Jesuits began coming to the Americas soon after the Society of Jesus was founded in 1540.
The Spanish Jesuit, Fr. Pedro Martinez, reached what is now Florida in 1566, while French Jesuits in present-day Maine celebrated, in 1611, the first known Mass in the New World, at the mouth of the Kennebec River.
English Jesuits established a mission shortly after arriving in Maryland in 1634. French Jesuits such as Jacques Marquette came and rode their canoes along the unchartered waters of the Great Lakes. By the 1680s, the men in black robes also were coming from Spain and setting up churches and villages in today’s American Southwest.
French Jesuits first evangelized Native American nations in the vast Louisiana Territory at the beginning of the 18th century. Fr. Paul Du Ru, chaplain to the French expedition of 1700, became the first Jesuit to explore the Mississippi from its mouth northward, complementing Marquette's exploration of the upper river.
Eventually, New Orleans became the headquarters for the mission, with a Jesuit plantation covering what is now the central business district of the city. The suppression of the Society in 1773 by Pope Clement XIV ended that first missionary endeavor.
Shortly after Pope Pius VII restored the Society in 1814, seven Belgian novices, two brothers and two priests set off down the Ohio River with little to guide them but an intense faith that God would lead them safely through twisting channels and submerged tree trunks to a small frontier town where they could begin building their dream of a church in the New World. St. Louis had only 4,000 inhabitants when these founders of the Missouri Province arrived on May 31, 1823. They were accompanied by six enslaved people. This ugly part of Jesuit history is now being studied closely to learn more about the enslaved individuals who were forced to work for the Jesuits and helped ensure the success of the mission. The results of this research is posted on this site.
The French Revolution of 1789 had destroyed an old feudal regime and plunged Europe into an orgy of war. Churches and rectories in Belgium were emptied under Napoleon's rule a few decades later. The edge of civilization in America offered great promise to these young Jesuits who could see possibilities in the forests and high plains of their new home.
They came to the frontier with the dream of preaching the Gospel to the Indians, but found a need for churches and schools. They established foundations of the Church up and down the Missouri Valley and to the far Northwest.
In 1831, four French Jesuits arrived in New Orleans on their way to Bardstown, Ky. The bishop of New Orleans asked Father General John Roothaan to send Jesuits to help him establish a Jesuit college in Louisiana. Fr. Nicholas Point, a French Jesuit who had been working in the Missouri Mission, was designated as the rector of the new college. After considering several sites, they opened their school, St. Charles College, at Grand Coteau in January 1838 as the only Catholic school for boys in Louisiana. The following year, Fr. Roothaan made the new college the responsibility of the Jesuits of the Missouri Mission.
The French Jesuits of the Lyon Province in 1847 assumed responsibility for the newly created New Orleans Mission, which included St. Charles College and a school founded by the bishop of Mobile, Ala.
The Missouri Mission became a vice-province in 1840 and a province in 1863 as Jesuit schools and parishes developed amidst the turmoil of the Civil War. Jesuits from the New Orleans Mission served as chaplains during the war.
Despite the steady loss of Jesuits to yellow fever epidemics, New Orleans became an independent mission in 1847 with Jesuit ministry in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. New Orleans became a province in 1907 with Fr. John F. O'Connor as its first provincial.
As the Church developed in the center of the country, three provinces grew out of the Missouri Province: Chicago, Detroit and Wisconsin. As Jesuits grew in numbers, they developed universities, high schools and parishes.
In the last two decades, Missouri and New Orleans, joined by other U.S. provinces, have collaborated in Jesuit formation and governance.
In recent years, U.S. and Canadian Jesuit provinces have been reorganizing. The New Orleans and Missouri Provinces were obvious partners, and came together as the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province on July 31, 2014, with Fr. Ronald Mercier as its first provincial.