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Jesuit History at BC

jesuit history

The Society of Jesus was a religious order founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1540 as a means of helping to restore the Roman Catholic Church in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. In the generations that followed, members of the order, called Jesuits, traveled throughout the world as missionaries, preachers, scholars, scientists, and explorers. In time, they became especially well known for the excellence of their colleges and universities.

In 1847, John Bernard Fitzpatrick, third Bishop of Boston, requested that a Jesuit be sent to become pastor of St. Mary's Church in the city's North End. Rev. John McElroy, SJ, who had just completed service in the Mexican War as the United States Army's first Catholic chaplain, came to Boston, and took up his duties at the church. After Bishop Fitzpatrick confided to Fr. McElroy his desire for a "College in the City" where the sons of poor immigrants could receive a good Catholic education, the Jesuit spent the next 16 years raising funds, acquiring property, and securing the permissions that finally allowed Boston College to receive its charter in 1863.

On Monday morning, September 5, 1864, Boston College officially opened the doors. Its first president was Rev. John Bapst, SJ, a native of Switzerland who had been brutally attacked in 1854 by Know-Nothings in Ellsworth, Maine. Rev. Robert Fulton, SJ, a Virginian, was assigned to the college as the first prefect of studies, and he was assisted by two Jesuit scholastics. Although the first class of only 22 students did not seem very promising ("Many came gratuitously," wrote Fr. Robert Fulton rather dourly in his diary, "and only one had talent"), the numbers grew steadily over the next half-century under a succession of Jesuit presidents and teachers at its location on Harrison Avenue in the city's South End.

In 1907, Rev. Thomas I. Gasson, SJ became the 12th president of Boston College, purchased a suburban location at Chestnut Hill, and began construction of the first building that would become known as Gasson Hall. In September 1913, the first academic year began with a record enrollment of 400 freshman on the new campus, but there were no residential facilities available for the members of the Jesuit faculty. For the next four years, therefore, the Jesuits commuted daily by streetcar and by automobile from the old College in downtown Boston to Chestnut Hill, until in 1917 they were able to move into St. Mary's Hall, the Jesuit residence on the Heights.

In the years that followed, the number of Jesuits on the Boston College campus reflected the growth of the college itself, until by the late 1930s there were well over 100 Jesuits serving in both administrative and academic positions. When the US Army set up an Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) on the campus during World War II in order to provide specialized training in foreign languages and engineering, the Jesuit Fathers vacated St. Mary's Hall and took up temporary residence in various off-campus buildings, while 17 of their brother Jesuits went off to serve as chaplains in the Armed Forces. Fortunately the separation did not last long. The ASTP program was canceled in spring 1944, and the Jesuits were able to move back into St. Mary's Hall and make the necessary renovations in time for the large classes of veterans that flooded into the college after the end of the war.

The postwar years brought tremendous growth and expansion to Boston College in terms of students, faculty, and buildings, but they also marked a period in which the size of the Jesuit faculty gradually declined. Between 1960 and 1980, the number of full-time Jesuit faculty members dropped from 100 to 63, while the number of lay faculty members rose correspondingly from 246 to 495. Although one-third of the community currently consists of Jesuits who are nominally retired, many of these men still teach classes or work at administrative positions on a part-time basis. Others staff St. Ignatius Church and serve in a variety of ministries throughout the Greater Boston area.

During the postwar years, the organizational relationship of the Jesuit Community with Boston College also underwent a substantial change. In view of the growing size and complexity of what had become a multifaceted university, by the 1960s there were discussions about possibly restructuring the all-Jesuit Board of Trustees and separating the Jesuit Community from the University itself. After some temporary adjustments, in 1972 the original all-Jesuit Board of Trustees was incorporated into new Board of Trustees that contained both Jesuit and lay members.

This move hastened the separate legal incorporation of the Jesuit Community to help ensure its permanent integrity as a community, as well as to clarify its relationship to Boston College. Under the new incorporation, the Jesuits have title to St. Mary's Hall, receive equitable professional compensation, and are assured provisions for health care and retirement benefits. The Rector of the Jesuit Community sits on the Board of Trustees and represents the interests of the Jesuit Community in the Board's deliberations and decisions.

Despite these organizational changes, the Jesuit presence on the BC campus has not disappeared.  On the contrary: In the academic year 2007–2008 there were 37 Jesuits working full-time at Boston College, 24 teaching in different faculties and 13 serving in administrative positions. Some 65 Jesuits live at St. Mary’s Hall, while others live in small community groups at Barat House (Newton Campus), Roberts House (Beacon Street), Rici House (Quincy Road), and at other nearby residences. In addition to the members of the regular community, there are some 23 Jesuit graduate students from various foreign countries, as well as a number of visiting Jesuit scholars from other institutions. Altogether this community of 95 Jesuits is one of the largest at any college or university in the world.