Pioneer Jesuits in the South

1566 to 1763

by Donald A. Hawkins, S.J.

Although the Jesuit apostolate at the beginning of the twentieth century was developing much faster along the Eastern seaboard than along the Gulf coast, the new Southern Province, erected in 1907, could actually trace its roots to the second half of the sixteen century. Jesuit involvement in the South grew with the competing self-interests manifested by the kingdoms of Spain and France.

Only a decade after the death of St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis Borgia, third Jesuit general, responding to a request by King Philip II of Spain, sent three Jesuit missionaries to Florida in 1566. One of them, Pedro Martinez, former rector of the Jesuit college at Valladolid, had begged for the privilege of serving on the missions. He had even written, "I often dream I am undergoing martyrdom . . . My thoughts are always centered on martyrdom . . ." Father Martinez received his wish: fearful Indians clubbed him to death October 6, 1566, on the sands of Fort George Island, Florida. The first Jesuit to enter the territory of what is now the United States, Martinez was, of course, also the first Jesuit missioned to serve in what is now the New Orleans Province.

Far better known than Pedro Martinez, French Jesuit Jacques Marquette paddled down the Wisconsin River to the Mississippi in the seventeenth century, exploring the great stream to a point fifty miles above the present site of Memphis. But Marquette established no permanent mission in the area.

Concluding the War of the League of Augsburg, one of the many conflicts which plagued seventeenth-century Europe, Louis XIV of France decided that populating Louisiana would prevent the English from isolating French settlements in Canada. Appointed to lead what was essentially a protective expedition was a Canadian, Pierre Lemoyne, Sieur d'Iberville, who reached Mobile Bay February 1, 1699, and the mouth of the Mississippi March 2. He began work April 5 on a fort at Biloxi, the first permanent settlement in French Louisiana.

Early Jesuits in the South

Returning for a second expedition in 1700, lberville brought with him Jesuit Father Paul Du Ru as the expedition's chaplain. Du Ru became the first Jesuit to explore the Mississippi from its mouth northward, thus complementing the journey of Marquette from the north.

The next Jesuit traveler was Father Joseph de Limoges, who began his missionary life working among the Ottawa tribe. In 1700 he traveled down the great river to meet his colleague Du Ru. Not finding him, Limoges continued on to Biloxi, where he remained as chaplain when Iberville returned to France.

On his third voyage to Louisiana, Iberville brought another Jesuit, Father Dongé, empowered to receive Du Ru's final vows in the Society of Jesus. Father Dongé was appointed to serve as chaplain at Mobile, founded in 1702.

Before the establishment of the Jesuit mission on a permanent basis, the most prominent Jesuit visitor was Father Francois Xavier de Charlevoix, commissioned by the French government to discover the Sea of the West. Visiting New Orleans, three years old in 172 1, the priest entertained great hopes for the village:

I have the best grounded hopes for saying that this wild and deserted place, at present almost entirely covered with canes and trees, shall one day, and perhaps that day is not very far off, become the capital of a large and rich colony.

Four years following the visits of this first of a long line of tourists at New Orleans, Father Nicholas Ignace de Beaubois, Superior of the Jesuits in the Illinois country, established the first Jesuit residence in New Orleans as a headquarters where missionaries could rest and from which they could transact mission business. Six of the ten priests committed to this Indian apostolate worked within the boundaries of the present-day province, with the mission superior himself residing in New Orleans.

Father Du Poisson left New Orleans in 1727 to take up his post upriver among the Arkansas tribe. Three Jesuit missionaries were stationed among the Choctaw nation, with forty-two villages committed to their care. Jesuits also worked among the Yazoo Indians and the Natchez. For some time missionaries cared for the Alibamon tribe, who lived in an area roughly corresponding to what is now central Alabama.

The French colonists themselves recognized the benefits of Jesuit evangelization among the various tribes:

First and foremost, missionaries must be stationed in the midst of Savages which separate us from the English and as these are constantly endeavoring to win over the Indians and excite them to rise against us, it is absolutely necessary that the missionaries to be sent there be clever, active, and alert. Among all the Religious Orders in the world, the Jesuits alone are such. Therefore, we need them.

