American Jesuits, Buried and Brought Back: Part I: French Jesuits in New Orleans

Image from the exhibit "Crossings and Dwellings" at the Loyola University Museum of Art in Chicago.

In 1814 John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson that he was unhappy with the Restoration of the Society of Jesus. Read today, the expression is surprising. One of the fruits of the revolution was religious freedom, and the American Catholic Church, concentrated in Maryland and Philadelphia, at that time had been for the most part the fruit of Jesuit missionary effort. And George Washington and Adams had attended Catholic church services in Philadelphia. Yet Jesuits remained suspect. From that moment on, however, American Catholic identity and the return and growth of the Society are closely entwined.

This story has three parts: French Jesuits in New Orleans; the Plantation Jesuits on Maryland; and John Carroll and the American Character.



When the news reached the Jesuits of Maryland in 1773 that the 22,000-member Society of Jesus had been suppressed by a decree of Pope Clement XV and that all they had struggled for since the first Jesuit in the New World was killed by Florida Indians in 1566 was destined to become dust, they could not have been surprised. Their new home was still half-born, still “savage” —the term consistently applied to native Americans by missionaries. From its first years young men all over Europe had been inspired to join these spiritual soldiers—first to save their own souls, but also the souls of others.

To be a missionary was to risk, indeed welcome, death in martyrdom. The seven Jesuits who, in 1570, moved north to the Chesapeake Bay were slain within a few months. The French Jesuits associated with St. Isaac Jogues who labored in Canada and upper New York State among the Mohawks and Hurons in the 1640s died horribly—stripped naked, dragged from one village to another, tortured, tomahawked and burned alive at the stake. They were cast in the role of "super-martyrs” for the next generation of Jesuits and for young Catholic grammar school students in the 20th century. Of the twenty-nine missionaries who had worked in New France over 35 years, seven lost their lives.

In lower California, from 1681 to his death in 1711, Eusebio Kino, who slept on a horse blanket, rode thirty miles a day exploring, drawing maps and baptizing 4.500 souls. He established a stock-raising industry and became one of the great horse and cattle kings of the West; but his young Jesuit assistant Francis Xavier Saeta was cut down by angry Indians who finished him off with a volley of arrows as he lay clutching his crucifix at their feet. The society sent men to continue Kino’s work, but with varying success.

If success is measured in numbers of converts and the building of churches and universities, a high percentage of Jesuit apostolic projects failed. But neither Jesus nor St. Ignatius had promised success, they had merely invited others to become apostles; and the reward would come in knowing one was doing God’s will.

As the American Jesuits followed the news from Europe, the explosion which had been simmering for over fifteen years came to its climax. The Society’s opponents resented its influence—through their schools, as spiritual advisers at court, allegedly lax moral theology and adaptation to local custom in the missions. From the 1758 attempt, blamed on the Jesuits to assassinate the king of Portugal to the conflict in France between Jansenists and Jesuits on the role of free will in salvation, and the power struggle in Spain where King Charles saw the king’s power as superior to the ecclesiastical system, the houses and schools of the Society of Jesus were closed and the Jesuits were driven out. Finally the new pope, Cardinal Lorenzo Ganganelli, Clement XIV, on July 21, 1773, signed the Brief of suppression. Though it would take effect only when promulgated in each diocese, the Society of Jesus officially was no more.

The Pre-Suppression Reaches the New World

In the New Orleans of 1765 the twelve resident Jesuits were still hoping that the bill which passed the French Parliament in 1761 would not apply to them. For a decade the Society and the Capuchins in Louisiana had been engaged in a controversy over whether a Capuchin or a Jesuit should be named the vicar general of the colony, and a civil court found in favor of the Jesuits, but some fights never die. This old antagonism still simmered in June 1762 when a vessel bearing the new governor of Louisiana arrived in New Orleans with the news for the Jesuit superior, Fr. Michel Baudouin, that the 1761 decree of the French parliament closing all Jesuit schools in France applied to the colony as well. Its implementation was the responsibility of the local Superior Council, whose members were local tradesmen, professionals and military officers, and whose first step would be to examine the Constitutions of the Society.

The charges were the familiar European ones: opposition to the royal family and church authorities, plus local grievances—neglect of their Jesuit missions and plantations and usurping the office of vicar general. The new governor said he was personally sympathetic to the Jesuits, but his hands were tied. On July 9, 1763, the Superior Council, which had not allowed the Jesuits to testify in their own defense, ruled against them.

It declared their vows null and void, forbad them to wear religious habits and ordered them to dress as secular clergy. All their property, except some books and clothes, was to be sold at public auction, the chapel destroyed and sacred vessels given to the Capuchins, and the fathers were to be shipped back to France. After six months they were to apply for pensions from funds realized from the sale of their property. In a final blow, vandals desecrated the Jesuit graveyard next to the blackened ruins of the chapel. In one merciful gesture, 72-year-old Fr. Louis Sebastian Muerin, who had spent 35 years in the Illinois portion of the colony and had no relatives in France, was allowed to stay, as a guest of a wealthy landowner, until he died in 1777.

Fellow Jesuits back in France were particularly stung by the charge that the Society had not taken proper care of its missions and listed prominent figures then in France, including three former governors of Louisiana and the former vicar-general of the Quebec diocese who had known and praised the Society’s work during their own years in Louisiana.

