American Jesuits, Buried and Brought Back, Part III: John Carroll and the American Character

John Carroll, former Jesuit and first American bishop
This is the final installment of a three-part story. Part I, "French Jesuits in New Orleans," is available here; you can read Part II, "The Maryland Plantation Jesuits," here

Along with his other obligations of bringing discipline and direction to the struggling American church, the last dozen years of John Carroll’s life were preoccupied with establishing some stability at Georgetown. He welcomed students of every religious profession and social class; in contrast to some of the presidents who came and went in his lifetime, he did not want a Catholic ghetto. Although he wanted the curriculum to resemble the Ratio Studiorum, stressing the Greek and Roman Classics that he had experienced in Flanders in the 1740s, he sought to implant a broad knowledge of the world; and partly to cloak his long-range plan for a seminary he declined to seek a charter from the state of Maryland.

As enrollment rose and fell, reaching a low point of 45 in 1806, twice the college almost closed. Under one strict Jesuit, discipline was so harsh and out of control that a band of students plotted to murder their prefect. Of the 275 students passing through between 1791 and 1805, three quarters were between 10 and 16 years old, their national backgrounds were mixed and over half lived on campus. Meanwhile the ex-Jesuits, including trustees who had been supporting the college financially through the income of the corporation’s properties, were snapping at Carroll’s heels; infected with the paranoia instilled by the Suppression, they were uncomfortable with lay faculty, non-Catholic students and the growing competition from Sulpicians who were also opening a seminary in Baltimore.


The young American ambassador to Tsar Alexander, John Quincy Adams, whose father would greet the final restoration of the Society with trepidation, met twice with the Jesuit General in St. Petersburg, in September 1810 and February 1811. The general each time asked Adams to deliver a letter to an American Jesuit, and they discussed and compared the American and Russian versions of a Jesuit school. In September 1810 they talked about the state of the Society in St. Petersburg. The Jesuits in Russia had a seminary and a day school with 200 boys and a boarding school of 30, between the ages of 7 and 12. They studied the usual classics, philosophy and rhetoric—plus “polite education” in dancing, drawing and music. Six months later, in February 1811, they discussed Georgetown, which had young Jesuits in training, 42 students, five professors and six regents. Their dormitory was strictly supervised, room doors open so the regents could see them study. Their ages, 6 to 12. Along with the load of ancient languages rhetoric and philosophy, a few days a week were devoted to “elegant accomplishments” fencing, dancing, drawing and music. Both schools were proud that Grand Marshall Count Tolstoy has entrusted them with one of his sons.

Only with the appointment of the Italian Jesuit Giovanni Grassi in 1812 did the “modern” Georgetown break out of its shell, as enrollment rose to 129 by 1815 and by 1817 students came from as far away as Vermont and the Mississippi Territory. Under Grassi 26 students entered the seminary over five years. Finally, by 1815, Grassi, now that Catholics had proven their loyalty by fighting in the Revolution, was confident enough with the college’s relationship with the government to have President James Madison sign the college’s official charter.

Partial Restoration

A group of Jesuits had begun working in White Russia, later known as Byelorussia, for Russia’s Empress Catherine II, who saw herself as an enlightened despot. She sought to win over her annexed nationalities by centralized control of commerce, taxation and humanitarian legislation. She was convinced the 201 local Jesuits could spread culture throughout the Russian territories. While the Jesuits did not want to disobey the pope, they also wanted to open a novitiate; so in 1782 Catherine sent an envoy to Rome to seek approval for their special status.

The pope diplomatically answered yes and no. He gave a word-of-mouth “Approbo” to her delegate, while declaring that he had not revoked the brief of Suppression. In 1783 the Maryland Jesuits, meeting at the White Marsh plantation, the scene of their original bonding, started preparing for a Restoration. Carroll considered attracting some of the Jesuits who had joined “imitation” societies to the Georgetown faculty, but held off. The English ex-Jesuits and Carroll tended not to trust movements that did not fully embody the Society’s Institute and which might interfere with the full restoration of the original Society. So in 1804 Carroll wrote directly to Father General Gabriel Gruber in St. Petersburg for an explanation of the status of the Russian branch.

Gruber answered that the real Society had been “most marvelously preserved in the Russian Empire” and had held four general congregations. They had no official Brief because they feared that “our enemies would be further aroused against us.” The Society had permission to affiliate anywhere, e.g. China, if it was done quietly. They could not wear a special habit, or build residences or colleges. They could welcome back former members and accept novices following a month or week of the Spiritual Exercises and a study of the Constitutions.

