The Boston Irish Honors 2019 Exemplary Boston Irish Family: ‘I grew up Jesuit,’ says Grace Cotter Regan

REPRESENTING WEST ROXBURY – Bartley “Moe” Regan (BC High ’12), husband and dad Bernie Regan (Catholic Memorial), the president (Notre Dame Academy), and Luke (St. Sebastian’s).

For some, the notice released by the Jesuit order on Aug. 24, 2017, came out of the blue; for others, it seemed appropriate by a certain measure: “Today, the board of trustees of Boston College High School announced the election of Grace Cotter Regan as the school’s next president. Regan comes from Saint Mary’s High School in Lynn, Mass., where she used her formidable skills to grow and develop the urban Catholic school.

“We are delighted to welcome Grace Regan as the individual who will lead Boston College High School. We look forward to our work together as we advance the BC High mission and our relevance as a preeminent and flagship Jesuit school for boys in the country,” said Rev. Brian Conley, SJ, chair of the board of trustees.

“Grace’s leadership and background in education, advancement, enrollment, brand management, and her understanding of and fidelity to the Society of Jesus and the Catholic school environment make her the ideal choice.”

That sense of destiny becoming reality for some perhaps derived from what the school’s press release did not say in those first few paragraphs: Grace was assuming the presidency as the first woman selected to head the 154-year-old Jesuit (and Boston) institution where, for just six weeks shy of 50 years, her father had forged a legendary status as teacher, counselor, coach, athletic director, and, in retirement, chief booster.
He began teaching at the school on Sept. 8, 1960, which was also the day that his first child, a daughter named Grace, was born into a family with deep roots in the sod of Co. Cork in Ireland’s southwest, and a grand-maternal heritage drawn from the Polish terrain of Middle Europe.

She looks back at her Irish connections

“My mother’s parents – her mother was a Lehane, her father was a Grace, emigrated from Cork through Ellis Island. My Nana, May (Grace) Lehane, was one of 18 children born on the family farm in the village of Clonakilty. Her brother Michael is my cousin Dennis Lehane’s father, and my cousin PJ Lehane is running the farm today. The Graces hail from a farm in Drinagh/Dunmanway.

“When my Nana Grace came over, she found work as a domestic with a family in New York, on Long Island. My grandfather was then working at odd jobs in the city. At one point, Nana’s brother Jim made a friend of a young fellow named Tom Grace at a wedding that Nana also attended. The young man later found the nerve to ask Nana out on a date but when the day came, he was mugged on the way to her place. The assailants, the family story goes, ripped the clothes right off his back and he showed up in a very bedraggled state. Nana wasn’t amused. She said she was done with him; this was before their first date! Then Jim explained what happened. Marriage followed, and they moved to Boston, to Savin Hill, where they raised four children, one of them Ann, my mother. I was named after mom; she was Ann Grace and I am Grace Ann.

“My dad’s parents, George Leslie Cotter, known as Les, and Olga (Hubachek) Cotter, whose nickname was Dixie, also lived in Savin Hill, and were good friends with the Graces. Les was a stevedore who employed most of Savin Hill on the docks. He was also a very good athlete. He had a tryout with the old Boston Braves. He was a rugged guy who did some boxing. But he and I had this remarkable rapport from the time I was little. He had these sparkling eyes and I would disarm him with a hug. He was tough as nails, but he’d melt when we would talk. Those were special times.

“Ah, the memories. My mother loved Savin Hill and was so happy to visit my grandparents and aunts. While we lived in South Weymouth when I was growing up, we spent an awful lot of time in Savin Hill, where, when we stayed there and were going to bed, Nana would whip out holy water and spread it all around as we said our night prayers. And, of course, our dad was teaching and coaching at the high school less than a mile away. It’s wonderful to reflect back. You’d go there for a cup of tea, a piece of Irish bread, and just to sit with Nana and Papa. It was a warm, safe, and engaging place to be. And they just loved us all. It was special.

“I think all my Lehane aunts and uncles, grand aunts, and uncles came to my wedding. I was the first grandchild on that side. So, I kind of had it all. My brother Mike and sister Kel would say, ‘Yes just another party for Gracie!’”

