Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Ubiquitously Useful: The Jesuit College of St. Francis Xavier, New York City, 1847-1912

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Ubiquitously Useful: The Jesuit College of St. Francis Xavier, New York City, 1847-1912

Article excerpt

For sixty-five years the College of St. Francis Xavier was one of the largest and most important Jesuit colleges in the United States. It made a much greater contribution to Catholic higher education in New York City than St. John's College (the future Fordham University), producing hundreds of clergy, lawyers, doctors, and businessmen. The Jesuits who ran the college also staffed a busy parish church; served as chaplains in many of the city's hospitals, prisons, and asylums; and founded the Catholic Club of the City of New York, the most important lay Catholic social organization in New York City.

Keywords: Catholic higher education; Dealy, Patrick Francis, S.J.; Larkin, John, S.J.; Society of Jesus

Sir Richard Southern once characterized the ministry of the Augustinian canons in medieval England as "ubiquitously useful" because of the numerous ways in which they served people through their dense network of small religious houses scattered throughout the country.* 1 One might make a comparable claim on a much smaller geographical scale for the influence of the Society of Jesus in late-nineteenth-century New York City. However, in the case of the Jesuits, for a period of more than sixty years, the many contributions that they made to the pastoral, educational, charitable, and cultural needs of New York Catholics stemmed largely from one center: their College of St. Francis Xavier in the heart of Manhattan.

The college dates from 1847. In the previous year a community of exiled French Jesuits, who were struggling to administer a college in the wilderness of Kentucky, accepted the invitation of Bishop John Hughes to take charge of his faltering diocesan college of St. John, which was located seven miles north of the city in the hamlet of Fordham. For a brief interlude thereafter, the objectives of both Hughes and the Society of Jesus coincided. They both wanted a Jesuit college and church in New York City, which at that time was coterminous with the island of Manhattan. Hughes offered the Jesuits the Church of St. Andrew in the povertystricken Sixth Ward (the "Bloody Auld Sixth") not far from the notorious Five Points. Clément Boulanger, the Superior of the New York-Canada Mission who had negotiated the acquisition of St. John's College from Hughes, prudently declined the bishop's offer of St. Andrew's Church. However, Boulanger was eager to establish a Jesuit presence in New York City, if he could do so on more favorable terms for the Society of Jesus. Hughes was amenable to working out a compromise, and for this delicate task Boulanger selected one of the most talented and resourceful members of the local Jesuit community at Fordham: John Larkin (see figure l).2

Fifty Cents and a New College and Church

A tall, commanding figure who weighed more than 300 pounds, the English-born Larkin had a varied career before joining the Society of Jesus in Kentucky in 1840. According to Larkin's often-told tale, he left Fordham in July 1847 immediately after the close of the school year with 50 cents in his wallet. He claimed that he spent 25 cents for his railroad ticket from Fordham to New York City, paid another 20 cents for a carriage to transport his trunk to the residence of a friend, and was left with 5 cents in his wallet to establish a Jesuit college and church in the largest city in the United States.3

The 5 cents seem to have multiplied miraculously, since Larkin quickly purchased a former Protestant church in downtown Manhattan for $5000, renamed it the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, and opened a "college" for 120 students in the basement of the church. Six months later, on January 22, 1848, the church burned to the ground, forcing the Jesuits to relocate their college to another church basement where the sympathetic pastor was a former Jesuit. After five months of subterranean living the Jesuits emerged from the basement in May 1848 and moved their college again, this time to two rented houses where the parlors served as a rudimentary parish church. …

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