my father, would drive our family 25 miles to church every Sunday.  In 1964, we moved from our little farm in south Puget Sound to Tacoma.  It was here as a 5th grader that I attended a Catholic elementary school for the first time at Sacred Heart. 

Beginning in the 6th grade, I had thought of going to a Maryknoll high school seminary.  I  knew nothing about Bellarmine. A man my father worked with recommended Bellarmine to him, so Bellarmine it was.  I enjoyed my time at Bellarmine and excelled at being there.  I was the first male in my family to complete high school without having first served in the military.     

I’d never met a Jesuit before.  I admired the Bellarmine Jesuits, both scholastics and priests.  In time I found myself wondering if I could be like them.  During my senior year, the question of priesthood came back to me when Father Sacco asked if I had thought about being a Jesuit.  I think I disappointed him when I said yes.  He did not know how to reply.  I think he wanted my idea of being a Jesuit Priest to be his suggestion.  He was always encouraging, and a few years later, I had the pleasure of working with him in his Parish in Woodburn, Oregon. 

I felt I had to test this priesthood Call.  In June 1972, I graduated from Bellarmine and, in August, entered the Jesuit Novitiate in Sheridan, OR. 

I loved my time at the novitiate and with my Jesuit classmates.  The following spring, I was challenged to live and work for a month on skid row in Portland.  I learned a lot during that time and experienced more forcefully the prayer that became my mantra—asking God, "If you want me to do this, you will have to show me, and show me how!”  Some days even now, this is all I can muster.

Three years at Gonzaga followed the Novitiate.  I often tell people that I was at Gonzaga before basketball.  Which is basically correct.  After my time at Gonzaga, much to my surprise, I was assigned to return to Bellarmine (fall 1977) as the business manager and teach a bit.  It was the same hilltop but now co-ed, and many things had changed. 
Having studied Business while doing our philosophy courses at Gonzaga, I was able to do a lot of things on the business side. I initiated the first Financial Audit that had ever taken place at Bellarmine.  Tom Pagano was the auditor, and we figured out how to get this done.  It was a start to the improved financial management we see today.  In my second year, I taught Freshman Algebra.  That was fun.    

Following theology studies and ordination, I was again the Financial Officer of our theologate in Berkeley and then at the province office in Portland.  While in Portland, I was able to complete my first business degree, an Executive MBA at the University of Washington.  This was before the days of virtual classes, two guys from Portland commuting each week to Seattle for an overnight of study group and a day of classes.

I completed my last year of Jesuit formation in the Philippines with an international group. I loved learning from the Filipino people, and by the way, I was the treasurer of that program too.  My post-ordination assignments got even more exciting in 1987 with my assignment as the Chief Financial Officer for the Jesuit Bishop of Nassau, Bahamas.  I was blessed with the opportunity to work with a small developing church to help enhance ministries in service to the people of the Bahamas.  One of the most exciting things we did was the development of an Aids Ministry training program at a time when fear and prejudice often lead to complete isolation and neglect of HIV-positive individuals in need of support.  The Diocese had its first financial audit in those early years, and we developed the first fundraising program to support the work we were doing.  We fixed and built buildings: churches, schools, rectories, and convents.  The Bishop had already built a retreat center, so we were now staffing it with folks to train permanent deacons and lay ministers and develop youth and family ministry outreach programs.  On the weekends, I would help out in the outer island parishes without resident pastors or celebrate Mass at the prison.        

I returned to Gonzaga in 1991 and worked in finance, student affairs, and the mission office.  I was superior to a small Jesuit community while completing the Educational Leadership doctorate at Gonzaga.  After finishing my degree in 1996, I moved on to the University of San Francisco, where I became the Associate Dean for the School of Education with responsibility for their part-time education doctoral and certificate programs.  Then on to Associate Provost and VP for Planning and Budget roles.  I became president of John Carroll University in Cleveland in 2005 and served there for 12 years. 

I found traveling the journey with John Carroll’s students inspiring, and it was their energy that kept me going each day.  I was able to celebrate a Sunday night Mass with 3 to 400 students, attend our Division III sporting events, including football games in Ireland and at NCAA playoffs.  We celebrated JCU’s 125th year, and I occasionally joined students on immersion trips and student retreats. 

I joined students on a trip to El Salvador to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Jesuit Martyrs of the University of Central America.  In the early morning of November 16, 1989, uniformed Salvadoran soldiers stormed the Jesuit residence and pulled the six of them from their beds and murdered them together with Elba and Celina Ramos, their cook and her daughter who lived in one wing of the building.  Their bodies were found later that day in the garden outside the residence.  This garden is now a memorial site with eight rose bushes planted there.

Coming nine years after the March 1980 assassination of Saint Archbishop Romero, and before the year was out, the murders of four Churchwomen of El Salvador on December 2, 1980, together with tens of thousands of Salvadorans killed or disappeared.  They gave their lives to the people of El Salvador.
The twenty-fifth anniversary was my second trip to El Salvador, and I found it profoundly troubling and moving.  I can still hear the people tell us that the Jesuits’ death brought an end to the civil war and new life to the poor.  

I left El Salvador that November and committed to bringing a John Carroll group back the next December to commemorate the four women.  Two were Maryknoll sisters, Maura Ford and Ida Clarke.  The other two women had John Carroll connections. Sister Dorothy Kazel was an Ursuline from Cleveland, and Jean Donovan was a lay missionary with the Cleveland Diocesan Mission in El Salvador. 

I worked with Ursuline College and the Ursuline Sisters in Cleveland to jointly sponsor our immersion trip and was one of two men and more than a dozen women who made that trip.  We were very well received that December.  Many asked us why we were there.  We were there to celebrate the witness of the Holy Women of El Salvador.

I am delighted to be back in the northwest and closer to my family after all these years.  I live in Portland and serve as the Jesuits West province Provincial Assistant for Higher Education.  I work with the five Jesuit universities in the west in our mission of promoting a faith that does justice and an experience of Jesuit education that transforms lives just as Bellarmine did for me, without my even knowing it at the time.  God’s Spirit was at work at Bellarmine then, just as it is now Jesuit Education is Blessed work.  I knew then and over these 50 years that I belonged at Bellarmine and was called to be a Jesuit.  God has blessed me.  Thus far, by Grace!