Remembering Marquette’s Jesuit roots

Jesuit
Jesuits are known for their devotion to service and education. Photo by Brittany McGrail

They are known for their devotion to service and education. They could even be said to be the most devoted Marquette fans to ever exist. They are the Marquette Jesuits.

Marquette University was founded in 1881 after Milwaukee’s first Archbishop, the Rev. John Martin Henni, expressed an interest in establishing a Catholic, Jesuit College.

The history of Jesuits at Marquette began with only three priests and three scholastics — young Jesuits who were not yet ordained — as well as three lay brothers who tended to the community. Nine people led Marquette to a new location in 1907 after the university began to flourish.

The Rev. John Donnelly, a retired history professor and Marquette Jesuit since 1963, said the first devotion for the Jesuits was missionary work.

“Father Marquette attempted to convert Native Americans in Indian schools, and that was not successful,” Donnelly said. “Now the point is fostering religious faith, learning and educating the people.”

From 1907 to the end of World War II in 1945, the Jesuit population expanded to 48 priests, 12 scholastics and two brothers. All of the scholastics and 14 of the priests taught every day at Marquette University Jesuit High School.

Donnelly said the growing population and location of a prominent university like Marquette is not a coincidence.

“Jesuit colleges appeared all throughout the United States in both small and large cities, but, as history shows, those in the smaller cities ended up closing,” he said. “Fordham, Fairfield, Georgetown, Loyola College in Baltimore, Gonzaga are all successful Jesuit universities in big cities. Kansas had several Jesuit institutions such as St. Mary’s Academy and College, but they closed. There are a number of incidents of failed Jesuit endeavors.”

As time passed, the prominence of Marquette’s Catholic-Jesuit campus began to emerge. Prior to 1970, a Jesuit president and an all-Jesuit board of trustees ran campus. After that, they incorporated lay people, which made for a mix of both Jesuit and non-Jesuit board members.

The Rev. Andrew Thon, former vice president of student affairs and current professor in the College of Education, said the process of going from solely Jesuit to non-Jesuit board members was like transitioning from a “mom and pop” business to a less personal one.

“The board of trustees is like the owner of the Jesuit campuses,” Thon said. “They select the president for Jesuit campuses and make executive decisions.”

He said that as this happened the number of campuses decreased, and in the early 1990s the Jesuit presidents created the Office of Mission and Identity on campuses across the nation.

The office has hosted all day new-staff orientation in order to educate non-Catholics on Jesuit history and mission, he said.

In 1974, there were 88 priests and two brothers, 57 of them working as administrators and teachers. According to the Rev. Edward Mathie, director of Campus Ministry, however, the 1970s were the time of declining numbers.

There are currently 47 Jesuits, one scholastic and no brothers at Marquette University.

“It is easier to keep the identity if you have a larger number of Jesuits on campus,” Mathie said.  “But with the lay board we have worked on not relying on the presence of Jesuits but (instead) knowing the Jesuit mission and living the mission with the campus as a whole.”

Mathie said this is also because of the Office of Mission and Identity.

“We make sure the mission is coming true,” Mathie said. “Our mission has become clearer, more intentional and easier to grasp as we adjust to the decreasing numbers.”