Built by immigrants

How Italian Jesuits helped shape the American West, from religious devotions to curriculum to pasta.

Built by immigrants
The magic lantern: A Jesuit offers a lesson in heavenly bodies to Santa Clara students in this 1887 lithograph. Courtesy SCU Archives

It was amid the dusty clutter of an old attic where I found myself first asking questions that it would take me four decades to answer. As a Jesuit novice in the 1960s, I lived in an antiquated Victorian structure perched on a hillside above Los Gatos, Calif. Home to about 140 seminarians, Sacred Heart Novitiate had been erected amid vineyards and olive groves in 1888 by émigré Jesuits from Italy. My curiosity was piqued by those atypical immigrants and by the gingerbread edifice they left behind. When not occupied with Latin study, meditation, and handball, I explored its ancient structure—from its dark, labyrinthine basement to a lofty turret, below which spread, in springtime, a pink‑and‑white quilt of blossoming orchards. By the 1960s, that billowy landscape was fast fading. Groves of plum and apricot were quickly giving way to high-rise technology centers as the Santa Clara Valley metamorphosed into Silicon Valley. Within a few years, the novitiate itself would be razed.

It was not the view from the tower that fascinated this 24-year-old, however, but rather the building’s fourth-floor attic. A vast chamber crouched under the roof; it had served as the dormitorium or common sleeping room for novices of the 19th century. By the 1960s, the iron bedsteads had long since disappeared. In their place, the debris of a discarded past littered the plank floor: scrapped Victorian furniture, ornate religious canvases consigned to oblivion by a shifting aesthetic, and steamer trunks inscribed with the names of long‑departed Jesuits. Who, I mused, had slumbered in that odd space? What had prompted the immigrant Jesuits’ flight from Italy to California? What sort of life had they transplanted to the Los Gatos hillside?

For many years, those queries remained largely unresolved. They resurfaced in 1975 when I joined the faculty here at Santa Clara University, another institution built by Italian Jesuits. While I was writing a history of the University, pieces of the attic puzzle fell into place. The Californians were among nearly 400 Italian Jesuits who had emigrated to America in the 19th century to escape persecution in their homeland. Banished from one kingdom after another during the anticlerical upheaval that accompanied Italian national unification, expatriates from Piedmont began their exodus to California in 1848. With the fall of the Papal States to the armies of united Italy in 1870, all Jesuits had been expelled. Uprooted Neapolitans and Sicilians, too, now took up new lives in the United States.

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The Sacred Heart statue in the Mission Gardens today. Photo by Charles Barry

The Italian religious did not confine their ministry to California. In 1869, Neapolitan expatriates had founded Woodstock College in Maryland, one of the most influential seminaries in America. Other exiles had emigrated to the frontier where they shaped Catholic culture in 11 western states, including Gold Rush California. In the Pacific Northwest, itinerant missionaries circulated among Native Americans. Across that vast region, they planted sturdy missions and schools that still serve as functioning churches and historical monuments. Toward the end of the century, the immigrants extended their educational mission to white settlers by founding Gonzaga and Seattle universities.

In the Southwest, adobe school houses and churches testified to the widespread community-building by Neapolitan missionaries. For nearly nine decades their influential Spanish‑language newspaper, La Revista Católica, molded regional public opinion on a host of combustible issues. In 1877, the neapolitani established a school for Latinos in Las Vegas, N.M., which was later relocated in Denver as Regis College.

From Montana to Texas, from the Pacific coast to the High Plains of Wyoming, the Italian émigrés left vivid footprints.

Thus the queries once posed in the seminary loft evolved in light of my study of the Santa Clara story. Fresh questions arose as I pondered what mark these Italian clerics had made on the religious and cultural life of the West. Was there a distinctive Italian quality to their various activities? How were Santa Clara and its sister schools shaped by their ethnic origin? Thus, a new project was born. It has resulted, many years later, in Brokers of Culture, a book about Jesuits that is also a book about America.