The next generation: Cotters and Regans

“My mother and my father met when they were pre-teens. St. William’s parish, CYO, and the band played a big part in their lives and Dom Bianculli and Fr. Peter Hart were very big figures in their lives. Dad graduated from BC High in 1955 and BC in 1959, playing baseball and football, and I came along in September 1960, the first of three. I was followed by Kelly, now in Colorado, in 1963, and Michael, a Wrentham resident, in 1965.

“The BC High connection in my husband Bernie’s family is strong as well. His father (Class of 1934) and two brothers are alumni, but he’s a Catholic Memorial and BC grad who is now retired from his position as a produce broker with the firm Scott and Allen.

“Our boys split things up, too, in much the same way. Luke, now 28 and working with the Suffolk Construction Co. in Montana, went to St. Sebastian’s and on to captain the baseball team at Bowdoin after that. Bartley, or “Moe,” as he is known, graduated from BC High in 2012 where he was a three-sport athlete, most notably as captain and quarterback of the Super Bowl champions his senior year. He went to Stonehill, and later served as an assistant athletic director at Catholic Memorial. He now works for Shields Healthcare Solutions.”

Sister Grace Regan, SND de Namur?

In the late 1970s, when Grace Cotter was thinking about her life after graduation from Notre Dame Academy in Hingham, where the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur were in charge, her mind was aswirl with questions: Is God calling me to become a Sister of Notre Dame? Is that the best way for me to serve others? While the answer long term was a “no,” the question lingered as she moved on to Boston College.

“I was struggling with my vocation during those years,” she said. “When I was in high school, we had this formidable group of sisters who involved us in helping the less fortunate, and we would go over to Columbia Point and help out in a soup kitchen and in other ways. I was always looking to pitch in with that sort of thing. When I moved on to Boston College, I kept up with service activities, and with graduation approaching, I was offered a placement with a Jesuit volunteer mission band, with the first option listed as San Quentin, the prison in California. That wasn’t a big hit with the family, especially my dad.

“In the end, there were 17 of us who were sent out on missions; five, including me, went to Belize, a small country located south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula; three went to Peru; and the rest set off for Jamaica. It was a special time for Belize, which used to be known as British Honduras; it was still celebrating its newly established independence. I taught at a high school for girls, among other positions. It was really amazing, a great experience. And I have gone back several times, one of which was with a troupe from Boston College in a service immersion experience. I so want to maintain my connection to the country where I have friends working and leading in St. Martin de Porres Parish and at St. John’s, the Jesuit school there.”

On to the task of making a difference

Under the heading “My Vocational Journey,” the BC High Today magazine listed the following positions by way of introducing the new president to the student body and its alumni:

• Director of the Parent Fund, Special Events, and Donor Relations at the College of the Holy Cross.

• Vice President for Development, the Boston Public Library Foundation.

• Executive Director, Boston College Alumni Association.

• Executive Director of Advancement, New England Province of Jesuits.

• Head of School, St. Mary’s High School, in Lynn.

While making her way through these offices, Grace found the time to go back to the classroom where she earned a master of arts degree in pastoral ministry and spirituality from Boston College and a master’s in education from the University of Vermont.

This resume of accomplishment comes as no surprise to Grace Regan’s relatives, friends, and colleagues. She has an ardent and active fan club whose members are happy to say why they are sitting in her cheering section:

John Fish, president and CEO of Suffolk Construction, who attended first and second grade with her at St. Francis Xavier’s parish school in Weymouth in the 1960s, calls her “a phenom, tireless and selfless in everything she takes on. Very much a family person, she has continued to grow with every new experience. And she’s indefatigable in pursuit of her and her institutions’ goals.”

In a salute to Grace on the occasion of her selection to the BC High presidency, Rev. Tom Regan, SJ, who had worked with her in the order’s New England offices, wrote, “When Grace came to work with us, she brought not only her considerable knowledge, experience, and people skills, but also an inherent ability to bring people together.”

Leo Smith, a senior executive with Shields Health Solutions, is a contemporary of Grace’s who grew up a mile from the Cotter home in Weymouth and came to know the family well. He was a star athlete, especially in football, at BC High in the mid-1970s with Jim Cotter when Grace was also roaming the campus, and the sidelines as the BC High Eagle at practices and games. Both of them later attended Boston College.