Carroll welcomed the affirmation, and between June 1805 and November 1806, of the 13 ex-Jesuits in America, six priests renewed their vows and 10 novices (eight scholastics and two brothers) took up residence on the second floor of Old South building at Georgetown, and Fr. Robert Molyneux was named superior. The Maryland mission was newly re-organized, but without John Carroll as a member. His confidence in the zeal and abilities of his brother Jesuits, because of their old age and prolonged inactivity, had its limits; and his letters to friends in 1805 and 1815 reveal a lack of confidence in the judgment of those who might control the future of the Society; he feared those who might “thwart the reestablishment of the Society.” “Till more is known of the mind of our rulers” he wanted to hold to his job.

Among the obstacles to a re-established Society was the antagonism against Jesuits in the American political and religious establishment, best exemplified in the well-known 1814 letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson deploring the “late resurrection of the Jesuits. They have a general now in Russia, in correspondence with the Jesuits in the United States, who are more numerous than everybody knows. Shall we not have swarms of them here, in as many shapes and disguises...?” Little did Adams know that all but a couple of those members in 1773 were dead and its new members would not reach 106 until 1840. Nevertheless, since America had proclaimed religious liberty he had to let them in.

On the other hand, the Maryland English Jesuits resented newly-arrived European Jesuits from France, Italy, Germany, Russia, Poland and other countries. In the 19th century, Jesuits came in waves—as they escaped persecutions, for the pasturing of the souls of their countrymen, or fired up with the idea of saving savage souls on the frontier. The Fordham Jesuit community in the 1840s brought together French, Irish, Canadians, Germans, one-each from Spain, England, Belgium, Haiti and Czechoslovakia and three Americans.

Anthony Kohlman arrived from Russia in 1805, after a stint with the Society of the Sacred Heart. When Carroll assigned him to New York in 1808 he single-mindedly set to work establishing a school. In his mind the future of the Society in this new world was in the big cities, not in the plantation culture of the circuit riding Maryland Jesuits. He established the New York Literary Institute in 1808 on the site of the present day’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. By 1813 it had 74 boarders, including the son of the governor of New York. But there were only 50 Jesuits in the United States, and Georgetown was still struggling, and the decision was made to close the New York project and concentrate resources on Georgetown. To Kohlmann, who would have turned Georgetown into a novitiate and moved the college to New York, this was proof of another theme that would reoccur—prejudice against New York. Though Kohlmann returned to Washington and was briefly president of Georgetown, he was best known for the New York court case where he defended and won the right for priests to keep the seal of the confessional, and later he visited Thomas Paine on his deathbed with the vain hope of converting him to Christianity.

When Carroll made the decision not to return to the way of life which had launched him into his priesthood and ecclesiastical career, he forfeited some of the exceptional authority that history had loaned to him. Carroll died in 1815. In 1825 Charles Neale, the last American Jesuit who had been a member when the Society was suppressed in 1773 died while living with the Carmelite nuns at Port Tobacco, who revered him as their chaplain. Although he had been named Jesuit superior in 1820 at the age of 70, he was effectively out of touch, relying on a few old friends for information. As historian Robert Emmett Curran writes: “Certainly no one knew the facts involved in the controversy over the land as well as Neale. In a sense he was too locked into the past that had died in 1805. He continued to see the property as something that had to be preserved at all costs, as though the Society had not yet been restored.”


But if the Society of Jesus was canonically restored, that does not mean the old Society was back. Only two Jesuits—Saint Joseph Pignatelli in Italy and Charles Neale in the United States—survived the 40 years to tell the “new” Jesuits, who may have entered through Russia or after the American alliance with the Russian Society after 1805, or after 1814, what the “old Society” was like. Deep in the American Jesuit consciousness was the realization that the political powers that had almost destroyed them once were always ready to strike again. In 1936 Samuel K. Wilson, S.J., president of the Loyola University Chicago, wrote in Manners magazine (December 1936), that “the Jesuits are not modern at all.” The Society was restored, “But no man brought back from the grave ever completely forgets the agony of death, and the corporate body of the Jesuits has never quite forgotten the suppression. It is more cautions and conservative, more safe and sane, more fearful of making mistakes, than the average corporate group which has existed several centuries.”

The French historian Jean Lacouture, in Jesuits, A Multibiography, rescues the Society from these doldrums. It was the 20th century’s great adventure of Vatican II that rescued it from its “nineteenth century’s spinelessness.” The church opened up under Pope John XXIII and great theologians and leaders—John Courtney Murray, S.J., Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., and Father General Pedro Arrupe helped tug the Society into the modern world. My own conclusion, in The American Jesuits: A History, goes: “Somehow, gradually, by the 1960s, Jesuits had begun to free themselves from this fear and to move into an era when, though its numbers fell, its integrity rose. Part of it was response to exterior challenges, and a great part was response to the example of fellow Jesuits who stuck their necks out, were hurt, but did not leave.”

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