“Benedict loved the mountains and Francis the towns, but Ignatius loved the great cities.”

First Arrivals and Early Days

In spite of the Jesuits’ predilection for urban centers, the order’s history in New Orleans actually predates the establishment of the city on its unlikely site 100 miles upstream from the mouth of the Mississippi River. Fr. Paul du Ru, S.J., a missionary working among the Houma, Bayogoulas and Natchez peoples in the lower Mississippi River valley, accompanied the French explorer Pierre LeMoyne d’Iberville on a trip in 1700 that passed by the crescent bend in the river where Iberville’s younger brother Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne de Bienville would found a new French settlement in 1718 and name it La Nouvelle-Orléans in honor of the French regent Philippe, duc d’Orleans.

Even after its founding, though, early New Orleans had little to recommend it, at least in the eyes of Jesuit Father Pierre François-Xavier de Charlevoix, sent by King Louis XIV to report on his North American possessions, including the new settlement in Louisiana. But Charlevoix concluded a letter about his 1721 visit on an optimistic note: “I have the best-grounded hopes for saying that this wild and deserted place, at present almost entirely covered with canes and trees, shall one day, and perhaps that day is not very far off, become the capital of a large and rich colony.”

Within four years, Fr. Nicholas Ignace de Beaubois, S.J., established the first Jesuit residence in New Orleans as a way station for Jesuit missionaries traveling up and down the Mississippi and, effectively, as an instrument of French colonial power. As one French official at the time argued,

Eventually, the Jesuits in New Orleans would purchase from their sponsor Bienville large tracts of riverfront land that included much of the city’s present-day Central Business District, where they set up a plantation. The first to introduce sugar cane production to Louisiana (although others would make it commercially viable), the Jesuits used proceeds from the plantation, worked by enslaved people that the Jesuits either owned or leased, to finance their missions up and down the Mississippi and to fund pastoral activities among the fur trappers and other traders who spent part of the year in New Orleans.

For much of the first half of the eighteenth century, however, the Jesuits’ efforts in and around New Orleans were stymied by ecclesiastical politics. While French authorities had given religious jurisdiction over the upper Mississippi River valley to the Jesuits, they assigned the lower portion, including pastoral care of French citizens in New Orleans, to a Franciscan order, the Capuchins. Rivalry and acrimony between the two religious groups remained a constant, even after the bishop of Québec named Jesuit Father Michael de Baudoin as his vicar general in New Orleans. Mirroring rising anti-Jesuit antagonism among the Catholic rulers of Europe, on July 9, 1763, the Louisiana Superior Council, which administered the colony for the French king, denounced the Jesuits and issued a decree of suppression. A week later, the Jesuits’ property and possessions in New Orleans—the plantation chief among them—were auctioned off to the highest bidders. All of the Jesuits in the city, except for the elderly Fr. De Baudoin, were ordered to leave the territory. The first phase of the Jesuits’ presence in New Orleans had come to an end.

Suppression, Restoration and Return to Louisiana

Although lauded as the “schoolmasters of Europe,” the Jesuits also aroused jealousies due to the influence they wielded through their institutions and in the halls of power. After serial acts of suppression in various Catholic kingdoms, Pope Clement XIV issued a papal brief in 1763 abolishing the Society of Jesus altogether. While the order persisted in places such as Russia, where rulers refused to acknowledge the pope’s authority, the vast network of colleges and missions that the Jesuits had built up around the world collapsed. Finally, after more than 40 years, the order was restored in 1814 by yet another papal decree, and the difficult work of reestablishing themselves and restarting their apostolic activities began.

