Restored Jesuits and the American Experience

On October 16-19, 2014, Loyola University Chicago will hold a conference marking the bicentennial of the Restoration of the Society of Jesus in 1814. The conference aims at locating works–of both restored Jesuits and their colleagues from women’s religious orders–within the specific experiential context of building an American nation. The stories of these men and women provide studies in what Thomas Tweed has termed Crossing and Dwelling (2006): refugees from European exclusions; transatlantic immigrants; multilingual and transnational identities; settlers in ethnic urban cores; boundary-dwellers in frontier peripheries.

The American story of the Jesuits contrasts sharply with European ones. On the Continent, along with the shifting fortunes of France after Napoleon, both German-speaking lands and the Italian peninsula (including, of course, the Papal States) underwent steady processes of “unification” into the eventual nation-states of Germany and Italy. Ultramontanist Jesuits became identified with the Papacy’s own intransigent antimodernist opposition to 19th-century “Liberalism” (representative government, separation of church and state, popular suffrage, freedom of speech, press, and religion, etc.). Perhaps the most important battleground in these culture wars was education: free public school systems set up over and against religiously affiliated ones. As a consequence, the narrative of European Jesuits and their extensive educational network is one of alternating waves of endorsement and repression, retrieval and expulsion.

By contrast, Jesuits who came to America, and most especially to the Midwest and Great Lakes regions during a rapid surge in urban industrial expansion, found enthusiastic reception. In new urban centers, a surge in Catholic immigrant populations provided much-needed labor. Like the people they served, these first restored Jesuits and their women religious collaborators–for example, Arnold Damen, S.J. and Mary Agatha Hurley, B.V.M.–were also European immigrants.  Nevertheless, they were expected to lead the way even as they themselves underwent the process of becoming “Americans.” They needed to create new identities, at once continuous with their European Catholic inheritance even as they accommodated themselves to a new world of democratic participation, scientific innovation, religious, ethnic, and cultural pluralism.

Contemporaneous with this immersion in urban cores, restored Jesuits and their women religious collaborators–for example, Pierre-Jean Smet, S.J. and Philippine Duchesne, R.S.C.J.–engaged in explorations of and settlements on ever-shifting frontier peripheries. Prior to the Suppression of the Society of Jesus (1773), Jesuits had been well-known for their tradition of linguistic, anthropological, and ethnographic exchanges. Painstaking descriptions of the cultures and regions they encountered were collected and published in the mammoth Jesuit Relations. This same wondrous fascination recommenced after 1814–although it was now inflected through the perspectives of both 19th-century Romanticism and contemporaneous expeditionary literature (like that of Lewis and Clark). As American Indians underwent forced migrations and westward displacements, both Jesuits and women religious transported their institution-building to reservations, establishing mission schools on these frontier peripheries.

As the 19th century passed into the 20th, cultural boundaries continued to shift as previous peripheries became established cores. Descendants of marginal immigrants became central players; territory that had once been prairie-filled boundaries grew into urban cores. Successful expansion of higher education institutions demanded the hybridization of a distinctively Catholic modernity. The first classroom building at Chicago’s Loyola University lakeshore campus was Cudahy Science Hall (1910), marked as such by its distinctive observatory dome; similarly, laboratories and scientific education played a leading curricular role in the adjacent Mundelein College (1930) for women established by the Sisters of Charity of the B.V.M. Throughout the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War era and Vietnam, descendants of immigrants continued to shape and be formed by the American Experience.

Thus, in marked contrast with the European Jesuit experience, largely a story of church-state conflict in an age of nationalism, the American Jesuit experience was a story of innovation and expansion. Although it too took place within an overall context of nation-building, the circumstances were radically different as the American project was not one of church-state conflict. Immigrant Catholics were minorities and marginal, many of them non-Anglophone as well as illiterate. Cultural soil was ready for the Jesuit educational tradition of the pre-Suppression Society, distinguished by its Renaissance Humanist emphasis on language and literacy. After the 1814 Restoration, this tradition was redeployed in radically new contexts for a multi-pronged mission of “Americanization”: crossing and dwelling in geographies both core and peripheral, urban and frontier; encountering immigrant newcomers and indigenous peoples; adapting religious traditions for both cradle-born and newly-converted believers.

Conference website: http://blogs.lib.luc.edu/jesuitrestoration2014/

Conference Tumblr: http://jesuitrestoration2014.tumblr.com/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *