Gold Rush Beginnings

Imagine San Francisco before the Gold Rush: only a few low scrub oaks, only a few settlers’ homes, only a ship or two in the harbor. All that changed within months after the discovery of gold on January 24, 1848. No one, least of all the Catholic Church, was prepared for the rush of people through the Golden Gate on their way to the gold fields. Fr. José Maria de Jesus Gonzales Rubio, a Franciscan missionary and administrator of the Diocese of California, in a letter written four months after the discovery of gold, wrote of his difficulty in ministering to these newcomers:

“Day by day we see that our circumstances grow in difficulty; that help and resources have shrunk to almost nothing; that the hope of supplying the needed clergy is now almost extinguished; and, worst of all, that through lack of means and priests, divine worship throughout the whole diocese stands upon the brink of total ruin… Oh! How we should fear, dearly Beloved, a chastisement so dread! A chastisement the greatest assuredly that could befall us from Heaven’s anger, which, it would seem, we already begin to experience, since God in his inscrutable judgments has, for the past few years, allowed that in this our country everything should be thrown into confusion; that the missionaries should die or abandon the country, while I have no hope of replacing them; that religious education should day by day disappear…”1

In the autumn 1848, Fr. John B. Brouillet, vicar-general of the diocese of Nesqually, Oregon, landed in San Francisco hoping to minister to Catholic miners headed for the gold fields. Fr. Antoine Langlois, a diocesan priest on his way to Canada to join the Society of Jesus, joined him a few months later. Fr. Brouillet asked him to stay in San Francisco, and he wrote to the Jesuit superior in Oregon for that permission. The answer: “He should labor in San Francisco, and leave the future in God’s hands.”2

Later, both Brouillet and Langlois, desperate for help, encouraged Fr. Michael Accolti, SJ, working in Oregon’s Willamette Valley (a part of the Jesuits’ Rocky Mountain Mission) to visit San Francisco, and they continued their work to minister and convert. In his journal, Langlois noted that this work continued “in spite of the natural obstacles thrown its way by the thirst of gold; gold, of which all had come in search from every part of the globe; in spite, moreover, of the drawbacks of uncertain employment, of various inconveniences, of the intermingling of people, strangers to one another, and this in tents for a considerable number; in spite of the temptations of bar-rooms and saloons on every hand for the multitudes that frequented them, to amuse themselves, drink and spend their time…”3

Brouillet wrote to Accolti that “the people [of California] desire you warmly and are urging you to come. Everybody is asking for a Jesuit College and here is what they put at the joint disposition of yourselves and the Sisters of Notre Dame: an entire mission, one of the finest and best equipped in the whole of California, with a magnificent church … on condition that a college and convent be set up there with the least possible delay….”

Accolti and the Jesuits in the Oregon territory had met with challenges working with Native Americans, especially after the inundation of whites into that region. Accolti wanted to work in California, but all the Jesuits were faced with an order by the Jesuit Father General John Roothaan barring his priests from seeking new mission work there, in part because he did not want to see the efforts of the Society stretched too thin and because of past prohibitions by the Mexican government against Jesuits traveling in its territory. Those prohibitions ended with the cession of California from Mexico to the United States on February 2, 1848, by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and Accolti believed that enough had changed since Roothaan’s order to warrant the journey, especially with the discovery of gold. “All the white Catholic population around Oregon City had left for California,” noted SI Archivist Michael Kotlanger, SJ ’64. “The success of the Indian mission work was slow and grudging. Greater good seemed to lie in California where the Rocky Mountain Mission was forbidden to expand.” Despite this prohibition, Accolti repeatedly petitioned his superior, Fr. Joseph Joset, SJ, for permission to sail to San Francisco; Accolti finally wore Joset down and permission was granted.4

(Accolti, the founder of the California Province of the Society of Jesus, pursued his dream of establishing churches and schools in California with amazing vigor. SI owes its origin as much to Accolti as to the school’s founder, Fr. Anthony Maraschi, SJ. Without Accolti’s years of campaigning, letter writing and personal appeals, the Jesuit mission in California might never have been.)

Joset asked Fr. John Nobili, SJ, who had met with poor health working at an isolated Indian mission post in British Columbia, to accompany Accolti to California. On December 3, 1849, the two boarded the O.C. Raymond, a lumber ship heading down the Columbia River for California, and arrived in San Francisco the night of December 8, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception.5 In Accolti’s memorial on the subject, he wrote that “the next day we were able to set foot on the longed-for shores of what goes under the name of San Francisco, but which, whether it should be called a villa, a brothel, or Babylon, I am at a loss to determine; so great in those days was the disorder, the brawling, the open immorality, the reign of crime which brazen-faced triumphed on a soil not yet brought under the sway of human laws.”

