In the 1930’s, the then New England Jesuit Province petitioned for permission to establish
a school for boys in Hartford, Connecticut. The petition languished until 1941, when
Bishop Maurice McAuliffe suggested instead that the Society consider an alternate
location in the city of Bridgeport. After a thorough and unsuccessful search for a
suitable property in Bridgeport, the Society was informed of a 76-acre estate along
Benson Road in the town of Fairfield. The estate was owned by the Jennings family,
and included a 40-room mansion called Mailands. The Jesuits proceeded to purchase the
Jennings estate and Mailands.
In the spring of 1942 another piece of land, adjacent to the Jennings estate, came to market. Owned by Walter Benjamin Laschar, it was 105 acres of rolling hills and woods, and had a 44-room mansion in arrears for taxes.For the price of the back taxes, the Laschar estate was also acquired, and Fairfield’s 181-acre campus was born.
The Society sent 15 Jesuits to the new campus, with the community’s first rector, John McEleney, in March of 1942. The first classes of Prep commenced in September 1942. In 1945, the Society was able to have the Connecticut Senate and Governor approve a charter for Fairfield University of St. Robert Bellarmine, an institution with four educational units: intermediate, secondary, college and graduate school.
From 1942 until the mid 70’s, the educational apostolate of the Prep and the University was the central focus of the community. Jesuit priests, scholastics and brothers in the classroom and in the positions of administration and staff were the primary architects of the growing institution. They lived all over the campus in McAuliffe Hall, on the top floors of Berchman Hall, as corridor ministers in the new dormitories, and in Bellarmine Hall. At their peak in 1983, the Jesuit community consisted of 80 members. The community earned a reputation for being extraordinarily friendly, collegial and welcoming to lay faculty, students, friends, and brother Jesuits from the New England Province and beyond.
In May 1974, on the initiative of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuit Community of Fairfield was separately incorporated from Fairfield University. The community was given nine acres of the original property upon which to build a new residence. The remaining assets of the university and the prep school were granted to a board of trustees which functioned independently of the Jesuit superiors. The Society committed itself to supporting Fairfield with Jesuit personnel and resources for as long as possible.
In the years that have followed, the Jesuits of Fairfield have continued to make significant contributions to the life of the University. Though smaller in size, the community remains a vital part of the soul of Fairfield.
In 1491, Ignatius of Loyola was born into a noble Basque family in northern Spain. In his
youth he was a courtier, a swaggering “cabellero” and a soldier in the service of the
Spanish king, Ferdinand.
While he was defending the fortress at Pamplona in 1521, his leg was shattered by a cannonball. During a prolonged and painful convalescence Ignatius experienced an interior transformation that changed his whole life. A new desire to serve Jesus replaced his former hopes of knightly glory.
The once-proud courtier left Loyola and set out as a pilgrim to the Benedictine monastery at Montserrat. He spent all night in vigil and offered his knight’s sword to Our Lady. Exchanging his rich garments for those of a beggar, he spent the next few months living in a cave in nearby Manresa. There he tested himself through mortification and prayer, reflecting deeply on the life and teachings of Jesus. He kept careful notes of his experiences in prayer and these became the basis of a small book called the Spiritual Exercises. This book, revised and adjusted throughout his life, was used by Ignatius to lead others to a knowledge of God by meditation on the life of Jesus. Today, it continues to be basic to the formation of every Jesuit.
The spring of 1539 found Ignatius and his companions in Rome where they engaged in serious discussions about how they might together serve God in the Church. What emerged was a summary of their decisions, a formula for their future. On September 27, 1540, Pope Paul III approved this formula and the Society of Jesus was born.
In 1556, Ignatius, who called himself “the pilgrim” ended his journey to God. He died peacefully in the early morning of July 31.
On August 15, 1534 – The Feast of Our Lady’s Assumption – St. Ignatius of Loyola, then a student
at the University of Paris, gathered with nine fellow students at a small chapel at Montmarte in
Paris. During the communion of the Mass, the group pledged themselves to lead lives of poverty
and chastity. Six years later, in September 1540, Pope Paul IV, recognizing the spiritual mission
of the small group, issued the Bull Regimini Militantis Ecclesiae and the Society of Jesus was born.
Ignatius’ first vision of the Jesuits was that they would be a group of mendicants, begging alms which they in turn would give to the poor. In time, however, requests came from parts of Europe and later from the “New World” asking St. Ignatius and the Jesuits to establish schools for the education of young men and women. By the time Ignatius died on July 31, 1556 there were over 1000 Jesuits working and teaching all over the world.
Amongst that first group of Jesuits at Montmarte was St. Francis Xavier, who shortly after the formation of the Jesuits, Ignatius would send off to India, China and Japan on one of the greatest missionary expeditions of all times. Later, Jesuit astronomers would discover craters on the moon and create the contemporary calendar, Jesuit explorers would sail down the Mississippi and climb the Himalayas, Jesuit mathematicians would reveal the mysteries of non-Euclidian geometry and Jesuit artists and architects would create a whole new style of church architecture.
Jesuits serve around the world today. In the United States Jesuits operate 28 colleges and universities and 46 high schools. In the U.S.A. the Jesuits also operate parishes, retreat houses and middle schools as well as publish magazines and newspapers and provide spiritual counseling to untold numbers of people.