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1540-1891: The Jesuit Tradition

Missionaries, scientists, explorers—and above all educators—the Jesuits set out in 1540 to bring their unique vision of spiritual, moral, and intellectual preparation to every corner of the globe. By 1890, Seattle, a fast growing city in the Pacific Northwest, had captured their attention.

Seattle University draws on the rich tradition of Jesuit education. Founded by the Basque nobleman Ignatius de Loyola in 1540, the Society of Jesus, as the Jesuits are formally known, believed in developing the whole person—physically, intellectually, and spiritually. Unlike most religious orders, they shunned the quiet contemplation of the monastery and embraced the life of the world. There, they saw education as central to their ministry. By 1700, they had established so many colleges that they were known as the “schoolmasters” of Europe. Meanwhile, they fanned out across the globe, founding missions and schools in places as diverse as Japan, China, and South America.

In 1840, the Jesuits first pushed into the Pacific Northwest under a hardy explorer-missionary Father Peter DeSmet, SJ. A year later, DeSmet established a mission near present-day Missoula, Montana, paving the way for others who would go to Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska.

At the same time, the town of Seattle was emerging from the shadow of nearby Tacoma. Founded in 1851 and named after an early Catholic convert, Seattle grew quickly thanks to its diverse industries and pleasant environment. By the late 1880s, Seattle was rivaling Portland as the first city of the region. The Jesuits would arrive soon after.

Ignatius de Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus

Born in 1491 during the tumultuous struggles between Christians and Muslims for Spain, Don Inigo Lopez de Loyola y Onaz was a Basque nobleman and courtier for his first 30 years. Then, while recovering from a leg wound he received in battle, Ignatius began to read the religious texts that would soon change his life. He journeyed to Montserrat, where he began formulating his Spiritual Exercises, and then traveled to the Holy Land.

On his return, he found his new ideas resented by the Inquisition, and so he headed to the more liberal atmosphere of Paris. There he gathered a small but ardent band of followers. In 1537, they traveled to Rome, where the Pope, impressed by their vision, commissioned them as the Society of Jesus in 1540. At the time of Ignatius’ death in 1556, the Jesuits had already founded 40 colleges. Many more were to come.

About Jesuit education

Early Jesuit colleges were governed by the Ratio Studiorum, or “Plan of Studies.” Unlike many schools at the time, Jesuit colleges advocated a rigorous education focusing on the whole person. In addition to theology, students received a thorough grounding in classical languages, literature, and philosophy—which then included what we would today call science.

Although the Ratio Studiorum no longer serves as a guide, this open-minded, wide angle view of education is still alive today at Jesuit schools around the world.

Famous Jesuits

Through the years, Jesuits have left their mark in many fields, including science, literature, and education. View the images to learn more.

Father Peter DeSmet enters the west

Father Peter DeSmet, SJ, has the honor of being the first Jesuit to enter the Pacific Northwest. His journey followed one of the most remarkable episodes in the order's history in America. A decade earlier, four Salish braves had trekked from Montana to Missouri in search of the “Black Robes,” believing them to possess vast powers. Impressed by his visitors, DeSmet set out from St. Louis on April 30, 1840. He brought with him a clarinet, hoping it would pacify any hostile tribes he encountered. Luckily, this proved unnecessary as a crowd of 1,600 Flatheads and Nez Pierce greeted him warmly at the foot of the Rockies.

DeSmet would found a mission there the following year, and his colleagues would soon spread out across the region.

Seattle to 1890

Arthur Denny and a handful of other settlers arrived at Alki Point on November 13, 1851. The following year, they moved to the more sheltered eastern shore of Elliott Bay. They named their town Seattle, after a local Native American leader. The town received a major boost with the establishment of the region’s first steam-powered sawmill in 1852. Even so, for much of its early history, Seattle was seen as a smaller, less important city than Tacoma, Olympia, and others. However, canny long-term planning and a well-diversified local economy eventually caused it to win the race. By the time of its Great Fire in 1889, Seattle was clearly emerging as the major city of the Northwest.

In this image, you can see the future site of Seattle University as it appeared in 1890.