Skip to main content

Secondary navigation:

History

jesuit community at boston college

A Short History of the Jesuit Community of Boston College

by Charles Donovan, S.J.
Boston College

The Jesuits first became established in Boston in 1847, when Archbishop John FitzPatrick invited Father John McElroy and several associates to take charge of St. Mary's Church in the North End of Boston. Father McElroy gathered funds from the poor immigrant Irish people of Boston to purchase property for a college and collegiate church, but for years his plans were delayed by anti-Catholic opposition. It wasn't until 1858 that he obtained the South End property on which the imposing Church of the Immaculate Conception, the college building, and Jesuit residence were built. Chartered in 1863, the College and high school opened in September 1864. The founder, Father McElroy, was then 80 years old, and a Swiss Jesuit, Father John Bapst, became the first President.

A prominent figure of the 19th-century Boston College Jesuit Community was Father Robert Fulton, who was the first dean. In 1870 he became president for ten years, left Boston, and returned for a second three-year presidency in 1888. Fulton was a witty, affable, opinionated man, admired by intellectuals of the Boston area. He set high standards for the College and refused to have philosophy, the capstone of the curriculum, taught until 1876. At the first graduation, in June 1877, the A.B. degree was conferred upon nine young men.

Another influential Jesuit at Boston College in the 19th century was Father Timothy Brosnahan, president in the 1890s. He wrote an elegant four-page explanation of the Jesuit system of education that appeared in the Boston College catalogue, not only during his presidency but for the next half-century as well. The Brosnahan statement was adopted in whole or in part for varying periods of time in the catalogues of 14 other Jesuit colleges in the United States. No doubt because of this leadership, it was Father Brosnahan who spoke for Jesuits nationally the year after he left Boston College, in the effective reply to an attack on Jesuit colleges that Harvard's president Charles W. Eliot published in the Atlantic Monthly.

Boston College enrollment was under 200 students during the 19th century, with a faculty of 10 to 15 Jesuits. Enrollments rose in the 20th century and a larger campus was needed. In 1907, Father Thomas Gasson in his first year as president purchased the property in Chestnut Hill, planned a series of English Gothic buildings, and erected the first towered building, now known as Gasson Hall. For four years while St. Mary's Hall, their new residence, was being built, the Jesuits commuted from their quarters in the South End. By the mid-1930s, the undergraduate enrollment neared 1,500 and the Jesuit staff rose to 59, necessitating an addition to St. Mary's Hall.

The College began to expand as a university with the establishment of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences in 1925, with a seasoned administrator as dean, Father John B. Creedon, former president of Georgetown University. In 1929 the Law School was started, with Father Creedon as regent and Dennis Dooley dean. Dooley was succeeded by two Jesuit deans, Father William Kenealy and Robert Drinan. The Graduate School of School of Social Work opened in 1936 with Father Walter McGuin as dean, and two years later the School of Management opened with Father James Kelley as dean. After World War II, the School of Nursing was opened in 1946, with Father Anthony Carroll as regent and Mary Maher dean. In 1952, Father Charles Donovan was named first dean of the co-educational School of Education.

With the explosion of undergraduate enrollment to well over 5,500 in the 1950s, there was a growth in the Jesuit faculty, which numbered in the 90s during the 1960s and early 1970s, with of course a much larger proportion of the faculty being lay professors. In 1950, 13 of 14 department chairmen in the College of Arts & Sciences were Jesuits. Ten years later, 11 of the 19 departments had Jesuit chairmen, whereas by 1970 only four of the 22 departments were headed by Jesuits.

Some of the notable chairmen were Father James Burke of History, later dean of the Graduate School; Father Michael Walsh of Biology, later president; Father William Casey of Theology, later Arts & Sciences dean and first academic vice president; Father James Moynihan of Psychology; Father W. Seavey Joyce of Economics, later president; Father Leo McCauley of Classics; Father Joseph Flanagan of Philosophy; Father J. D. Gauthier of Romance Languages; and Father Robert Daly of Theology, who also edited the national Jesuit magazine Theological Studies and was the first director of the Jesuit Institute.

Father Michael Walsh, president 1958–1968, strengthened graduate departments in Arts & Sciences. He presided at the University's centennial convocation, with President John F. Kennedy as featured speaker. Father J. Donald Monan became president in 1972 and, during his 24 years as president, brought the University to a new level of power in academic and personal resources, and increased operational sophistication with an endowment of over a half-billion dollars.

Father Monan, who came from the New York province of the Society of Jesus, highlights how Boston College has benefited from the exchange of Jesuits across province boundaries in recent decades. Father Monan's successor, Father William Leahy, is from the Wisconsin Province, as is Father William Neenan, Dean of Faculties. Father J. Robert Barth, Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, is from the New York Province; Father Michael Buckley, Director of the Jesuit Institute, from the California Province; Father David Hollenbach, Flatley Professor of Theology, from the Maryland Province; and Father Ronald Anderson, Professor of Philosophy, originally from the Australian Province, to name just a few non–New Englanders in the Boston College Jesuit Community.

Some of the legendary Jesuit figures of the twentieth century at Boston College: Father J. F. X. Murphy, History Professor of encyclopedic memory and inexhaustible speech; Father Patrick McHugh, beloved dean, 1920–1935; Father Martin Harney, historian, author, promoter of Irish culture; Father Francis McManus, benevolent yet whip-cracking Dean of Men in the College of Business Administration, later indefatigable Chaplain of the Alumni Association; Father John A. McCarthy, admired Professor of Philosophy, priestly witness at countless alumni marriages.

Among living legends: Father Francis Sweeney, for over four decades teacher of English letters, advisor to the student literary magazine, whose Humanities lectures have introduced students to literary giants from England, Ireland, America. Also Father Joseph Appleyard, of the English department and Director of the Arts & Sciences Honors Program, who currently is Rector of the Jesuit Community. Finally, Father James Woods, long-time dean of what was the Evening College, now called College of Advancing Learning and the Summer School, whose vacation, according to a colleague, is to put on a sports shirt and go to the office.

The Jesuit community made two major gifts to Boston College in the 1980s that promote the Jesuit traditions of the University. The community endowed the Thomas I. Gasson, S.J. Chair to bring to the campus distinguished Jesuit scholars of any nationality or discipline for visits of one or several years. A gift from the Jesuit Community, matched by the University, established the Jesuit Institute to promote research on the relatedness of Catholic traditions of Boston College to the universe of scholarship and learning.


August 29th, 1996