The refugees were not only geographically dispersed, but they ministered to varied and dissimilar populations. Rare was the ethnic or national group that was not touched by them. Straddling multiple cultures, their colleges were a 19th-century version of globalization. An early graduate of Santa Clara marveled at the diversity that had characterized his alma mater of the 1850s. Students “were of all ages and nationalities and opposite creeds,” he recalled, yet they forged a congenial community out of variety. “Whether native or Eastern, Mexican or South American, English, French or Italians, Catholic or Protestant, Jew or Gentile, they were Santa Clara boys.”

Because the Italian Jesuits were aliens without ties, they were able to move among cultures more easily than their native‑born counterparts. Their foreign extraction gave the Europeans leverage among Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, who did not hold them accountable for repressive United States policies. Thus, their ambiguous national status, coupled with a facility in mastering languages, eased the Italians’ reception by native peoples.

But that was not the only reason why the émigrés were equally at home on Indian reservations in Montana, at immigrant mining camps in Colorado, and in the classrooms of urban California. It made a difference that they came from a European culture that valued an ad hoc approach to problems and prized cooperation over confrontation. As 19th‑century Americans frequently pointed out, refugees from Italy were differentiated from other immigrants by their resilience. Even when choosing employment, observers said, Italians were “perhaps the most adaptable of all.” If predisposed toward flexibility by secular culture, the Jesuits were further inclined to harmonize disparities by religious training. Their order’s ruling ideology placed a high priority on accommodation and on operating, as their Constitutions put it, amid a “great diversity of persons throughout a variety of regions.”

Principle and practice sometimes clashed, but the Italian Jesuits’ predisposition to mediate between heterogeneous social groups showed itself in their colleges. Although they encountered prejudice in America, the Italians’ foreign birth and religion did not deter settlers and immigrants from enrolling in schools such as Santa Clara. Indeed, the clergy’s status as outsiders proved an asset in recruiting students from among the West’s cosmopolitan population. Immigrants and native-born, Catholics and Protestants alike sought admission. In early California and New Mexico, the Jesuits provided the only schooling to many minority children. By offering familiar religious experiences in an unfamiliar environment, the Italians helped assimilation and integration, a vital need of western crossroads culture. To populations sapped by dislocation and loss, their hybridizing colleges smoothed the transition from an old to a new society while serving as schools of citizenship in the young republic.

Santa Clara drew large numbers of Hispanic-Americans to its classrooms in the years after the Mexican War. Alienated by insufficiencies in the public school system, many Spanish‑speaking parents found Catholic establishments an appealing alternative. About one-fourth of the 1,650 students who enrolled at the College during its first 25 years were of Hispanic origin. To accommodate these learners, the Italian priests offered some bilingual instruction. At the ceremonies concluding the first year of Las Vegas College, New Mexico, in 1878, the program was equally divided between English and Spanish presentations. Mixed student bodies provided opportunities for forging friendships with both Anglo and Latino classmates, and enrollees discovered among the European faculty mentors who themselves wrestled with the challenge of acculturation.

Neither the novelty of their new life nor alienation from secularized Italy lessened the Jesuits’ amore di patria. Like all immigrants, they sought to replicate the conventions of home in unconventional America. Familiar food eased the affliction of exile, although an excess of pasta and Italian dishes on the College menu drove a French priest to protest. “Almost everyone is complaining,” declared Father Jerome Ricard, “especially the young men and boys who are not accustomed to Italian cooking.”

The Mission Gardens symbolized the Italians’ desire to transform the foreign into the familiar. They labored to embellish Santa Clara with ornamental foliage, all’italiana. Investment in gardens, arbors, walkways, and outdoor sculpture not only enhanced the reputation of the school but contributed to the spiritual and aesthetical uplifting of the academic community. The Piedmontese took advantage of California’s Mediterranean climate by introducing a Noah’s ark of domestic and foreign foliage into the gardens of Santa Clara. Enclosed with verandas and crisscrossed by trellises of grapevines, the College’s large interior courtyard, with its fountain, flowers, caged songbirds, and exotic plants of every type, beckoned visitors from far and wide in a region still lacking floral embellishment. “The whole scene was,” one caller chirped, “marvelously like Italy.”

