WILMINGTON — Salesianum School has established a scholarship in honor of a late Oblate of St. Francis de Sales that will fund 24 full-need students. The Rev. James P. Byrne, OSFS, Memorial Scholarship is being made possible thanks to a $12 million commitment from 1963 graduate Miguel “Mike” Bezos and his wife, Jacklyn.
Bezos, the father of Amazon founder and chief executive officer (until July 5) Jeff Bezos, was one of 21 Cuban students harbored and educated by Salesianum between 1960-64. The young men fled Cuba after its takeover by Fidel Castro. They were part of the U.S. State Department’s Operation Pedro Pan.
Bezos flew to Miami, one of more than 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban minors who were sent by their families to the United States. Miami’s Catholic social services was overwhelmed, and the diocese met with representatives of the 97 United States dioceses, including Msgr. Thomas Reese, a 1939 graduate of Salesianum.
The Diocese of Wilmington purchased the house at 1300 N. Broom St., and Casa de Sales was established, with Father Byrne, then a recently ordained priest, in charge. Bezos was sent from Florida to Wilmington. According to a YouTube video produced by Amazon, Mike Bezos knew little English when he arrived in Wilmington, but as his proficiency with the language improved, so did his grades. Father Byrne, he said in a statement, was a big influence his life.
“We have been blessed in significant ways,” he said. “One of them, very early on in my refugee life, was to have arrived at Salesianum School and to be part of Casa de Sales, where I was surrounded by other young refugees going through the same scary experience.
“The impact Father Byrne had on me, as well as the rest of us at Casa, has lasted a lifetime. To be able to recognize his commitment as a priest, teacher, mentor and missionary is a great joy for us. We hope that those who knew Father Byrne and those who identify with Salesianum’s mission will join us in creating opportunities for more students with a variety of backgrounds to attend Salesianum and further enrich the student experience.”
Father Byrne died in 2020 at the age of 86.
Father Byrne Scholars will also receive funding for incidental expenses, such as books, retreats, service trips, test fees, etc. Preference for the scholarships will be given to qualified applicants living in Wilmington and the children of immigrants to the United States.
“Mike and Jackie understand the complex obstacles faced by underserved students and wanted to give these students the best path to success,” said Brendan Kennealey, the outgoing president of Salesianum. “Because of them, students from every neighborhood in Wilmington, and across the region, will have even greater access to a Salesianum education.”
Father Byrne Scholars, according to the school, should be emblematic of the residents of the Casa de Sales: eager to learn, ambitious, and optimistic about the future. That is difficult to measure solely from academic testing, so a committee will be formed to evaluate candidates. It will include the directors of admissions, diversity and inclusion, and guidance, as well as two at-large members selected by the school president.
Bezos’ commitment includes $10 million to establish the Father Byrne Scholarship. The couple also has pledged to match commitments of $100,000 or more to the school’s endowment over the next three years, up to $2 million, “with a goal of inspiring others to provide access to a Salesianum education by establishing scholarships of their own,” the school said.
Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki lauded the donation as an achievement for both the city and Salesianum. He said it will create “ongoing opportunities for young men to attend Salesianum who might not otherwise have been able to do so due to financial constraints.”
Scholarship applicants can be nominated by a partner institution, local elementary and middle school principals, and Salesianum’s network of alumni and supporters. Students may also nominate themselves at www.salesianum.org/byrnescholars. Eligibility criteria are available on the school website.
The donation is the second-largest in Salesianum history and the third eight-figure gift in the last eight years.