Snapshots of School Life: 1860-1861

By 1860, the school consisted of several ramshackle classrooms that lacked “a oneness of plan” that made for “an unsatisfactory patchwork.”40 Maraschi was reluctant to build anything that would increase the school’s sizeable debt, and through prudent administration, he was able to cut that debt by $1,200 and purchase more scientific equipment including “a steam engine, an electric machine and appendices, an air pump and appendices, articles bought at San Francisco College, a theodolite, a compression fountain…. [and a] telescope, a very fine instrument, and for many years the best in California.”41 (San Francisco College, which operated briefly, was forced to close due to lack of patronage.)

By December 1860 the sand hill behind the school had been leveled to create a playing field, and Maraschi instituted the school’s first athletic program by giving students a ball to play with. Students provided their own organization and coaching for whatever games they devised. (It would take 50 more years for a formal sports program to emerge when SI joined the city’s Academic Athletic League in 1910.

Enrollment at SI increased as people gained easier access to it, thanks, in large measure, to the Market Street Railroad Company, which, on July 4, 1860, opened a line on Market Street from Third to Valencia Streets, running both horsecar and steam train lines. Students could also use a wooden plank walkway that connected the church and school to the city through what would become Union Square. In the spring and summer of 1861 work crews graded and “macadamized” Market Street, making it easier for students to walk to school.

One of those students was John J. Cunningham, who was listed in the school’s first college catalogue of 1861. (The catalogue, also called the prospectus, was an early non-illustrated version of the yearbook, listing students, teachers, courses and prizewinners for each year.) He had enrolled the previous year at the age of 6 and later wrote about his first day at school:

“I remember the adventure as if were just this morning. [My mother and I walked up Jessie Street to Fourth Street to a gate] that led to the ascent of the hill of learning, along the rough pine planks that furnished footing for the children that went to the school on top of the hill. Ushered into the room, my awe-stricken eyes beheld my future pedagogue, Mr. John Egan, who presided over the educational development of some 30 urchins, ranging from 5 years of age to 13 or 14. My name was registered; I was assigned a seat; I was kissed goodbye by my mother, who warned me not to eat in class and to be home early for dinner…. I recall that, in June 1861, St. Ignatius College held its closing exercises in the open, at the rear of the church. The year following, we had a wet winter and our classes were held in the basement of the church, the floors of which had to be raised by planking that we boys might go dryshod to our classrooms.”42

(Cunningham would later become the first native-born Californian to enter the Society of Jesus, and he spent nearly 60 years in the order before his death in 1931. He distinguished himself by directing the Gentlemen’s Sodality of St. Ignatius Church and would be the first of a long line of SI alumni who would return to their alma mater to teach.)

The catalogue that included Cunningham’s name also included the school’s rules of behavior: “All must treat their companions as becomes persons of polite education. Anything, therefore contrary to a decent behavior, all wrestling, laying hands on each other, all improper language, all disorderly conduct in going to or returning from school, are strictly forbidden.

“The school room is to be considered at all times, sacred to silence and study … all cutting of benches, or otherwise injuring any of the furniture or walls, or writing upon them, is strictly forbidden.”

The following year’s catalogue emphasized that the school’s purpose was to give “a thorough classical, mathematical and philosophical education…. Experience has proved that by this method are imparted the best literary education, the fullest knowledge of English, and the most perfect training of the mind; and, on the other hand, exemptions in this regard have been found to be a great source of idleness and indifference to study.”43

Students were also kept from “idleness” by attending Mass each Monday, Wednesday and Saturday and by assisting “at the explanation of Catechism on Tuesday and Friday as well as receiving the sacrament of penance once a month.” Note that the two days off for students were Thursday and Sunday, as the school followed the Italian system of education. This schedule did not change for many years.44

Riordan offers us another glimpse inside the life of the students and teachers in his description of the “good, simple Fr. Benedict Piccardo! Who does not remember him of the facile pen, from which Latin hexameters flowed with astonishing ease and elegance? Who that ever came in contact with him has not seen him glow with enthusiasm at the mere mention of the name of Virgil, theAeneid of whom he almost knew by heart? Start a line at random, and Fr. Piccardo, even in his declining years … would immediately continue the text. His devotion to Virgil, for it would be hard to speak of it by any other name, may indeed at times have amused by the very intensity of its earnestness; but it never failed to produce its effect upon the minds of his pupils, and stir up a spirit of loving regard for the classics.”45

The Jesuits at SI entertained a few noteworthy visitors including the famed Jesuit missionary Peter DeSmet, who had recruited many of the first Italian Jesuits to come to North America and who was a well-respected “Black Robe” among Native American tribes in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions. Another noteworthy visitor was Fr. Felix Sopranis, SJ, the visitor general of the Jesuit houses in America, who had arrived on March 25, 1861, to make an official inspection of SI. He spent two months in California, mostly in San Francisco, and recommended that the school, though deep in debt, borrow more money to expand. He also asked Maraschi to wait until the arrival of Fr. Burchard Villiger, SJ, the new superior of the California mission.

Villiger arrived in May and took over as president of Santa Clara College, where he turned the one-story adobe classrooms there into a grander college. He also felt that SI should build a school befitting the new city of San Francisco and instructed Maraschi to raise funds to build a three-story brick building adjacent to the church.

Villiger knew that Americans equated great education with grand buildings. As Fr. McKevitt writes in his history of Italian Jesuits in the United States, “Wherever they went, the émigrés [Jesuits] were torn between two conflicting desires: to adhere to European conventions and to adapt to the exigencies of American culture. When erecting schools and churches, the exiles quickly learned that handsome buildings were essential in their adopted homeland. ‘Appearances count for a lot here,’ a Neapolitan Jesuit wrote. ‘The American, more than any other nationality is impressed by appearances, and believes in what he sees.’ They believe ‘a beautiful building must signify an excellent school,’ and hence ‘we must adapt to this weakness of theirs.’”46

Despite a debt of $24,000, Maraschi appealed to the St. Ignatius Church parishioners and SI parents to help with the construction of the new school. Up until then, Maraschi had not troubled his parishioners by asking for donations, and they were grateful for this reticence. They responded well to his request for school funding also, in part, because the popular six-year-old school had proved a success. The first gift of $100 came from a Mr. D. J. Oliver and several other sizeable gifts followed. In August 1861, Maraschi purchased for $11,000 the adjoining lots to the west of the school as the site for the new college and church.

The men of San Francisco supported SI in other ways, too. As a student Sodality had already been formed, the Jesuit fathers thought a men’s Sodality would be a fitting addition. They invited the men of the parish and fathers of students to meet November 6, 1861, to organize a Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It eventually included “the most prominent Catholic laymen of the city; and there was every reason to hope much both for the private spiritual welfare of those who composed it and the general good of Catholicity in San Francisco, from an organized body of men not ashamed to profess publicly the piety of their hearts.” The Gentlemen’s Sodality remained a prominent part of St. Ignatius Church activity until the late 1960s.47

This group found its counterpart in the Ladies Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It started when “the ladies of the congregation … began to look with envious eyes upon the [men’s] organization, and to ask why they, too, might not have a like Sodality. Surely they were as devoted to the virgin Mother as the men; if any doubt existed, well just give them a chance to disprove it.” Thus, on May 14, 1862, that organization sprang into being. “So generous was the response to this invitation, and so rapid the growth of the [ladies] sodality, that by the end of the month it far outnumbered that of the men [and] could boast a regular membership of 290.”48