By Jerry Duggan
Small is the number of people who recall that the former New Orleans Province of the Society of Jesus (which merged with the former Missouri Province in 2014 to create what is today known as the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province) once had its novitiate in Macon, Georgia.
That chapter in Jesuit history ended abruptly on the evening of Nov. 7, 1921, when St. Stanislaus College burned to the ground. This week marks the centennial of that sad event.
In 1874, Pio Nono College (named for Pope Pius IX, who was the pope at the time) was erected as a diocesan seminary in Macon. The five-story building sat on a hill one mile from the city center, its goal to prepare men for the priesthood. It aspired to become the largest Catholic college in the South.
Those plans never materialized, and the College shuttered after only a dozen years, and the New Orleans Mission of the Society of Jesus – it would not earn the designation of “province” until 1907 – acquired the property.
In those days, many men entered the Society immediately following their high school graduation. There were two years of novitiate, just as there are today, followed by two years of juniorate studies, in which men studied liberal arts – usually Latin, Greek, English and history.
At that time, novices and juniors alike lived in the same house, called a “college.”
Entering classes were small, usually consisting of about a dozen men. Outside of south Louisiana, Catholics were in short supply in the Bible Belt, and Macon was no different.
Diaries kept from those years show that men from across the South enrolled at the combined novitiate and juniorate, which was named St. Stanislaus College. A newspaper article from the era states that the College also housed men from seven countries in Europe and North America.
The College formed men to be Jesuit priests and brothers for more than two decades and grew slowly, but steadily. On one calm Southern night, that all changed.
Having finished Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and eaten supper, novices and juniors were making their way to the chapel for a choir rehearsal when they noticed an odor of smoke.
They quickly discovered a fierce blaze from the upper floors of the building.
The origin of the fire remains unknown to this day. One newspaper article says the purported culprit was a spontaneously combusted oil mop in a broom closet. Another blames the blaze on a clothes fire in a corner room on the building’s top floor that spread to the lower floors.
Whatever the cause, the men were quickly overwhelmed. It is likely that the fire had been spreading for some time before being detected.
Equipped with hoses on each side of the building, the men tried to fight the fire on their own, but their resources quickly proved inadequate. The bell was rung to sound the alarm to the community and the Macon Fire Department soon arrived on scene.
When the call was put in, the department erroneously believed they were arriving at the “Irish High School.” Due to the iconic “IHS” symbol on the building and pervasive lack of knowledge about the Jesuits at the time – in those days, non-Catholics outnumbered Catholics in Georgia 60 to 1, according to one source – and the fact that many of the men were Irish American, the school was colloquially known, perhaps in a chiding manner, as the Irish High School.
The hill the College was on, plus its distance of 1,000 feet from the nearest fire plug and the fact that there was no running water in the College, hampered efforts to put out the fire. It became apparent that the inferno was beyond anything the fire department could handle.
All inhabitants were evacuated; the fact that the fire started on an upper floor when all were downstairs for evening prayer was a tremendous blessing.
Father James DePotter, SJ, president of the College, and Fr. Wm. A. Meriwether, SJ, an 88-year-old of limited mobility, narrowly escaped.
Being on a hill, the fire could be seen for miles around, and a crowd of several thousand gathered to watch as the College became engulfed over the course of several hours.
Once it became clear that the structure’s demise was inevitable, the Jesuits made decisions about what was worth saving. They chose to rescue valuable items from the College’s library over their own possessions, escaping with only the clothes on their back.
Their heroic efforts were able to salvage some of the library’s most precious volumes, including Greek and Latin texts from several centuries ago and a Spanish bible from 1490. Still, most of the prized collection was lost.
Despite still prevailing anti-Catholic sentiment in the area, the now-homeless Jesuits were treated well by Macon in the following days. After being offered rooms at hotels free of charge for several days, the decision was made to transfer novices to the villa (a property the Society owned outside the city) and to move the juniors to the campus of a recently closed Jesuit college in Augusta, Ga.
These facilities proved inadequate, and in time the decision was made to reunite novices and juniors in Grand Coteau, La. St. Charles College, at that time a boarding school for Catholic boys, took on a new role: educating Jesuits in formation.
St. Charles College continues to house the novitiate of today’s UCS Province.
The Society decided not to attempt to rebuild on top of the ruins in Macon and sustained $200,000 of damages. It sold the property in 1926 to a real estate developer, who built one of Macon’s first subdivisions, what is still known as the Stanislaus subdivision in homage to its Jesuit heritage.
That no lives were lost on that infamous evening is an act of God’s tremendous mercy. Still, we remember on this day the memories and legacies left behind in Macon and pray that God continues to keep all our men safe.
Thank you to the Jesuit Archives and Research Center, who assisted with this story and provided images.