The cosmopolitan West demanded innovation. The transplanted schoolmasters discovered that patterns of education acceptable in Italy had to be recut to fit new world expectations. Students in the American West were more inclined to study bookkeeping and mineralogy than the Latin poetry favored in Italian academies. “Oh what a waste of time are Latin and Greek,” a California Jesuit exclaimed, “for so many students that I now see working for a living—as grocer, butcher, and who knows what else!” Although curricular innovation was difficult to justify to European authorities, missionary teachers supplemented their conventional classical curriculum with courses in practical subjects that appealed to young men of the West. The results of their accommodation were melting-pot institutions—Santa Clara, Gonzaga, Regis, and the University of San Francisco—institutions that were neither fully American nor fully European, but a casserole blend of both, manifesting openness to a new kind of curriculum.

In New Mexico, the brokering of cultures was shaped by the Jesuits’ national origin from the very start. There, Neapolitan missionaries introduced the traditions of their homeland, which they blended with local Hispanic-American practices. For a half‑century, the missionaries crisscrossed the Southwestern countryside, scattering the seeds of Italian influence through their parishes, schools, and publications. However, they were no more inclined to eliminate indigenous customs there than they had been in California. That temptation was tempered by the Mediterranean cultural matrix that the foreign clergy shared with the native population. By integrating Italian and Mexican traditions, the Neapolitans legitimized themselves in the eyes of Latino Catholics. In turn, the Italians’ adaptive give‑and‑take approach helped make more acceptable their Romanizing ecclesiastical reforms.

Wherever posted, the Italians aimed at reconciling differences among the multicultural congregations that filled the pews of their large churches. Their pastoral objective was to bind American Catholicism more closely to Rome, to advance a European‑style institutional church in the United States, and to forge a community in which, as one bishop once put it, all races and cultures would find themselves “completely at home.”

Big diploma on campus: Saturino Ayon, from Mazatlán, Mexico, beside his Santa Clara diploma in 1866. His chest is bedecked with medals won for top grades in chemistry, Greek, Latin, mental philosophy, and natural philosophy. As that year’s sole graduate, he also delivered the valedictory address. Courtesy SCU Archives

Such were the goals of Santa Clara’s founders. They accomplished this by importing old-world religious practices, by enhancing the role of the priest in church affairs, and by promoting the centralization of Catholicism under papal authority. This quest for ecclesial unity manifested itself especially in the religious devotions that the piemontesi introduced to their multicultural clientele. Prayers to Mary during the month of May, Corpus Christi processions, allegiance to the papacy, devotion to St. Joseph, homage to the Sacred Heart—all had a universalizing and cohesive aim.

The statue of the Sacred Heart set in the heart of the Mission Gardens still stands as a sentinel to that quest for a unified community of believers. Focusing on Jesus’s love for humankind, devotion to the Sacred Heart urged the faithful to make reparation for the indifference and hostility of the contemporary world to religion and the Catholic Church. The devotion was closely connected to support of the beleaguered Pope Pius IX, who achieved near cult status among 19th-century Catholics. With the collapse of temporal authority of the papacy following Italian unification, promoters emphasized the pope’s moral and spiritual authority, linking love of the suffering Christ to loyalty to the Church and its aggrieved leader. Thus devotion to the Sacred Heart, coupled with the declaration of papal infallibility, contributed to the remarkable centralization of the Catholic Church in that troubled century.