They were proud of the work carried out by the Jesuits in Upper Louisiana—Kaskaskia, Fort Chartres, Vincennes, and other places south of what is now St. Louis for their work among the Illinois Indians — referred to in correspondence as “savages” — and originally evangelized following the explorations of Pierre Marquette. At Mass the Indians recited prayers and sang hymns in their own language. At four long-established missions, the typical missionary spent his day teaching catechism to children, preparing adults for baptism, penance, holy communion, and marriage, visiting the sick and the poor, and exhorting villages to embrace Christianity. Several of the priests had been there for more than 30 or 40 years, including one who kept working though partially paralyzed for four years before his death.

Besides Mass, church services included evening public prayers in the church, the reading of pious books, vespers and benediction. They also ministered separately to both French children and the “negroes and Indians who were slaves of the French,” preparing them for baptism and other sacraments. In ministering to a new village called St. Genevieve on the opposite side of the Mississippi, the priest risked the dangers of a mile-and-a-quarter canoe trip, sometimes in violent storms, to say Mass and bring the Eucharist to the sick.

Fr. Michel Baudouin, who lived among the warlike Chactas, had the unique mission of helping to maintain peaceful relations between the French and the Chactas who had the power to rise up and wipe out New Orleans in a day. The Jesuits had been in New Orleans since one arrived as a chaplain of the royal hospital erected there in 1737 and for 30 years Jesuits cooperated with the Ursulines who worked with orphan girls and had a boarding school for young ladies. On their land the Jesuits kept 136 slaves who required both management and instruction. Meanwhile In the Louisiana mission as a whole, between 1729 and 1763 five Jesuits were killed by Indians—usually because they were ministering to the French who were at war with various tribes.

The courier sent to deliver the decree of Suppression to the Jesuits of Illinois country arrived at Fort Chartres, six miles from the Jesuit residence, on September 23. Because they were so spread out, it took the Jesuits a month to find a house where they could assemble with their few clothes and books, sleep spread out on mattresses, and prepare for the hazardous journey down the Mississippi.

Technically they might have made a legal case that, because this part of Illinois had been passed to the British by treaty a year before, these Jesuits were not subject to French jurisdiction; but they had made the decision to suffer whatever fate their colleagues had endured. Besides, the superior in New Orleans had begged them to submit to everything, just as Jesus had submitted himself to an unjust judgment. When some of the Indians they had served learned of their treatment and asked how this could be allowed to happen, one of the aged missionaries replied, “…because we find too much fault with folly.” In that context it meant that “in whatever place the Jesuits have a foothold, they deem themselves obliged by their profession to make war upon vice, and that by their opposition to iniquity, they raise up enemies against themselves.”

Meanwhile the house, furniture, lands and stock were sold, even the slaves were to be taken to New Orleans and sold for the benefit of the king. The rich lining of vestments had been given to negresses with bad reputations and the crucifix and candlesticks from the altar were donated to a whore house. The enemies of the faith were making a point. In addition to the local exiles, Fr. deVernay, beginning in November, had walked, burdened with fever, 200 miles through woods and prairies, rain and cold, to join them. The party of six boarded their flatboat on November 24, 1763, with only their bed rolls, clothes and enough food for themselves and the 48 slaves in their company. The slaves now belonged to the king, but the royal family had provided only enough food for them for 15 days, while the trip in bad weather could take 45. Every evening, when they landed to make camp for the night, the officer in command of the troops had his men shoot bears and buffalos to be quickly devoured by the travelers, including the Jesuits and their former slaves.

Good luck and the weather traveled with them, and they covered the 1,000 miles in 27 days. When they docked on December 21 their former rivals the Capuchins went out of their way to welcome them and, despite their inability to house them, invited them to take all their meals at their house for the remaining six weeks. In return the Jesuits gave the remnants of their library to their hosts.

Of the total list of 13, three were allowed to stay while the others departed by sea or land to other destinations. Father Muerin stayed to care for the Illinois Indians, Fr. Poitier remained with the Hurons in Detroit. Fr. Baudoin, superior of the Jesuits in New Orleans, because he was 72 and ailing and because he had 20 years experience dealing with the Chactaws and was used as interpreter for all their dealings with the French, was allowed to remain. After his death in 1766 he was accused of having transferred Jesuit money to a lay associate that might have legally belonged to the creditors ultimately responsible for wiping out the French branch of the Jesuits.

The others sailed on February 6, 1764, survived a clash with the rocks on Martyr’s Island, sang the Te Deum in thanks for their escape, marveled at the St. Elmo’s fire that accurately predicted a violent storm, and cast anchor at St. Sebastian on April 6. Here, welcomed by Spanish Jesuits, they learned the latest details of the persecution in France. At St. Jean de Luz they encountered three other Jesuits, two over 80, plus a young guide, crossing into France. In Bayonne they met more fugitive Jesuits on their way to Spain. There the bishop of Bayonne entertained them all on Holy Thursday. At Bordeaux the four separated, each headed in a different direction, to construct a new life in a universal Society which, unknown to them, had only another ten years to live.

Read next week for part II: The Plantation Jesuits in Maryland.

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Robert Lewis
4 years 4 months ago
Allegedly, the Jesuits were suppressed in Spain by Carlos III because they disseminated information that the king may have been illegitimate and in France because there were financial irregularities in one of their missions on a Caribbean island. Those, however, were probably pretexts. However, the Jesuit "reductions" in South America were far more serious matters for the Spanish and Portugese. The film "The Mission" is largely accurate.


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