December 3, 2013 — Today, on the Feast of St. Francis Xavier, the Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus celebrates its 150th anniversary. On Dec. 3, 1863, a decree was issued establishing Missouri as a province, making it only the third English-speaking province in the Society.
Throughout the fall, celebrations were held in each of the province’s major cities, including Denver and Kansas City. Today, a St. Louis celebration will bring Jesuits there together for Mass at St. Francis Xavier College Church, followed by dinner and a basketball game between two of the province’s schools, Saint Louis University and Rockhurst University. Additionally, St. Louis Mayor Francis G. Slay will read a proclamation during the game’s halftime declaring Dec. 3 “150-Years-of-Jesuit-Service Day.”
The first Jesuits came to serve the area in 1823, when Bishop Louis Guillaume DuBourg, the second bishop of Louisiana, wrote to the Maryland Province’s provincial, inviting Jesuits to St. Louis. The superior accepted, and in April 1823, 11 Belgian Jesuits — seven novices, two brothers and two priests — began walking from Baltimore to the Ohio River’s mouth at Pittsburgh, Penn. They obtained two rafts, tied them together and sailed downriver and found their way to Shawneetown, Ill. From there they walked 250 miles to the Mississippi River and most likely ferried across. They arrived in St. Louis on May 31, tired and sore.
At that time, St. Louis was still a small frontier town with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants, but by 1850, it was one of the 10 largest cities in the country with 80,000 residents. Rapid growth brought demands for pastoral service to the people pouring into the center of the country. In addition to parishes and missions for Native Americans, early Missouri Jesuits took on two colleges that had been founded by bishops: St. Louis College and St. Joseph's College in Bardstown, Ky. They also established St. Xavier College in Cincinnati and started a parish in Chicago. By 1863, the number of Jesuits had grown from the original band of 11 to 195.
"As the Missouri Province expanded, there were a lot of Jesuits here, especially many of the older ones, that had seen the beginning of this place from absolutely nothing,” Jesuit historian Father John Padberg said. “Before they died, they wanted to see all of their work recognized as a fully established province of the Society.”
In 1861, Jesuit Superior General Father Pieter Jan Beckx sent an Italian Jesuit, Father Felix Sopranis, as his representative to assess the situation and determine if Missouri should become a province. He found that pressure to take on parishes and ministries in growing towns clashed with the time needed to train Jesuits properly.
During his second visit, Fr. Sopranis changed his mind. He visited the schools and parishes and saw the Missouri Jesuits had the resources and manpower to maintain their works. The Jesuits had learned what they needed by doing apostolic work, and they had learned how to train young Jesuits for the future. Fr. Sopranis recommended that Father General Beckx elevate Missouri to a province.
Fr. Beckx had cited a shortage of properly trained men for his unwillingness to make Missouri a province and had reason for caution. The Civil War was keeping Southern students from attending two of their colleges, and the conflict was dividing Jesuits and the communities they served.
Nevertheless, the Jesuit leader in Rome decided to grant Missouri's wish to become a province. On Dec. 3, 1863, 194 Jesuits assumed the title of the "Missouri Province" with Jesuit Father Ferdinand Coosemans as the first provincial.
"It’s very hard for us to put ourselves back into those circumstances,” Fr. Padberg said. “They started with nothing, and here they were not that far along the line. Forty years later, they were a full province. That’s extraordinary."
The Missouri Province was at its largest in 1929, and was then split to form the Chicago and Wisconsin Provinces. Change is coming again, as the Missouri Province prepares for new boundaries — and a new name — when it joins the New Orleans Province in 2014 to become the Central and Southern Province.
"One of the wonderful things about the new province is that no matter what your idea of frontier is, we have it," said Jesuit Father Tom Greene, secretary for social and international ministries at the U.S. Jesuit Conference. "We'll have a geographic frontier at the U.S.-Mexico border, but we also have frontiers of knowledge, frontiers of spirituality in some of the projects we have and frontiers of advocacy and social justice work through some of the social centers we have." [Sources: Missouri Province’s Jesuit Bulletin, Kansas City Catholic Key]