Garden party: Four elderly Jesuits assemble in the Mission Gardens at the 19th century’s end. From left to right: Thomas P. Leonard, Carlo E. Messea, Giovanni Pinasco, and Giuseppe Caredda. Courtesy SCU Archives

The Italians promoted the integration of diversified Americans—Italians and Indians, Anglos and Latinos—into a transnational Catholic culture that surpassed local boundaries. The more centered on Roman customs, the greater the conditions for the possibility of oneness in diversity. Consequently, wherever the Italians went, the church was more Roman when they left.

The 19th-century faithful did not resist this quest for conformity, strange as it might seem to present‑day Catholics. I

In fact, when the immigrant clergy introduced old-world religious notions to congregations in the United States, they usually met acceptance. Why were alien ways readily embraced? One reason was that heterogeneous Catholics of the 19th century welcomed the supranational and centralized practices of the Italians as a means of transcending the restrictive confines of ethnicity. What one historian wrote of a German Jesuit who toiled among fractured immigrant populations in the 19th-century Midwest could also be said of the Italians: “He gave them a Catholic sense and determination where before they were separate and dissonant.”

What did these clerical exiles bring to the United States as a consequence of the persecution and abuse they had experienced in Europe? As fallible men of their time, many bore an antipathy toward the modern democratic state and liberalism, which had brought them so much grief in their homeland. The Italians also bucked against aspects of Americanization that they found objectionable. Offended by the absence of religious training in public schools, they struggled against secular state education in the United States as vigorously as they had in Italy. On the other hand, the scarring experiences of anticlericalism in Italy prompted in the banished Jesuits a profound appreciation of the religious liberty they had discovered in America. As a coworker once said of Santa Clara’s piemontesi, they “cherish freedom more than water.”

As founders of five institutions of higher learning, the Italians participated in what contemporary churchmen dubbed “the great battle” for cultural hegemony of the American frontier. “If Western society is left destitute of seminaries of a decidedly Protestant character,” warned Yale Professor Noah Porter in 1852, “the Jesuits will occupy the field.” The only remedy to this threat was “to preoccupy the ground with colleges and schools” before Jesuit institutions sprouted “in the unformed society of the West.”

Jesuits reciprocated the rivalry. Santa Clara’s cofounder, Michele Accolti, labored to “counteract the bold influence” of Methodist neighbors at the College of the Pacific. There were no schools in California, “except those of the Protestants,” Accolti said when soliciting European support for his own educational project. “If we do not move in the matter, the Protestant ministers are there to appropriate all the Catholic youth.” Offensive as such declarations sound to modern ears, denominational rivalry was not without social benefit. Competition unleashed a remarkable proliferation of church‑related colleges that transformed the United States into what one scholar dubbed “the land of colleges.”

It has taken 40 years to answer the questions originally posed by the ghosts in the attic. In the interval, I learned new lessons about American history through the study of Italian Jesuits. I also gained a broader understanding of Santa Clara University’s place in our national narrative. While composing the final chapter of Brokers of Culture, I frequently recalled a passage from Oscar Handlin’s Pulitzer Prize‑winning book, The Uprooted, which I had read decades earlier. “Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America,” he wrote. “Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.”

If Handlin was right in arguing that immigration is the paramount theme of national development, forging a synthesis of varied cultures has also been a constant of Santa Clara’s historic evolution. Indeed, rare is the American institution that has not been, and continues to be, shaped by refugees. Of the nearly 36 million people who emigrated to the United States between 1821 and 1924, many fled religious persecution; and once they arrived, faith provided an identity marker assisting survival and adaptation. The clergy of many denominations functioned as cultural intermediaries for immigration congregations. Even today, when displacement threatens newcomers with a loss of roots, churches, mosques, and synagogues preserve ethnic and cultural identity while easing the immigrants’ adjustment to a new life in a new environment. This is also true of contemporary Santa Clara University. What makes this institution, and other Jesuit universities in the West, unique is not just that they served immigrant populations but also that they were founded and forged by refugee exiles. The historic product of displacement and uprootedness, they remain committed to creating a community of disparate nationalities and ethnicities and to eliciting the best from them.

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