Jesuit priests hear confessions at the Martyr’s Shrine, near Midland, Ontario, Canada, circa 1955.

Book review: Jesuit history is ripe for the picking

By  INDRE CUPLINSKAS, Catholic Register Special
  • May 16, 2018

Conscience of a Nation: Jesuits in English Canada (1842-2016), Jesuit History Series vol. 3., edited by Jacques Monet, S.J. (Novalis, softcover, 224 pages, $34.95)

On the cover of Conscience of a Nation: Jesuits in English Canada (1842-2016) is a statue of St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556). It depicts the Spanish founder of the Society of Jesus as both a contemplative and a man of action. These two themes pervade the third and final volume of the Jesuit History series, which chronicles Jesuit activities in English-speaking Canada over the last century and a half. 

The Jesuits are not an order with a single mission. Rather, Jesuit initiatives are rooted in Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises which guide people through a personalized spiritual experience seeking to understand who God is for them. This spirituality that seeks to find God in one’s present circumstance ties together the seemingly disparate elements of the book. 

The five contributing Jesuit authors trace how their order has faced, embraced, navigated and risen to the challenges posed by changing realities of their mission in Canada. The volume includes chapters that recount how Jesuits have led their confreres and laity through the Spiritual Exercises. It records the seven stages of Jesuit formation as they have been administered in the last 150 years in Canada. It details the wax and, at times, wane of the eight Jesuit-run high schools from Newfoundland to Saskatchewan. It describes the work of Canadian Jesuits who went to Bhutan, India, Zambia and Jamaica. 

One suspects that this last tome includes all the initiatives that did not fit into the first two volumes of the series.

Amid the myriad of details in Conscience of a Nation, I learned a new word: pomology — the study of apples. The apple is strangely intertwined in the accounts of Canadian Jesuit formation, education and mission, and provides a common thread to at least some of the chapters.

The apple first appears in Chapter 2 on Jesuit formation. Fr. Jacques Monet recounts how in 1913 the Jesuits acquired a farm near Guelph, Ont. Initially it was a place of formation, where young Jesuits in the novitiate and juniorate began their 13-year journey to priesthood. At the same time, the farm provided food for the young men in studies. 

In 1916 the newly appointed rector, Fr. Joseph Leahy S.J., a farmer at heart, made expansion of the farm a priority. Soon he was joined by Br. Benjamin Reischmann, who developed novel techniques for growing apples. And thus from the early 20th century through to the 21st, we find the Jesuits debating and changing their views of the farm and its apples. 

In the first decades, the farm provided food, but there was disagreement as to how much time, if any, Jesuits in formation should spend planting apple trees or picking their fruit before an unexpected frost. 

The Guelph farm, in fact, did more than serve Jesuit formation. From 1964 it became the home of the Loyola House Retreat Centre for clergy and laity. It was in the late 1960s, too, that the Jesuits, no longer able to run the farm with their own manpower, adopted a new model, forming a farm community that brought together laypeople both for farming and for healing. 

Over the next few decades the understanding of agriculture also broadened beyond food production. The land slowly became a space in which to contemplate creation. The last chapter of Conscience of a Nation picks up the story of the farm as it becomes a place where ecological issues could be integrated into spiritual formation. Canadian Jesuits have been leaders in this area since the Second Vatican Council. By the beginning of the 21st century the apple had become not only a thing to feed the body and scientifically cultivate, but also an object of contemplation opening up the mysteries of creation. 

The Canadian Jesuits’ changing relationship to the apple encapsulates many of their initiatives in the last century and a half. Taking their cue from their founder, rooting their action in contemplation, the Jesuits have responded to the changing needs of their own order and of the world surrounding them. 

They have built up and dismantled farms, schools and retreat houses. With the decline of their own numbers they have had to work more closely with other religious, such as the Loretto Sisters, and with laity. 

Like the first two volumes, this final one is full of details that will be useful for specialists in Canadian religious history, and interesting to fellow Jesuits, but at times it will test the commitment of a more casual reader. 

Still, you might like to take a delicious bite from the mature fruit of one of the great branches of Canadian Church history.

(Cuplinskas teaches the history of Christianity at St. Joseph’s College, University of Alberta.)

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