by Fr. Edward W. Schmidt, SJ
On June 17, 1673, two canoes glided out of the Wisconsin River and into the Mississippi. They bore seven Frenchmen and their provisions for a summer of exploration. Louis Joliet commanded the expedition with a Jesuit companion, Jacques Marquette, as spiritual leader. They were the first Europeans to leave any record of exploring the Mississippi River.
For a month they moved south, winding with the river’s course, racing as the stream picked up volume from the Missouri or the Ohio, drifting as it broadened over surrounding plains. Curious about every detail of the land, they made notes about animals and plants and geographic features. And they greeted and exchanged gifts with the friendly native peoples they met along the way. Reversing their course on July 17, they paddled upstream, took the Illinois River northeast, and reached the Jesuit mission St. Francois-Xavier on Green Bay in late September.
In those days there were no maps, let alone the boundary lines that later generations would draw on maps. There was an enthusiasm for exploration and conversion that later generations might question. And there was wonder about the vast, unspoiled beauty of God’s creation that later generations would envy.
Marquette was not the first Jesuit in what we call the Midwest. French Jesuits were already established at St. Ignace (in today’s Michigan) and at the mission of St. Francois-Xavier (in today’s Wisconsin).
The year after his trip on the Mississippi, Marquette went back to work with the Illinois peoples. Plagued by bad health and unable to travel, he spent the winter (1674-75) with two French companions in what is now Chicago. His journal entry for the day he arrived in Chicago, December 4, rings very true: “more snow there than elsewhere.”
In the spring, Marquette was able to preach and visit with the Illinois, but his health deteriorated. His two French companions paddled him along Indiana and Michigan shores of Lake Michigan hoping to get him to St. Ignace, but he died on May 18, probably near the mouth of the river that now bears his name, the Pere Marquette.
After 1763, the Jesuits’ work became very difficult. The Illinois country passed from French domination to British, and French settlers gradually withdrew across the Mississippi. The French government also banned the Jesuit order. In the end, only one Jesuit, Sebastien Louis Meurin, worked both sides of the Mississippi, spanning sovereignties and church jurisdictions; he continued his work even after the suppression of the Society in 1773.
Fr. Meurin holds another distinction as the first Jesuit recorded as working in what is now Indiana: the church documents of the settlement of Vincennes show a marriage on April 21, 1749; it is signed by Pere Meurin. (There are indications that an earlier Jesuit, Pere Mermet, had founded a mission there in 1710, but records are ambiguous.)
The Jesuits Return
Renewed Jesuit work in this area begins with the name of Fr. Charles Nerinckx, an energetic Belgian missionary in Kentucky. Nerinckx was not a Jesuit, but he actively recruited candidates to the newly-restored order. He returned from a trip to Belgium in 1815 with eight candidates for the Jesuit novitiate in Georgetown; six years later, a trip to Belgium netted three recruits. Among these recruits were James Oliver Van de Velde, destined to be the second bishop of Chicago, Piet de Smet, famed missionary of the West, and John Anthony Elet, remembered as the founder of Jesuit education in Cincinnati.
While the numbers were strong, the order could not really handle so many new recruits. The financial situation was so troubled that the superiors in the Maryland area decided to close their novitiate: the men were living on potatoes and water and there was not hope in sight. Salvation came in the person of Bishop L. William Du Bourg of New Orleans, who wanted Jesuits to work in Missouri, then part of this diocese. Fr. Charles F. Van Quickenborne, the novice director, did not like the idea, but the young Belgian novices did-after all, they had come to America to work with Indians. Most important, the Maryland superior, Fr. Leonard Neale, agreed to the plan.
So it came about that on April 11, 1823, Fr. Van Quickenborne and his seven novices set out to reestablish the novitiate in Florissant, Missouri, accompanied by the assistant novice director and three brothers; six slaves were part of the party. Proceeding overland to Wheeling (now West Virginia), then by flatboat down the Ohio River to Shawneetown (Illinois), then overland again, they crossed the Mississippi to St. Louis on May 31, eventually settling in Florissant, today a St. Louis suburb.