“I called her ‘Slick,” after the Grace of Jefferson Airplane,” said Smith. “When I heard of her appointment, I couldn’t have been happier for her and the school. She’s an extraordinary person, multi-talented, warm, engaging. For over 50 years now, I have watched with appreciation as Grace has served with distinction in so many positions of responsibility.”

When asked to come up with one word to describe Grace, Timothy O’Donnell, Class of ’83 at BC High, retired president and CEO of OmniClaim, Inc., and now vice chair of the school’s board of trustees, offered “passionate,” adding, “I see that on a daily basis, and it shows itself in many forms, most notably in her ubiquitous presence. Grace is present at events morning, noon, and night. At most any event - whether theatre or a sporting event, Grace will be there rooting for the boys. As a leader, she knows her presence sends an important message to the students, coaches, and parents of BC High.

“Grace also brings that same passion to her friends and family. The devotion that she showed to her father while he battled ALS was nothing short of awe-inspiring. On a daily basis, she demonstrated her love and passion for her father, and did so in a way that inspired others with her strength and optimism. Grace shows up - not just in the good times, but also in the most difficult times.”

Chimed in Jack Connors, legendary Boston advertising executive, civic activist, and philanthropist: “Grace has always been very good at the many positions she has held. She’s savvy and works hard. In all, she displays the best traits of her parents.”

From the close friends and family fronts, Grace drew expressions of love and respect, even awe.

Gayle Corcoran, whom Grace calls a “bestie” friend of longstanding (they met in the ‘90s while prepping together at L Street to run in the Boston Marathon), said it’s “impossible to describe her in a word. When it comes to morality and doing the right thing, she is a Jesuit, for all practical purposes (‘I grew up Jesuit” is how Grace puts it). She has alwayslived their values whether people knew it or not. To me she is first a friend, then a mentor, and, thirdly, a fashionista; she’s a crazy shopper who is always very put together.”

Lastly, a really-close-to-the-scene view, from the Regan family home in West Roxbury. Her son Bartley, the aforementioned Moe,” wrote a column for the school magazine, BC High Today, as his mother was preparing to take the reins at the school:

“One thing about my mother is that she always has a plan, and when things get hectic, she keeps her cool and handles it. I remember my grandfather telling her, ‘Gracie, it’s not the crisis; it’s how you handle the crisis, with strength and resolve.’

“Her passion for others to succeed is something that my brother Luke and I have been on the receiving end for our whole lives.”

Looking at BC High in 2025

Change is always with us, and the institutions where today’s young men and women receive their instruction are not immune to shifts in cultural and civic affairs – and in family budget considerations – that in many places threaten the unraveling of long-held understandings as to the way things should proceed.

In remarks delivered to students during her inaugural Missioning Mass in May 2018, the new president looked ahead a few years, beginning with a phrase that one alumnus described as the Grace Regan “calling card” – “God is good, all the time; all the time, God is good.” At the end of the Mass, some 1,500 students, faculty, staff, family, friends, and close to 40 Jesuits echoed the words back to her.

“Today,” she said, “we stand with the Jesuit province in positioning BC High as the flagship Jesuit, Catholic school for young men in the city of Boston and as a global leader and partner in the network and the world. … In some ways, we have it easy because our mission is so simple and so pure – to serve others. Our work now is to ensure that this mission continues.

“So whether it’s a science class applying principles they’ve learned from textbooks to make the lives of people with disabilities easier, or an internship working on public policy at the State House, or a trip to Belize, Tanzania, Rwanda, or China that helps you see yourself as part of a universal body with a universal mission, or a trip to Downtown Crossing to minister to our homeless brothers and sisters, you will learn, as BC High students have since 1863, that care for the community in service to others is the greatest good that one can achieve in this life. That is when we acknowledge the great truth that we are the hands of God, and our talents are the gifts he has given us to share with our neighbors.

“The BC High of 2025 is a school that, through a first-rate education and facilities, spiritual formation, and commitment to our alumni and the global Jesuit network is devoted to helping you make the most of your God-given talents. Your lives are changed in these halls, and, through you, the world is changed, too.”