Jesuit History at BC

The Society of Jesus is 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 parish. 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, McElroy spent the next 16 years raising funds, acquiring property, building buildings, and securing the legal authority to grant academic degrees.  Boston College received 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 a nativist mob in Ellsworth, Maine. Rev. Robert Fulton, SJ, a Virginian, was assigned to the college as the first prefect of studies (dean), 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. Fulton 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 the school’s location on Harrison Avenue in the city's South End.

In 1907, Rev. Thomas I. Gasson, SJ, became the 12th president of Boston College.  He clearly separated the collegiate and high school divisions of the school, and he purchased a suburban location in Chestnut Hill for the college program.  Boston College High School remained at the original site in the South End before moving to its current location in Dorchester in the 1950s.  Gasson oversaw construction of the first building on the new campus, and it would eventually be named Gasson Hall in his honor. In September 1913, the first academic year there began with a record enrollment of 400 freshmen, but there were no residential facilities for the members of the Jesuit faculty. For the next four years, the Jesuits commuted daily by streetcar and automobile from the old College in downtown Boston to Chestnut Hill; in 1917 they were able to move into the new 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 officer training in foreign languages and engineering, the Jesuits vacated St. Mary's Hall to accommodate this program, taking up temporary residence in various off-campus buildings.  Seventeen of their brother Jesuits enlisted as chaplains in the Armed Forces.

The postwar years brought tremendous growth and expansion to Boston College, with large classes of veterans flooding into the college.  With time, however, Jesuit presence on the faculty 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 some of the current Jesuit community are nominally retired, many of them still teach classes or work in administrative positions. Others 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 has also undergone substantial change. In view of the growing size and complexity of the multifaceted university, the positions of President of the university and Rector of the Jesuit community were separated, and a restructuring of the formerly all-Jesuit Board of Trustees was also undertaken.  In 1972, a new Board of Trustees, containing both Jesuit and lay members, assumed legal responsibility for the university.

This move hastened the separate legal incorporation of the Jesuit Community to help ensure its permanent integrity as a community, and 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 university’s Board of Trustees and represents the interests of the community in the Board's deliberations and decisions.

Despite these organizational changes, the Jesuit presence on the BC campus endures.  To guarantee persistence of the Jesuit charism and Ignatian spirituality, a university Vice President for Mission and Ministry was appointed in 1998.  Today, there are 50 Jesuits residing in St. Mary’s Hall, 27 of them holding faculty and staff positions; also included are Jesuits from ten foreign countries pursuing higher studies at Boston College.  In the Saint Peter Faber community on the Brighton campus are 63 Jesuits, teaching or studying at the School of Theology and Ministry.  Smaller communities of Jesuits live in some of the houses surrounding the main campus, and many retired BC Jesuits live at the Campion Center in Weston.  Finally, Jesuits staff St. Ignatius Church, a parish of the Archdiocese of Boston that also serves as home to many University religious services.