By Jerry Duggan
On June 29, 1922, the New Orleans Province of the Society of Jesus opened a novitiate in Grand Coteau, La., a tiny town in southwestern Louisiana., replacing one in Georgia that had been destroyed by fire seven months prior. A century later, Jesuits of the USA Central and Southern Province (which was formed when the New Orleans Province and the Missouri Province combined in 2014) still begin their Jesuit journey in Grand Coteau.
Early Jesuit Presence
The sleepy but holy town of Grand Coteau (population 776) is in the heart of Cajun country, not far from the bayous. Jesuits first came to Grand Coteau in 1837 to start a boys’ school and serve the local Catholic community. Although they investigated several possible locations, they settled on Grand Coteau because the Religious of the Sacred Heart, who had been there since 1821 running a school for girls, invited them and offered them some building materials. Within a few months, St. Charles College opened as a boarding school for Catholic boys aged roughly ten to eighteen.
The Society of Jesus was also given responsibility for a parish, known today as St. Charles Borromeo, which was founded in 1819. A parish school and a separate school for African-American children were also started.
Novices and Juniors in Georgia
At the time, the province housed its novices and juniors together at a “college” in Macon, Ga. (The designation “juniors” is no longer used. The juniorate was the period of formation for Jesuits who had pronounced first vows and were doing humanistic studies. This period later merged with philosophy studies to become what is now referred to as “first studies.”)
On the night of Nov. 7, 1921, St. Stanislaus College in Macon burned to the ground, and the decision was made to temporarily transfer the novices to their nearby villa outside Macon and the juniors to the campus of a recently shuttered seminary in Augusta, Ga.
The novitiate diary from the time devotes remarkably little attention to the fire and its aftermath. Firsthand accounts state that novices and juniors elected to save valuable materials from the College’s library rather than their own belongings, escaping with only the clothes on their backs.
For the next several days, the men stayed at a local hotel. Appearing unshaken by the narrowly escaped disaster – by the grace of God, no lives were lost in the fire – the novices and juniors kept some semblance of their normal programming intact, even while staying at the hotel.
A typical day as a novice entailed time in prayer, Mass and rosary, structured lessons in a variety of academic subjects such as Latin and arithmetic, as well as recreational time.
The Move to Grand Coteau
On June 8, the anonymous author of the diary, who is usually short on commentary aside from noting a given day’s activities, remarks that the rector informed the men they would soon be moving to Grand Coteau.
On June 12, a different diary, this one from St. Charles College, states that the boys’ school held its final commencement ceremony and that the building would soon be occupied by the Jesuits.
Roughly two weeks later, the novices departed the villa by train, stopping in Montgomery, Ala. and New Orleans enroute to their new home. After arriving on June 29, they took a quick tour of the grounds, went for a swim in the campus pool and got to work the next day with their usual studies. The author of the diary recorded little detail or emotional investment in the move.
The novitiate diary gives the impression that the early stages of the Jesuit formation process were intense and highly structured – so much so that a change in venue, or even a fire, did not warrant a slowing down of the program.
The juniors soon joined the novices in Grand Coteau. The diary’s author does remark briefly that the two groups were overjoyed to be reunited and that all were impressed with their new home. All quickly got acclimated to their new surroundings and resumed business as usual.
Grand Coteau Today
Grand Coteau continues to have a vibrant Jesuit presence. A century after it was moved to the campus of St. Charles College, the novitiate remains in Grand Coteau, sharing the building with St. Alphonsus Rodriguez Pavilion (a residence for senior and infirm Jesuits). The Jesuit Spirituality Center was established in 1972 inside a portion of St. Charles College that was vacant at the time. It offers retreats and spiritual direction, as well as training in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.
St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church is still operated by the Jesuits today. It boasts a parish school and a cemetery.
Our Lady of the Oaks Retreat House was built by the Diocese of Lafayette, La., in 1938 and donated to the Society of Jesus.
The nearby Thensted Center, although not an official work of the province, is a community outreach center named for the late Fr. Cornelius Thensted, SJ, and supported by Jesuits and parishioners.
Grand Coteau is where Jesuit life has begun and ended for hundreds of Jesuits over the last century. We remain grateful to God for letting us call this sacred place home and pray that it continues to house our novices for years to come.