Though cancer rendered him skeletal in the last few months of his life, the high-voltage smile of Father Antonio “T.J.” Martinez could not be dimmed. Though feeble and in pain, he remained the same old beaming Father T.J., drawing laughs from the altar during his homilies and making the rounds at Cristo Rey Jesuit College Prep in Houston, which he founded with the mission of bringing rigorous academic opportunities to some of Houston’s poorest young men and women.
For just as long as he was able, the Brownsville-bred priest walked the halls of CRJ, his big silver rodeo belt buckle glittering against his black robes, an ever-changing gelled hairstyle crowning his head, his trademark cowboy boots clomping on the tiles. Students called him el Padre con botas, the priest who wears boots.
Even among other priests who have helped open private schools expressly for the poor, all of Cristo Rey’s 32 schools across the U.S. only admit students at or below the poverty line, Martinez stood out as a rock star. Thanks to his efforts in getting CRJ-Houston off the ground, in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI dubbed him a member of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre—a papal knight, in layman’s terms. In 2014, the Houston Chronicle named him “Houstonian of the Year,” the first time in history that award has been bestowed posthumously.
All that in just 44 years on earth.
“What we all remember most about him is his smile and his laugh,” says David Warden, a longtime friend, and the co-author of Miracle in Motion, Martinez’s literary “last will and testament,” a compendium of spiritual advice not just to the impoverished young men and women who attended Cristo Rey, but also the corporate high-flyers who comprise the school’s donors and community partners.
Warden, who calls Martinez “equal parts friend, hero, and saint” was there when the priest started the book, and had the honor of finishing it for him after the priest became too ill to write.
“The message of his book, for his kids or anyone else who wants to read it, is to follow your passion, but bear in mind that life doesn’t always follow a straight path,” Warden says.
Son of a prominent attorney, Antonio Martinez was raised in Brownsville, where he graduated from St. Joseph Academy. During undergrad at Boston College, he began to feel a calling toward Jesuit priesthood. “The Jesuits reignited the idea of heading out and doing good,” he told UT Law magazine. “That caught my imagination. The Jesuits are known as the soldiers for Christ and the vanguard of the Church. That spoke to my faith and my sense of adventure.”
There was a snag. He felt an equally strong obligation to follow his father into law, and so he did, at least for a little while. After spending a year volunteering in the Bronx, Martinez and his younger brother, Trey, entered law school at the same time. During his second year of law school, that priestly calling only grew stronger and stronger for Martinez. Bound by familial duty, he finished up anyway, and then passed the bar. So did Trey, which gave Martinez his chance: Trey would carry on the family tradition, and Martinez was free to heed the call. In 1996, ten days after he passed the bar, he took his initial vows in the Jesuit Seminary in Grand Coteau, Louisiana.
It can take anywhere from eight to sixteen years to become a fully-ordained Jesuit priest, and Martinez attained it in twelve. In the meantime, he’d received a Master of Arts in Chicago and taught at Dallas’s Jesuit College Prep for three years, beefed up on his theology at the Weston School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and racked up a Masters of Education at Harvard, across town, given the Valedictory speech, to boot.
By then he was ready for his final vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and around that time he got a phone call from his soon-to-be-boss, Father Fred Kammer, SJ, provincial of the Jesuit Fathers in the South. Father Kammer told Martinez that they were looking for someone just like him to open a Cristo Rey school in Houston. Someone young, Spanish-speaking, energetic. Martinez was thunderstruck. He had no experience, he said, and what was being asked of him was simply too much. He begged for something, anything other than that.
A few days later Father Kammer rang Martinez again. “You know, I’d really like you to get that school in Houston off the ground,” he said. Again, Martinez pleaded for almost any other assignment.
And then there was a third call, which Martinez detailed in Miracle in Motion: “‘Congratulations, you are the founding president of Cristo Rey Jesuit.’ I thought to myself, ‘So this is how the vow of obedience works.’”
“He never got the assignments he wanted,” Warden chuckles. “But he told the ones he got were always better than what he wanted.”
The Jesuits have a few catchphrases unique to the order, not generally used in other strains of Catholicism. Chief among them is Ad maiorem Dei gloriam, the official Jesuit motto, meaning “For the greater glory of God.” The self-explanatory but deceptively profound “Finding God in all things” is another, and when you are a student in a Jesuit school, you are urged almost daily, perhaps several times a day, to strive to become “A man or woman for others.”
Martinez was very fond of uplifting his young and hungry and newly hopeful flock with another: “Set the world on fire!”
“I knew from the moment I first saw him that he would be something else,” says Andres Salgado, a member of CRJ’s first graduating class who went on to study computer science at Rice. “He took a hot gymnasium full of awkward teenagers reluctant to be there, and gave one of many fiery speeches that I would have the privilege to hear. Little did I know that this small man would become such a large part of who I am today. As many people have said, he was, and still is, larger than life.”
But before he could start getting his students to set the world on fire, he had to do so himself. When he arrived in Houston in June of 2008, he had limited funding, no building, no employees, zero students, and a deadline of two years to create this whole little world from scratch. He knew nobody in Houston and had never persuaded anyone to part with so much as a dime, which would become a key part of his job.
“There is never a good time to start a school for economically disadvantaged children, so why not now?” he told UT Law, in 2010, a year after Cristo Rey opened its doors a full year ahead of schedule. “I have to answer to God, and I’d rather start now than wait.”
He did have land — part of the campus of the shuttered Mount Carmel High School, on whose bones the new building now stands. Warden says that the old school was ripped apart down to the studs on the inside and the exterior totally rebuilt, thanks in large part to a $1 million donation from Houston’s Kinder Foundation. And with Martinez’s charm and persuasion having done its work, up the building went, with an initial class of 77 freshmen.