Off to a Distant Land

Book cover
Brokers of Cultureby Gerald McKevitt

Stanford Univ. Press. 448p $60

In a few months we will reach the 70th anniversary of the publication of Gilbert Garraghan’s three-volume history of the Jesuits in the 19th-century Midwest.

Don’t have a copy beside your night table? Join the club. I teach American history for a living. I write about the history of Catholicism in the United States. But I only recently became aware of Garraghan’s achievement. In his way, Garraghan, himself a Jesuit, has produced a masterpiece: tightly written, frank (for the time) about the successes and failures of his predecessors, many of whom he must have known, and brilliantly researched, using manuscript sources in French, Italian, Latin, German and English with nonchalant ease. Garraghan’s absorption in the details of each Jesuit parish, school and retreat house deterred, perhaps numbed, many potential readers, but his study concluded with a modest congratulatory note in honor of those Jesuits who established a tradition of zealous and energetic effort for the extension of Christ’s kingdom on earth.

Garraghan had few successors. Even as studies by distinguished scholars on 16th- and 17th-century Jesuits in China, New France and Brazil poured off the presses, especially in the last 20 years, 19th-century Jesuits languished in historical obscurity. Why? Gerald McKevitt, the author of a new book about the 19th-century Jesuit immigrants, Brokers of Culture, doesn’t speculate. But the 19th-century Jesuitsfervently ultramontane, devoted to the Sacred Heart, fierce defenders of Pope Pius IX and the 1870 definition of papal infallibility and suspicious of liberalism in all its varieties and the public schools that seemed to inculcate itsurely seemed unlikely role models for Jesuit and non-Jesuit scholars in the immediate postconciliar era. Their zeal seemed triumphalist, their vision narrowly institutional.

McKevitt, a professor of Jesuit studies at Santa Clara University, does not disagree with this assessment, but he also opens our eyes to a different view. He began thinking about his subjects, the 400 Italian Jesuits who left Italy for the American West between 1848-1919, when he was a young Jesuit 40 years ago, bumping into old trunks and photos of his now long-forgotten predecessors in a seminary attic. Most of these Italian Jesuits left involuntarily, expelled by Italian nationalists in the successive waves of Italian unification that dominated the peninsula’s politics. They ministered to Indians in the Northwest, Irish-Americans in San Francisco and Mexican-Americans in the Southwest; and they ran the nation’s most influential Catholic seminary, in Woodstock, Md. They founded numerous high schools and five collegesRegis University, Santa Clara University, the University of San Francisco, Gonzaga University and Seattle University.

Brokers of Culture is superb, a major study that will shape the next generation of scholarship in Western and religious history. McKevitt deftly sketches the drama and pain of exile, the tears shed as these Italian priestsalso Italian sons, Italian brothersleft for a lifetime of labor in a distant land. He then analyzes how Italian Jesuits received a warm reception from Mexican-American parishioners in New Mexico and from the Nez Percés in Idaho, in part because their linguistic abilities, honed by years of Greek and Latin, facilitated quick communication. Their ultramontane pietybringing Corpus Christi processions and Lourdes grottoes to such exotic locales as Kalispell, Mont., and Taos, N.Mex.also melded with native traditions in both regions more than the less demonstrative religious practices and more restrictive dress codes favored by Protestant competitors. That these Italian Jesuits and their New Mexican parishioners fought the introduction of the public school system, began a Spanish language press and declared themselves as American as descendants of the Mayflower reminds us how American nationalism during this period, like all nationalisms, was less a fact than a hard-won, contested achievement. That Italian Jesuits disdained the Americanist side in the turn-of-the-century battle over Catholic modernism suggests how abstract theological disputes framed such seemingly practical questions as whether students at Santa Clara must remain on campus at all times or could occasionally receive a day pass to sleepy San Jose.

In general, the Italian Jesuits were less successful brokers of culture (to use McKevitt’s unwieldly title) in their colleges, where they struggled to adapt to the competitive marketplace (even then) of American higher education. Santa Clara, for example, was founded in 1851, well before either Stanford or University of California at Berkeley. This early prominence guaranteed the Jesuits a steady and continuing stream of distinguished alumni, but the refusal of one withdrawn Italian Jesuit president to meet with college benefactors, let alone students and non-Jesuit faculty, does not convey eagerness to advance in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. When Catholic parents asked for business courses, Italian Jesuits required Latin and Greek. When Catholic students requested recreational facilities, Italian Jesuits forbade card playing, smoking and boxing. Over time the more worldly of the Italian Jesuits, and then Jesuits from many backgrounds, took the administrative reins and propelled the colleges to their current excellence, with the vineyards and trellises on college grounds as mute testimony to a different, genuinely foreign vision.

At times, McKevitt, like Garraghan, delves deeper into the internal history and practice of the order than the casual reader may wish to go. But he always resurfaces with something important to say about Catholicism and religion more broadly in the American west. His signal contribution may be to refocus our attention on the international currents undergirding 19th-century Catholicism. Entirely at home in the Italian history of the order and its Italian language paper trail in Turin, Naples and Rome, McKevitt charts a chapter in religious globalization, as Catholic practices, devotional objects and ideas circulate back and forth across the Atlantic. In this he is like Garraghan, and in this the lives of their 19th-century subjects echo our own opportunities and dilemmas.

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