Fr. Accolti initially entertained the idea of heading to the hills to dig for gold, but gave up that plan. In a letter to Fr. Roothaan three months after his arrival, he wrote the following: “Here we are in California, come not to seek gold in this country of wealth and treasure, but come to do a little good. Though at first there was thought of sending me with two brothers to the mines to seek means for the support of our missions, on further consideration, it was thought best to abandon such a project, which has its dangers, however you look at it. The object of our expedition to this country, according to Father Joset’s instructions, is threefold: 1. To exercise the ministry, especially in assisting the sick, who are always numerous in this city; 2. To see if things are favorable to the establishment of the Society as the Rev. Mr. Brouillet wrote us; 3. To make a collection in favor of the missions.”6

Accolti also wrote to Fr. Gonzales in Santa Barbara, the diocesan administrator, telling him of their arrival. They received a reply dated March 5, 1850, in which Fr. Gonzales wrote of his hope that “two colleges of the Society of Jesus should be established here; one in the north where you are, and another here in the south…. I desire [the establishment of the Society of Jesus] here. I desire it and have yearningly desired it; I have begged it of God with earnest pleadings…”7 He also promised financial assistance in the founding of these schools, though that money never materialized.

Accolti, clearly delighted by this invitation to the Society of Jesus to work in California, wrote back on April 9 that “the hopes of Catholicity in these parts lie mainly in the training of youth in religion, morals and letters” and that “what pleases us most is that your desires have spontaneously the same object as our own, in that your Reverence urges and exhorts us to build a college, although our letters written on January 28th and containing our humble request for such permission, had not as yet reached you.”8

He added that his first effort to build a school would be in San Jose both because it was “the chief city of Northern California” as the state capital at the time and because “some property and some money for the putting up of a part of the buildings have been freely offered by the faithful.”9

The Latin word collegio, it should be noted, had a different meaning in the 1800s than the modern meaning of the word “college.” It referred to the European model of a school typically comprising students from ages 6 to 18. St. Ignatius College, similar to Jesuit colleges throughout the world, remained primarily a grammar school and high school for much of the 1800s. It awarded its first bachelor of arts degree in 1863 but very few others until the 1900s. In 1864, for instance, only one-third of the 450 SI students were studying subjects on the college level, and most of those college students were between 16 and 18 years old. Between 1863 and 1880, SI issued only 57 academic degrees (31 Bachelor of Arts degrees, 11 Bachelor of Science degrees, one Master of Science degree and 14 Master of Arts degrees). “When the total number of 57 is compared with the number of students [enrolled] during this almost two decades being considered here, it becomes evident that most of the students were either in the preparatory or elementary divisions of the ‘College.’”10 Not until the GI Bill gave returning World War II veterans inexpensive access to college did the number of college students grow at USF and at most American colleges.

On May 31, 1850, Joseph Alemany, O.P., was ordained the Bishop of Monterey (a diocese embracing most of upper-California at the time). In March 1851, he turned over the parish of Santa Clara to Nobili and asked that he establish a Jesuit college there. What happened next was perhaps the most important step in the history of the Jesuits in California.

Accolti, frustrated that his letters to his superiors met with no response — they took on average two years to travel to Rome and for a response to be sent back — left for Rome in 1853 to meet personally with Father General Peter Beckx, SJ, to convince the Jesuit General to send more priests to California.11

Tensions in Europe would work to Accolti’s advantage. In the mid-1800s, Europe was rocked by revolutions. Liberal masses attacked the conservative restoration governments that returned to power following the final exile of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Jesuits generally supported the conservative regimes; thus, they, along with most of the Church, drew the enmity of an angry populace. This was especially true during Italy’s Risorgimento, the Italian unification movement that sought freedom from foreign control, including the Catholic Church.

As fate would have it, some of the best and brightest Italian Jesuits, including those in the Turin Province, were in exile or hiding and needed to find safe harbor. In 1854, Beckx asked Turin Provincial Alexander Joseph Ponza, SJ, to administer the California mission. Turin would benefit by having a central place for its priests to gather, to teach and to train novices, and Santa Clara College (and soon St. Ignatius College) would have sorely needed manpower and world-class scholars. The Turin Province administered the California mission until 1909, when the California Mission earned status as a separate province of the Society of Jesus.