Jesuit Martyrs in the South

But such dedication meant that the priests had to pay a price. Some of the Indians rose against the French colonists and, of course, against their French missionaries. Three priests died as martyrs of their "devotion and charity": Paul Du Poisson, killed while carrying communion to the sick, victim of the Natchez; John Souel, who was killed by the Yazoo; and Antoine Senat, burned at the stake by the Chickasaw tribe. At the same time Father Etienne Doutreleau was seriously wounded by the Yazoo.
In order to support their missionary efforts without becoming a financial strain on the French, Father Beaubois purchased land which eventually became a prosperous plantation covering what is now the entire commercial district of the city. The Jesuit tract covered an area from the Mississippi River to Broad Avenue and from Common to Felicity Streets

Jesuits Persuade Ursulines to Come

Father Beaubois wished to bring women religious to the new city to assist in the hospital. Volunteers for the rigorous life were found among the French Ursulines. The nuns did not move into their permanent residence until 1734, and that convent building still stands as a monument to their strength and generosity. The Ursulines cared for the colony's orphans and also provided a Christian education for young girls, just as they do today, two and a half centuries later.

Despite all the good that the Jesuits had accomplished, however, not everyone in the colony or in France itself appreciated their work; the Jesuits found themselves unwittingly involved in ecclesiastical politics. In the 1720's, for instance, the missionaries had found an enthusiastic supporter in Jean Baptiste Lemoyne de Bienville, Iberville's younger brother. Since the younger Lemoyne was not so popular as his brother had been, the Jesuits were judged guilty by association.

Conflict continued to grow between the Jesuits residing in New Orleans and the Capuchin Franciscan friars who served as parish priests at the church of St. Louis. The Capuchins maintained that the Jesuits had no right to minister to the French colonists who occasionally came to their chapel for spiritual assistance. Finally the bishop of Quebec, in whose diocese Louisiana was located, solved the problem by appointing a Jesuit, Father Michael Baudouin, as his vicar general in New Orleans.

Jesuits Expelled from Louisiana

The Jesuits, however, did not find peace. The enmity against the Jesuits in Louisiana was merely a reflection of the battle waged against the Society of Jesus in France itself. In the sixteenth century the English crown had found an effective means of controlling religion by separating the Church of England from the unity of the Church of Rome. By the eighteenth century, the monarchies of Portugal, Spain, and France began their campaigns to free their "national churches" from Roman influences. In the Society of Jesus, with its traditional loyalty to the papacy, they saw a stumbling block to their goal.

Opponents of the Jesuits in France saw an opportunity to advance their cause when the Society there became involved in a court case involving Jesuit finances. When the Jesuits appealed to the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus in their defense, the French jurists asked to examine the Constitutions themselves. Using false allegations based on their interpretations of the Jesuit Constitutions, the French judicial and civil bureaucracy moved methodically to destroy the Society of Jesus.

A similar campaign began in far-off Louisiana. Nicholas Chauvin de la Freniere, attorney general of the colony, demanded that the Louisiana Superior Council have its day to examine the Constitutions. It took only one week for the merchants and shopkeepers of the council to render a decision. The Decree of Suppression of the Society of Jesus in Louisiana was promulgated July 9, 1763. Jesuit property in New Orleans was sealed, and appraisers were sent to take an inventory. An eight-day auction of goods began July 18.
As for the Jesuit priests and brothers, they were shipped back to France, all except Father Baudouin, former vicar-general, seventy-two and ill, who was a native of Canada with no family in France. He died in 1766 and was buried in the parish church.

Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Society of Jesus throughout the world in 1773. The work of the Jesuit missionaries of Louisiana among the Indians already lay in ruins. There was simply not a sufficient number of priests available to continue these labors.  It was most fitting that the first Jesuits to return to work in the South in 1837, only twenty-three years after Pope Pius VII had restored the Society of Jesus in the Universal Church, were Frenchmen from the Province of Lyons. The modern Southern Province, stretching from South Carolina to New Mexico, has never been a part of another American province. The province has grown from the work of pioneers; and it is as pioneers looking to the future that Southern Jesuits thank God for his goodness and blessings on the South, where Jesuits have labored and been a part of history since 1566 when Pedro Martinez stained the Florida sands with his blood.

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