In the middle of the 20th century, Orange County was on the countdown to explosive growth. Several WWII bases had ushered millions of soldiers through the county and many returned to this land of citrus, beaches and sunshine. Disneyland was just a twinkle in Walt’s eye; Irvine was a ranch and Chapman University was in Los Angeles. The total county population was significantly less than the City of Santa Ana is today and it would be nearly 30 years until the Diocese of Orange split off from the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
In this time of burgeoning change and growth, Mater Dei in Santa Ana was founded in 1950 as the first co-educational Catholic high school in Orange County. The school opened with 111 students who chose “Monarchs” as the team name and the lion as its mascot. In 1953 the first graduating class stepped forward and began the legacy of more than 27,000 Monarchs who have played an integral role in the fabric of Orange County’s community and the nation.
Today Mater Dei has a student body of 2,182. Students reflect the cultural diversity of the county and nearly half receive need-based financial aid. Ninety-eight percent of graduates go on to college, many to top universities across the country. Last year graduates earned more than $55 million in college scholarships. The rigorous college-prep program offers 24 Advanced Placement courses and in 2016 gave 1400 Advanced Placement exams. The school offers more than 30 elective classes to provide students an opportunity to explore their academic and performance interests.
Academic teams compete in a variety of disciplines including Robotics, Mock Trial, Moot Court, Model United Nations (MUN), Speech, Debate and Academic Decathlon.
According to Vice Principal Geri Campeau, ’87, “Unlike many private schools, Mater Dei offers specialized programs for students who require education support. We welcome students with documented learning differences. More than 100 students are supported by four full-time staff to foster their learning success and college ambitions.”
Monarchs have consistently found themselves in the winner’s circle, and have won the Southern California Private Schools Academic Decathlon four times in the last 11 years. Technology, Science and Math offer rigorous programs, but students with an inclination to the arts are encouraged through Film and Media Arts programs that include digital photography and animation.
And yes, there is football. Mater Dei is known throughout the country as a high school football powerhouse, with two Heisman trophy winners and numerous professional players to its credit. But football is only the beginning of the school’s outstanding athletic program for both men and women. Since 1992, the Monarchs have turned out seven Olympians, five men and two women competing in volleyball, water polo, softball, basketball and baseball. When it comes to CIF championships, Monarch women hold the most honors, with 22 championships in volleyball, soccer, lacrosse and basketball since 1995, while men’s teams have earned 8 CIF championships in the same time period. The prestigious Gatorade State Player of the Year award has been claimed by Monarchs 14 times with eight awards going to women athletes and six to men. Many graduates have gone on to successful careers in professional sports, including Jeanne Bonk, ’79, CEO of the LA Chargers.
The legacy of Mater Dei is most evident in the quality of its graduates and the significant contributions they make in their professional lives. Many Catholic leaders hail from Mater Dei including Bishop Jaime Soto, ’74, prelate of the Diocese of Sacramento. Current Diocesan leadership includes Fr. Steve Sallot, ’72, vicar general of the Diocese; Orange mayor and executive director of Catholic Charities Tita Smith, ’65; and pastors Fr. Christopher Smith, ’70, Christ Cathedral, Fr. Ed Poettgen, ’72, St. Boniface, Fr. Brendan Manson, ’89, St. Edward the Confessor to name a few.
Mater Dei graduates are not all faith and football. Juan Zarate, ’89, served as deputy national security advisor in the George W. Bush administration and Michael Gallagher, ’02, is now a congressman representing the state of Wisconsin. Countless local business leaders and philanthropists are alumni, including Rick Muth, ’67, owner of Ortho Block. Many graduates have found significant success in the arts as actors, directors and writers. Steve Oedekerk, ’78, is known for his work on the Ace Ventura movies; actor and Tony award winner Rob Gunton, ’63, who played the warden in “Shawshank Redemption;” artist Timothy Clark, ’69, and Metropolitan Opera star baritone Christopher Job, ’96, are among the many Monarchs who have built strong careers in the arts.
Aside from the significant challenge to educate the whole person mentally, physically and spiritually, since the beginning Mater Dei has held fast to the tradition of Honor, Glory and Love: to Honor Mary, Mater Dei, through the Catholic Faith and the rich tradition of Excellence of Mater Dei High School; to give Glory to God through the spiritual life of the school in prayer and sacraments; and to Love each person through service with compassion and respect becoming one body in Christ.