Jesuits began coming to the Americas soon after the Society of Jesus was founded in 1540.
A 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 uncharted 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 French Jesuit 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.
In 1823, shortly after Pope Pius VII restored the Society in 1814, eight 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.
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. 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. Fr. Nicholas Point, a French Jesuit who had been working in the Missouri Mission, was designated as the rector of the new college. The following year, Fr. Roothaan made the new college the responsibility of the Jesuits of the Missouri Mission. In 1847, the French Jesuits of the Lyon Province assumed responsibility for what was then the New Orleans Mission, which included St. Charles College, St. Charles Borromeo Parish and a school founded by the bishop of Mobile, Ala. Their territory extended into Georgia, Alabama and Texas. New Orleans became a province in 1907 with Fr. John F. O’Connor as its first provincial.
Meanwhile, in the north, the Missouri Mission became a vice-province in 1840 and a province in 1863.
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 recent years, U.S. and Canadian Jesuit provinces have been reorganizing. The New Orleans and Missouri Provinces came together as the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province on July 31, 2014, with Fr. Ronald Mercier as its first provincial. The region of Puerto Rico joined the province the following year.
Today, American and Canadian Jesuits are still exploring new frontiers. Together with our lay collaborators, we are fostering dialogues with non-Christian religious faiths in the developing world, for example, and starting middle schools in hard-pressed neighborhoods of urban America. The mission remains as it has for nearly 500 years — to bring people and cultures closer to the living God.