In New Orleans, the first Jesuits to return to the city permanently actually belonged to a small contingent that happened to pass through the city in 1831 on their way to staff a Catholic college in Bardstown, KY. The new bishop of New Orleans prevailed upon two of them to stay behind to work at St. Michael’s College, a small school (later Jefferson College) upriver in Convent, Louisiana, instead. Similarly, eight Jesuits on their way to establish a new college in Grand Coteau, arrived at the port of New Orleans in January 1838, and once again the local bishop, Antoine Blanc, convinced one of them to stay behind to work as a hospital chaplain. Eventually, in 1847 superiors in France, placed the colleges run by the Jesuits in Grand Coteau and Mobile under a single New Orleans Mission Superior, Fr. Jean-Baptiste Maisounabe, who reported directly to the Provincial of Lyons. Fr. Maisounabe founded the Jesuit College of the Immaculate Conception in 1848 and purchased land—with the help of the Ursulines—on the corner of Baronne and Common, near Canal Street and immediately adjacent to the downriver boundary of the old Jesuit Plantation, on which to build the school and a chapel. The college welcomed its first students in 1849. The chapel next door, however, soon proved too small, and construction on a much larger church commenced in 1851. Construction proceeded slowly, in part due to waves of Yellow Fever that struck the city in those years. The Jesuits welcomed worshippers for the inaugural Mass in the new church on the Solemnity of the Assumption, August 15, 1857. Its Moorish Revival style, unique among Catholic churches in the United States at that time and still rare today, was the inspiration of Fr. John Cambiaso, another French Jesuit, who succeeded Fr. Maisounabe as New Orleans Mission Superior after the latter succumbed to Yellow Fever in 1848. Along with the new college in New Orleans, the Jesuits now operated schools in Grand Coteau, Mobile, and Baton Rouge—all with churches attached. After more than 80 years since their banishment, and once again enjoying a true apostolic presence in the city and wider region, the Jesuits of New Orleans were back.

Growth and Opposition

Prior to the Civil War, the Jesuits enjoyed increasing prestige in the city and the College of the Immaculate Conception attracted a growing number of students, but the order also aroused new hostilities. The influx of immigrants, many of them Catholic, into a still-nascent United States, produced tensions. While newly arrived Catholics, and especially the clergy that served them, were concerned about anti-Catholic prejudice in American public education and advocated for their own parochial schools, the young, primarily Protestant republic was wary of foreign influence, including the Roman Catholic Church,  considered by many Americans as a bastion of anti-democratic and anti-republican sentiment. Closely associated with the papacy, the Jesuits thus became targets of anti-Catholic rhetoric and even violence around the county. In Maine, one Jesuit was literally tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. During demonstrations staged in New Orleans in the late 1850s by the nativist American Party, better known as the Know-Nothings, pamphlets denouncing the Jesuits and accusing them of undue influence on city government inflamed an already angry mob. 

Nevertheless, the College and Church of the Immaculate Conception prospered and following the war and Reconstruction, anti-Catholic animosity gradually declined. By the turn of the century, hundreds of thousands of people passed annually through the doors of the church, and the college became a respected training ground for the sons of elite Catholic (and even some Protestant) families, as well as those with ambitions to move up the socio-economic ladder. In perhaps the clearest show yet of the Jesuit college’s standing in the city, the school’s Corps of Cadets twice marched in patriotic parades welcoming Presidents William McKinley and William Howard Taft to New Orleans in 1901 and 1909, respectively. During the latter visit, President Taft actually visited the College, and spoke to the assembled students. “My boys, he said, “I’m glad to be with you. I congratulate you on being where you are.”   

Expansion Uptown

As the city grew in population and the College of the Immaculate Conception in enrollments and prestige, the Jesuits recognized not only the need but also a unique opportunity for expansion. In 1886 they purchased land in Uptown across from what is now Audubon Park, and in 1904, under the leadership of Fr. Albert Biever, S.J., opened Loyola College immediately adjacent to Tulane University, which had recently relocated from its downtown location to St. Charles Avenue. In 1911, the College of the Immaculate Conception split its high school and college divisions, merging the latter with Loyola College. The following year, the State of Louisiana issued an official charter for the newly renamed Loyola University.     

