The Society of Jesus is a religious order of the Catholic Church whose members are known as Jesuits and that was founded by Ignatius of Loyola in 1540 in Spain. In the United States, the order is best known for its missions to the Native Americans in the early 17th century, its network of colleges and universities, and (in Europe before 1773) its politically conservative role in the Catholic Counter Reformation.
Most of the Jesuit missions to North America were located in today's Canada, but they explored and mapped much of the west. French missionaries Père Marquette and Louis Jolliet were the first Europeans to explore and chart the northern portion of the Mississippi River, as far as the Illinois River.
Peter De Smet was a Belgian Jesuit active in missionary work among the Plains Indians in the mid-19th century. His extensive travels as a missionary were said to total 180,000 miles. He was known as the "Friend of Sitting Bull" because he persuaded the Sioux war chief to participate in negotiations with the United States government for the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.
It was a crime for Jesuits to enter colonial Massachusetts, but none were known to be present there. There were about two dozen Jesuits in the Thirteen Colonies in 1760, and they kept a low profile.
Stephen Larigaudelle Dubuisson, S.J. (1786-1864) was sent by the Jesuits from France to the United States in 1816-1826. He served in several parishes and colleges in the Maryland-Pennsylvania area, the center of Catholicism in the new nation. He was not a success as the head of Georgetown College, but otherwise was highly energetic and generally successful. In 1826 he was recalled to Rome, where he became effectively in charge of all Jesuits in the United States, as the advisor on American affairs to the head of the Society. He handled fund-raising, appointments, and setting general policies.
The American Jesuits were restored in 1804, and intellectually reflected the English Enlightenment, emphasizing reasonableness of faith, the right of individual conscience, private devotion, and active participation in the political life of the Republic. In Europe, by contract, the Jesuits were restored in 1814, as part of the Bourbon reaction against the French Revolution. The restored order "resisted intellectual innovation, distrusted Republicanism, championed papal primacy, clung to the throne/altar alliance, and promoted a Baroque piety that was 'warm, emotional, colorful and ardent.'" The European and American models were incompatible, and a flood of European Jesuits overwhelmed the new nation and established its conservative policies. In 1864, they wholeheartedly adopted the "Syllabus of Errors" an encyclical from Pope Pius IX that named 80 specific modern liberal ideas that Catholics were forbidden to teach or believe in. The Jesuits were quite successful in establishing staffing, funding and enrolling students for a growing network of secondary and collegiate schools. As the Irish and German ethnic middle classes became better established, they sent their boys off to Jesuit schools. The main goals of the Jesuit education were to inculcate piety, loyalty to the church, and strict adherence to the rules. The chief intellectual pursuit was Thomistic philosophy. Catholic students were not allowed to attend lectures given by non-Catholics. As late as the 1950s, Catholic writers such as John Tracy Ellis were bemoaning the intellectual weakness of the Catholic community.
The late 19th century, the reform element emerged among Catholics, led by Archbishop John Ireland, that was Strongly opposed by conservative elements, led by the Jesuits. One battle involved creation of the Catholic University of America, in Washington, which would compete directly with the nearby Jesuit school Georgetown University. The dispute lasted for decades, and weakened both schools.
The Society of Jesus is organized into geographic provinces, each of which being headed by a provincial superior. Today, there are four Jesuit provinces operating in the United States: the USA East, USA Central and Southern, USA Midwest, and USA West Provinces. At their height, there were ten provinces. Though there had been mergers in the past, a major reorganization of the provinces began in early 21st century, with the aim of consolidating into four provinces by 2020.
The Jesuit provinces were first organized into an "assistancy" (a regional grouping of provinces), called the Jesuit Conference of the United States, in 1972. A new, consolidated assistancy was created in 2014, called the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, under which all the provinces in the two countries are organized.
The Jesuit mission in the United States dated back to 1634. However, it was not until 1833 that the first province in the United States was established: the Maryland Province. William McSherry was elected as the first provincial superior, whose territory included the entire United States except for the territory of the Missouri mission. In 1879, the Maryland Province assumed responsibility for the New York portion of the New York-Canada mission, which gave rise to the new Maryland-New York Province. From the Maryland-New York Province was separated the New England Province in 1926. The New England Province administered a mission in Iraq, Jamaica, and Jordan. In 1943, the Maryland-New York Province was once again split into the Maryland Province and the New York Province, whose territory included all of New York State and northern New Jersey. From the New York Province, the Buffalo Province was created in 1960, whose territory included Upstate New York; due to a decline in the number of vocations, the Buffalo Province was merged back into the New York Province in 1969. The New York Province also administered missions in the Philippines, Micronesia, and Nigeria-Ghana. In 2014, the New York Province and the New England Province merged to form the USA Northeast Province, whose territory spanned from New Jersey to Maine. Its membership included 550 Jesuits, making it the largest Jesuit province in the world at the time. In 2020, the Maryland Province and the USA Northeast Province merged to form the USA East Province, whose territory will spans from Maine to Georgia.
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The first Jesuits entered Louisiana in the early 18th century, making New Orleans the headquarters of the French Jesuit mission in the Southern United States, which disbanded with the suppression of the Society. The first province in the South was established in 1863: the Missouri Province, whose origins dated to 1840 as a vice-province and 1823 as a mission. Out of the territory of the Missouri Province was created the New Orleans Province in 1907, whose territory included Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, and Texas. In 2014, the Missouri Province and the New Orleans Provinces were once again reunited as the USA Central and Southern Province.
The Chicago Province was created out of the Missouri Province in 1928. It also administered missions in India, Nepal, and Peru. The Detroit Province was separated from the Chicago Province in 1955. The Wisconsin Province was also created out of the Chicago Province that year. The Chicago and Detroit Provinces merged back together in 2011 as the Chicago-Detroit Province. The Chicago-Detroit and Wisconsin Provinces were merged in 2017 to become the USA Midwest Province.