The Canadian Martyrs come to mind for many Canadians when the Jesuits are mentioned, but the order’s history is entwined with the building of our nation. Catholic Register file photo

Jesuit story goes hand-in-hand with building of Canada

By  Indre Cuplinskas, Catholic Register Special
  • October 24, 2015

Teachers of a Nation: Jesuits in English Canada, Jesuit History Series, vol. 1, by Joseph B. Gavin S.J. (Novalis, 288 pages, hardcover, $34.95).
Builders of a Nation: Jesuits in English Canada, Jesuit History Series, vol. 2, Jacques Monet S.J. editor (Novalis, 288 pages, hardcover, $34.95).

Talk of Canada’s Jesuits and their history usually conjures images of St. Jean de Brebeuf and his seven companions martyred in the 17th century at the hands of the Iroquois. Those dramatic events, famously recounted in the Jesuit Relations, would inspire and encourage future generations of the Society of Jesus to missionary work and to the care and feeding of the cult of their martyr-confrères.

But now Canadian Jesuit historians have spearheaded a Jesuit history series to chronicle the less spectacular, but no less important, work of Jesuits in English Canada.

Founded in 1534 by St. Ignatius Loyola during the turbulent Reformation era, the Jesuits excelled as educators, missionaries and scholars. An international order from its earliest days, the Society of Jesus not only founded numerous colleges in Europe, but also sent its members to join European merchants and colonists sailing to Asia and the Americas. This new order was deeply involved in evangelizing aboriginal people during the colonization of Canada, accompanying French expeditions in the 1600s.

These two volumes pick up the story of the Jesuits in 1842 in English Canada. After the British conquest of New France in 1763, and the suppression of the Society of Jesus by Pope Clement XIV just one decade later, the Jesuits were not allowed to recruit any novices in Canada. The last pre-suppression Jesuit in Canada died in 1800, but memory of the Society’s work in education and among First Nations did not fade. Four decades later, Montreal’s Bishop Bourget began to lobby the Jesuits to send members to Canada again. Nine Jesuits arrived in 1842.

Infrastructure is the word that kept coming to mind as I read this historical study. Chapels, parishes, high schools, colleges, educational programs, newspapers, think tanks — these are not always the most stirring topics in the life of faith, yet this history reminds us how central building infrastructure is to Catholic life and communities. No sooner have two or three gathered in Christ than they are constructing a church, establishing a school, raising funds for a newspaper. It is these initiatives recounted in volumes 1 and 2 of the Jesuit History Series.

The first volume, Teachers of a Nation, focuses on high schools and colleges founded or run by Jesuits in English Canada. Sometimes the order ran a school for a year, as in St. Dunstan’s College in Prince Edward Island. In other places, such as Regina’s Campion College, they have been in charge for close to a century. Of the 13 schools described in this volume, only one — Campion College — is still under Jesuit direction. Eight still exist in one form or another, while the other four have closed over the years.

The fact is that Catholic post-secondary institutions have never been stable. Nor should they be taken for granted. This history is an important reminder for today, as Catholics reconsider the purpose and goals of their schools.

Teachers of a Nation gives us a glimpse of what it takes to build a successful college — support from the laity, buy-in from the government, sufficient Jesuit manpower, backing from Jesuit leaders in Canada and Rome, and at times even support from the Holy See. Not every college succeeded. Who today recalls the 1930s dream of constructing the premier Canadian Catholic post-secondary institution — the University of Regiopolis in Kingston, Ont.?

Even the fortunes of successful institutions could wane in a changing political environment. Montreal’s Loyola College, founded in 1896, had to bow to political pressure from the Quebec government in the 1970s and amalgamate, dismantling its Jesuit heritage and providing a foundation for Concordia University. Building Catholic infrastructure is not a one-time act, but an ongoing process.

In the second volume, five individually authored chapters survey other infrastructure necessary to proclaim the Gospel — missions, parishes, cults of saints, social justice projects and newspapers. The work’s title, Builders of a Nation, reminds us that religious initiatives of the last century and a half have intersected with Canadian nation-building. In their complex work with native peoples, which included residential schools and battles for native fishing rights, the Jesuits practised both support and resistance to government policies aimed at integrating native peoples into a European-based nation.

The cult of the Jesuit martyrs provided Catholics with their own saints, fostering a Canadian spirituality. Jesuit pastors supported the growth of a nation, as new parishes followed colonization, helping root immigrants in this country. The Society’s social apostolate encouraged Catholics to extend a charitable hand to those in need. After the 1960s, this work evolved into a questioning of whether Canadian social structures were just. Lastly, Jesuit work in communications helped to connect a widely spread Catholic community. By developing religious infrastructure, the Jesuits did in fact help build a nation.

The two volumes, a tribute to Jesuits written almost exclusively by Jesuits, provide an important chronicle of the Society’s work in English Canada. Authors scrupulously list Jesuits who served as college presidents and professors, pastors and missionaries, editors and scholars. The breadth of the material covered — in years, territory and institutions — means non-Jesuits, including students and laity, are mostly nameless and often hidden in these accounts.

The nature of these books precludes them from the category of page-turner. Nevertheless, they provide an important foundation for historians who want to engage in a critical history of the Jesuits. The work will be of interest to specialists in Canadian religious history, and to those who have worked with the Jesuits, been members of Jesuit institutions or have a Jesuit in their family tree.

(Cuplinskas teaches Canadian Church history at St. Joseph’s College, University of Alberta in Edmonton.)

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