While the Jesuits may have dreamed of expanding into fast-growing Uptown, they had to persuade the archdiocese. Fortunately, Archbishop Francis Janssens expressed enthusiasm for the initiative and in 1886 awarded oversight of one of two new parishes erected in the neighborhood to the Society of Jesus, “on condition they build a college and a House of Retreat” as well. On Sunday, May 29, 1892, Holy Name of Jesus Church, called “Little Jesuits” to distinguish it from its grander cousin downtown, was blessed and dedicated on a site approximately where Loyola University’s Thomas Hall now stands on St. Charles Avenue. Holy Name of Jesus School opened nearby at the same time. Constructed completely of wood by six Jesuit brothers in a neo-Gothic style, the new church got off to a slow start. Income for the first year was just $163! Yet within a few years the parish had outgrown its original wooden structure. A generous benefactor, Miss Catherine McDermott, donated $100,000 in 1913 to finance construction of a replacement, and on December 9, 1918, the McDermott Memorial Church was dedicated. Breaking new apostolic ground, Loyola’s radio station, WWL—“World-Wide Loyola”–began broadcasting Sunday Masses from the new church in 1919. Meanwhile, in 1927-28, “Jesuits,” or the Church of the Immaculate Conception, also underwent reconstruction, after the original church, rendered unstable by pile drivers operating at neighboring construction sites in the Central Business District, was judged unsafe. Carefully disassembled, the landmark structure was rebuilt in little more than a year almost exactly as it had been, using materials and artwork preserved from the older building. To this day, both Holy Name of Jesus and Immaculate Conception remain vibrant Jesuit parishes in the city.

New Initiatives

Archbishop Janssens’ desire for a Catholic retreat house in Uptown never bore fruit. Instead, following the Great Flood of 1927 and after several years of financial struggle, the Marist Fathers operating Jefferson College in Convent, Louisiana, decided to close the school and subsequently sold the 130-acre, riverfront property to the Jesuits, who opened a retreat center on the site. Renovated and expanded multiple times over the course of the last 90 years, Manresa House of Retreats is today one of the premier Catholic retreat centers in the United States. Its expansive grounds and beautiful oak allées provide an ideal setting for contemplative silence and prayer, attracting approximately 6,000 men annually for three-day retreats held every weekend of the year except Christmas.

For decades the Jesuits of New Orleans have pursued their ministries either in or from these five primary apostolic centers: Immaculate Conception Church, Jesuit High School, Loyola University, Holy Name of Jesus Church, and Manresa House of Retreats. Starting in the 1960s, the worldwide Society of Jesus embraced more direct social ministry among the poor and marginalized, and this shift naturally influenced the Jesuits’ mission in New Orleans. The Jesuit Volunteer Corps, for example, a national organization that brings recent college graduates to live together in Christian community and to work as volunteers at schools, hospitals, social service agencies and other charitable institutions, opened its first house in New Orleans in 1980. In the late 1990s, an indefatigable Jesuit pastor at Immaculate Conception, Fr. Harry Tompson, began several projects to serve the homeless, at-risk youth, and other needy people in the city. Café Reconcile opened in 1996 near downtown with the goal of providing basic life and work skills for young people aged 16 to 25 so that they could find stable employment in New Orleans’ entertainment and hospitality industry. In 1999 Fr. Tompson established a Parish Center adjacent to Immaculate Conception Church, which quickly found its niche serving the city’s homeless. Rechristened the Harry Tompson Center in honor of its founder, who died in 2001, this vital work eventually relocated to new quarters on Gravier Street, next to St. Joseph’s Church, where it continues to offer essential services, such as shower facilities, medical care, case management, housing assistance, and legal help for an average of 200 people each day. Finally, recognizing that many local children, especially from lower-income families, did not receive sufficiently strong preparation for them to succeed in the best high schools, including Jesuit High School, Fr. Tompson, founded the Good Shepherd School to fill that gap. Today Good Shepherd, located in Gentilly, educates and uplifts precisely the kind of students that Fr. Tompson wanted to help most. While operated by laity, these most recent Jesuit-inspired works are meeting critical needs in the contemporary city, just as the first ones did in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Concern for youth, the poor, the sick, and the outcast, as well as for all those who seek God with a sincere heart has thus been a hallmark of the Jesuits’ work in New Orleans for more than 300 years. Certainly, they have also ministered extensively among the city’s elite and middle classes, just as Jesuits have done elsewhere around the world as a means of expanding their apostolic reach. Going all the way back to their founder St. Ignatius of Loyola, one characteristic ministerial strategy of the Jesuits has been to enlist the interest, talents, and resources of those who have much to aid those who have little. In the 16th century Ignatius spoke of the new order’s overarching mission as that of “helping souls.” Today the Jesuits devote themselves explicitly to “the service of faith and the promotion of justice.” The language may be slightly different, but the Gospel values that underlie it remain the same. They form the foundation for all the Jesuits have done and still do in New Orleans and beyond.   

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