With construction underway, new high school to open in 2017
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Add another job to Father Richard Rocha’s unusual curriculum vitae: President of St. Michael the Archangel High School.
“We are fortunate to have a man of his abilities to lead St. Michael’s at its beginnings,” said Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. as he made the appointment on April 4.
“I am grateful to Father Rocha who brings a rich background as a Catholic priest, educator and mentor of young people,” the bishop said.
Having secured a building permit, construction is underway, and St. Michael will open its doors for the 2017 school year.
Bishop Johnston also praised Deacon John Purk, who served as St. Michael the Archangel President through initial fund-raising and construction.
“I cannot adequately thank Dr. Purk for his generosity and hard work over these months,” he said. “John is a true servant of Jesus, full of faith, and has been a tremendous help to me and our community in the important spade work of preparation.”
Consider the path God has put Father Rocha.
Before he entered the seminary in his early 30s, Father Rocha earned a Master’s degree in education and served as an assistant college and head high school football coach.
God had other plans then. He was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph on June 1, 2002 with a simple plan.
“I thought I’d be a parish priest,” Father Rocha said.
God has other plans now.
Since his ordination, Father Rocha has served — often holding several jobs at the same time — the diocese as:
• Associate pastor at Visitation and St. Elizabeth parishes in Kansas City.
• Priest-secretary to Bishop Robert W. Finn.
• Administrator of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Savannah, and St. Patrick Mission in Forest City.
• Master of ceremonies in charge of liturgies celebrated by Bishop Finn.
• Administrator of St. Patrick Parish in St. Joseph and St. Joseph Parish in Easton.
• Chaplain for the Kansas City Police Department.
• Director of the diocesan Vocations Office.
• Chaplain for the Kansas City Royals, celebrating Mass at Kauffman Stadium before Saturday home games for Catholic Royals and Catholic visiting team members.
• Pastor of St. John Francis Regis Parish in Kansas City.
• Chaplain at Archbishop O’Hara High School.
Father Rocha said he can look back on his varied career, both before and after his ordination, and see how God has prepared him to take the helm of the new diocesan high school.
Take for example his short career as an assistant coach at Northwest Missouri State University while earning his first master’s degree.
“Part of that was recruiting,” Father Rocha said. “I’d be sitting in their living rooms telling his parents, ‘I’ll treat your boy like our own son,’ and we’d be battling the (NCAA Division II) Pittsburg States and the Central Missouris for that one kid.”
Or his first head coaching job at North Platte High School in Dearborn. They hadn’t won two football games in a single season in years. In his third year, North Platte went 9-3 and reached the state playoffs.
That is where he applied a lesson taught to him by Don Tabor, his own high school football coach at Bishop LeBlond in St. Joseph that, he said, will continue to serve him at St. Michael.
“The bar has to be set high,” Father Rocha said. “We’ve got to create challenges for these kids and they will meet them.”
That is certainly the challenge of opening St. Michael the Archangel High School, which will serve areas formerly served by St. Mary High School in Independence which closed in 2013, and now served by Archbishop O’Hara High School in southeastern Kansas City, which will close when St. Michael opens its doors for the 2017-18 school year.
Located in Lee’s Summit, St. Michael will be competing against some of the top public school districts in the metropolitan area for students.
That doesn’t bother Father Rocha one bit. St. Michael has something the public schools don’t — Jesus Christ.
“We’re St. Michael’s,” he said. “We’ll be telling our kids and their parents that you will be leaving here with passionate hearts for Christ, and you will be leaving here with high academics.”
Second rate? It’s not an option, Father Rocha said.
Sure, parents will be making sacrifices to send their children to a Catholic high school instead of tuition-free public school.
But Catholic school parents have always done that. His own parents, Robert and Mary Rocha, were a prime example, sending five children through Catholic elementary and high school in St. Joseph.
“My Dad worked, and when we got into school, then my Mom worked. It was a huge challenge for them,” he said.
His mother, who passed away in January 2015, is still an inspiration to Father Rocha.
Ask him about the boom in the numbers of seminarians while he served as vocations director, and Father Rocha will let out a big laugh.
“It’s not me. It’s those two Marys over there,” he said, pointing to pictures in his office of Our Lady of Guadalupe and his mother.
“They have to be No. 1. I’m just No. 2,” Father Rocha said.
Father Rocha recalled that when his mother was alive, he would call her when a young man would inquire about entering the seminary and he would ask her to say a prayer for that young man. More often than not, the young man would enter the seminary.
When his mother died only six young men had inquired. Unable to call her, Father Rocha said he prayed to his mother for help. In four months, the number increased to 17.
He has never stopped asking his mother for her help in his ministry, and he never will.
This year, 16 more young men are already in the process of applying for seminary admission, and four more are inquiring.
And he will keep asking his mother for help as he moves to St. Michael. She will be a “secret weapon.”
“The bishop said, ‘You are going to be the pastor of a school community. If it were a business, you’d be the CEO (chief executive officer).’”
The school community is in the process of hiring a principal, with the recent resignation of Archbishop O’Hara Principal John O’Connor. The principal will guide the curriculum and academic side of the school, much the same way offensive and defensive coordinators work with the head football coach.
And Father Rocha said he expects to be a “hands-on” CEO.
“You got two kinds of head coaches really,” he said.
“You got some coaches who coach from a pedestal. That’s the style they choose,” Father Rocha said.
“My style was walking among the players and leading them on the field. I want to make sure that everyone has accountability and responsibility, and that’s what I bring.”
Father Rocha said he knows that St. Michael the Archangel High School will only be as good as the young men and women enrolled there, but he also knows — like the seminarians he has brought in and nurtured to ordination — that they will be top notch. His job will be to assist the excellent job their parents are already doing in making them productive Catholic citizens.
“When I was a coach, I wanted to help my players become good men on and off the field,” he said.
And sometimes, a young person never forgets.
Recently, Father Rocha received a message on his Facebook page from a North Kansas City firefighter.
It began, “Good morning, Father, and forever to me, Coach.”
It continued, “You were my first true mentor and role model.”
“It was from my quarterback at North Platte, 20 years ago,” Father Rocha said. “He found me on Facebook, and I still can’t believe it.”
Father Rocha said that he can see God leading him to every moment of his life, one challenge leading to the next challenge that he will cherish.
“Obviously, we’re Christ-centered. It’s having a passion for Christ, being his disciples, then going out and being disciples for others,” he said.
“That’s what St. Michael’s is about,” Father Rocha said.
And that is exactly the expectation that Bishop Johnston is setting for St. Michael the Archangel High School.
“This investment by the church in the future of Catholic secondary education will serve our current student population at Archbishop O’Hara High School as well as a broad population of students from Kansas City, Lee’s Summit, Blue Springs and Independence,” he said.
“St. Michael the Archangel High School will be passionately Catholic and offer a superior education for our students,” Bishop Johnston said.