Three Greats: Bayma, Neri & Varsi

Throughout the 1870s, the school’s fame increased as a result of the work of three key professors: President Joseph Bayma, SJ, Fr. Joseph Neri, SJ, and Fr. Aloysius Varsi, SJ.

Bayma authored several major works including The Love of Religious Perfection in 1863, Treatise on Molecular Mechanics in 1866, Force and Matter (published posthumously in 1901), and a series of high schools texts on algebra, geometry, analytical geometry, trigonometry and calculus. “The series was unique and revealed his specialized genius in that no proofs or methods were presented from other persons — all were derived from his own speculations and research.”21

In his major work, Treatise on Molecular Mechanics, Bayma, along with the noted Jesuit scientist Roger Boscovich, “reduces all matter to unextended points, centers of force acting in the inverse square of the distance; thus acting upon one another, but of course not touching.” This work was studied in Oxford and Cambridge and at science departments of other noteworthy universities. Bayma wrote poetry, too, and was considered an English scholar, remarkable for a man who started learning the language at 32.22

Neri, an early experimenter of electricity, built and perfected his own electrical lighting system in 1869 to use during his lectures, and he became the chairman of the natural sciences department in 1870. To illustrate his lectures on electricity, he built the city’s first storage battery (a peroxide of lead combination with about 30 plates), and his exhibitions of electric lights in the 1870s drew huge crowds. The first such demonstration occurred in 1871 when he showed an amazed crowd an electric arc light from a window of the college facing Market Street in what was the first known use of electricity in San Francisco.

On July 4, 1876, for the Centennial Celebration of the Declaration of Independence, Neri lit Market Street with arc lights, Foucault’s lamps and reflectors, the first exhibition of public arc lighting on the Pacific Coast. From the college roof to the other side of Market Street, Neri hung several wires from which he suspended three arc lights to illuminate the night parade. “They threw a stream of soft, mellow light all along the line of march of the military and civic procession down to the ferry at the bay….”23

A decade would pass before other cities tried this method of street illumination. Even Thomas Edison’s first incandescent lamp would not shine until 1879, and it took until 1881 before New York installed the first central electric power plant. Neri’s electric demonstrations impressed the city fathers to the point where they installed “an electrical system of illumination then regarded as the largest in the world.”24

The machine that gave Neri the ability to conduct those electric experiments was a large electro-magnetic device (called the Alliance Machine) that had been used in the second Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War for “lighting defensive work.”25 Tiburcio Parrott, a great friend and benefactor of SI, purchased this machine and donated it to the school.

This machine was featured in an 1874 notice advertising one of Neri’s public electrical experiments: “The experiment will be an exhibition of the electric light, with the new mammoth magneto-electric machine lately received from Paris, from the Compagnie l’Alliance, with a new electric light regulator for first-class lighthouses, spherical mirror and large Fresnel lens a échelons, mounted on a rotating table to project the light to the most distant points around San Francisco and the bay within the range of the tower. The light is such as to be seen at a distance of two hundred miles.… The apparatus used on the occasion alone, and for the purpose indicated, represents over $5,000…” Neri improved upon the machine by strengthening its magnets by current from a storage battery.26

According to Riordan, Neri hoped to “popularize and spread as much as possible the discoveries of science, freed from the errors with which infidel scientists ever sought to yoke them; and he thought, and thought well, that this was an excellent form of missionary work, since it removed prejudices from the minds of non-Catholics, helping to strengthen the faith of ill-instructed Catholics, and make good Catholics prouder of the old Church of the Ages, by demonstrating practically that there was no true advance of science that she could not bless; that there was not, and could not, be any conflict between true science and true religion.”27

In 1876 Neri came to the rescue of the Mechanics Institute of the University of California. That institute held an annual industrial fair, but faced stiff competition that year from Philadelphia’s centennial celebration. Neri lent the institute nearly all of his scientific apparatus, which was moved to the Mechanics Pavilion where it was displayed and operated. For most of August and September that year, Neri offered lectures and demonstrations twice weekly with help from SI students. He also helped to power the first miniature electric train to run west of the Mississippi.28

The Institute directors praised SI for its aid, noting that “we may well congratulate ourselves for possessing within our midst, in this young city and state, such facilities for scientific education as St. Ignatius College affords to our rising generation, and such a cabinet of [scientific laboratory equipment], second to none in the United States.”29

Neri’s scientific exhibitions and demonstrations were also a part of the three-day commencement exercises that marked the end of the school term and the conferral of advanced degrees on college-level students. (High school-level students did not celebrate their own graduation exercise until 1916.)

By the time he turned 75, Neri suffered from near complete blindness. His eyesight was always defective, but years of working with spectroscopes ended his vision. By the time of his death, Neri had amassed scientific equipment worth nearly $100,000 and gave SI the most notable science department in the West. A commission from the Smithsonian Society rated SI’s collection of scientific apparatus among the top five in the United States.

Another gift helped make SI the leading scientific institution of the West. In 1875, Joseph Donohoe gave to the school an extensive collection of stuffed birds, minerals and Native American artifacts. “As generous as was this gift,” notes Riordan, “it was outdone by the richness of the cases that contained it…. The cabinet contains … remains, shells, coins, rarities, curiosities and historical records of various kinds, collected in the course of many years, and contributed by donors from different parts of the world. The collection made up three or four wagon loads in transportation.” The gift also gave SI one of the best ornithological collections in the United States.30

The final teacher in this distinguished triumvirate was Aloysius Varsi, a nobleman, born at Cagliari on the island of Sardinia of Corsican parents on March 9, 1830. He joined the Society of Jesus at 15 and studied in Chieri, near Turin. In 1848, revolution forced the Jesuits to flee, and, according to an account given by Fr. Richard A. Gleeson, SJ, Varsi and his comrades barely escaped with their lives. “They took refuge with the Brother Hospitallers of St. John of God, living, as they did, on alms collected from door to door.”

Varsi studied in Belgium and France and became “a deep philosopher; a profound theologian; a beloved pupil of Father, afterwards Cardinal, Franzelin…. Owing to his extraordinary ability as a mathematician and a scientist, he was sent to Paris where he attended the lectures of the most distinguished scientists of the day, who found in him a prodigy. This training was to prepare him for the Mission in China, there to take charge of the Imperial Observatory.”

Ordained in 1856 at 26, Varsi eventually came to the U.S. in 1862 where he served as a chaplain in the Civil War. Later he taught at Boston College and at Georgetown, where an Italian artist selected him as a model of St. Charles Boromeo for a fresco above the main altar in the Church of St. Aloysius in Washington, D.C., depicting the first communion of St. Aloysius. (That fresco can still be seen in this Jesuit parish church.) While in Boston, “he gave a public lecture with experiments on electricity, the first of its kind to be given in the United States.”

Varsi’s superiors, knowing the needs of the California mission, sent him there instead of China. McGloin describes him as being a “cultured and mellow person with a gift for friendship,” and Br. Tom Marshall, SJ, former archivist for the California Province, calls him a “giant of a man, bigger than any of the men around him.” His greatest contribution to SI was his astute administration and fund-raising during a time of great expansion. Thanks to his leadership, the Jesuits built SI into one of the finest colleges in the world and St. Ignatius Church into a beautiful house of worship, all in the center of the city.