Fr. Walter Hill became a Jesuit when St. Louis was still a frontier town and lived through the Civil War and the early stages of developing several Jesuit universities. His memoirs offer a rare glimpse into a period of rapid change that puts the new Central and Southern Province into context.

A pioneer Jesuit in Turbulent Times

By Thomas Rochford SJ 

The new Central and Southern Province began in August 2014. A new provincial, Fr. Ron Mercier, faced the task of visiting all of the Jesuits spread over a vast territory that encompassed what had been the Missouri and New Orleans provinces. He and his staff had to integrate two groups of Jesuits with unique histories and cultures.

A few months later, the Jesuits of Puerto Rico joined the province, bringing greater distances to travel and more cultural variety.

The challenges and sudden change might seem overwhelming, but they are something Jesuits have had to face throughout their history.

One early Jesuit lived through an even more turbulent time and left memoirs that offer a rare glimpse of what the earliest Jesuit pioneers in the central United States faced as they developed the Society of Jesus.

When Walter Hill (1822-1907) entered the novitiate at Florissant, Mo., in 1847, the log cabin that Peter de Smet and other Jesuit pioneers built on their arrival in Missouri was still in use. By the time Hill died in 1907, College Church, with its soaring stone Gothic towers, served the new Saint Louis University campus on Grand Boulevard.

As a novice, Hill led the Jesuit party from St. Louis to Bardstown, Ky., to take over St. Joseph's College. He was president of Xavier College in Cincinnati and executive assistant to the first Missouri provincial. He became a philosophy professor and wrote the first textbooks in English on Scholastic philosophy. He wrote the first history of Saint Louis University and served as a parish priest in Chicago.

Hill is a guide to the tumultuous years in which the Missouri Province took shape in the center of the country.


"He was a man of medium height, stockily built and of uniform good health, living to the ripe age of 85,” according to Jesuit historian Gilbert J. Garraghan. “He was a vigorous, stalwart personality, an enemy of all pretension and sham, and had qualities of mind and heart that won him numerous friends.”

Hill was born to a large Catholic family on a farm near Lebanon, Ky. His grandfather emigrated from England to Southern Maryland, which remained a Catholic stronghold in the early colonies after the first English Jesuit missionaries came with Lord Baltimore in 1636. Later, Hill's parents migrated to the Kentucky territory where a growing Catholic population drew French Jesuits from New Orleans to serve them. They began teaching in 1831 at St. Mary's College in Lebanon, about 68 miles southeast of Louisville.

Hill's parents died before he reached college age, so studying at St. Mary's was difficult.

"My sister having made for me with her own hand a new jeans jacket and a pair of pantaloons I went to St. Mary's, between Christmas and New Year's Day 1835, and was put into a grammar and arithmetic class in which I had no great success," Hill wrote in his autobiography. "Most of the students were of aristocratic families, but in general they treated me well, better than I merited."

"In the Spring of 1837 I again was put to work on the farm, taking my meals and rest along with the hired men; during all the time I worked, I was under an overseer who ruled both slaves and the white men and boys employed to work on the farm of some 400 acres."

The young student worked for his tuition, first in the college's flour mill and later in the sawmill where he was known for his skill in managing the oxen that hauled the great logs down the mountainside to the mill. He began the regular classical course in 1839 and received his bachelors degree four years later. He taught at the college during graduate studies which he finished in 1846. 

Saint Louis University in its first location near the Mississippi River

From the very beginning, Jesuit missionaries in the United States faced difficult choices about where to invest their energies. They asked which small frontier outpost would grow to be the right place for establishing high-quality schools in the Jesuit tradition? One would need a crystal ball to make the right choice, and the first choices often did not work out.

In 1846, the French Jesuits decided to leave St. Mary's for a more promising location when Archbishop John Hughes of New York "offered them the Fordham property then known as Rose Hill College," Hill wrote. "They determined to quit the diocese of Kentucky for more genial fields of labor."

The Kentucky native went the other direction, moving to St. Louis to study medicine at Saint Louis University. He was dissatisfied with medical studies and was drawn to religious life. He also was engaged to be married, and did not know what to do, so his confessor advised that he make a retreat.

The first buildings at the novitiate in Florissant, Missouri

"I made up a little parcel of linen and walked up the then dreary, muddy, unpaved, and lonely Washington Avenue to the college to begin a Retreat, oppressed in spirit, and in a dark, uncertain struggle of soul," Hill wrote.

Religious life won out and Hill decided to stay in St. Louis rather than join the Jesuits in New York whom he knew from St. Mary's. On Feb. 3, 1847, he rode in an open wagon out to Florissant, arriving at dusk. "The roads were rough, covered with snow, the country wild, and but sparsely settled," he recalled.

Fr. James Van de Velde SJ

The novitiate was housed in the original cabin first occupied by the pioneers in 1823, "with some additions not less rude which had been made to it at different times,” he wrote. “But the foundation of the present stone building had been laid in the [previous] year, or perhaps in 1844, and was up to the top of the basement, or nearly so." Hill and another man were the only scholastic novices; Fr. James Van de Velde, later the first bishop of Chicago, was the novice master.

The most remarkable thing about Hill's novitiate time was its ending. Six months before Hill would have completed the normal two-year period of initial religious formation, Van de Velde informed Hill that he would be leaving the next morning with a group of five Jesuits to Bardstown, Ky., where the bishop was turning over St. Joseph's College to the Jesuits. Although he was just a novice, Hill learned to his surprise that he would be leading the group on the three-day trip to Louisville by riverboat, presumably because of his knowledge of Kentucky. He was 27 years old when he jumped from novitiate to his first apostolic assignment; he would not take first vows for another eight months, halfway through his first year of regency.

St. Joseph's College in Bardstown, Ky.

Hill went to Saint Louis University that fall to study philosophy for two years and theology for three; he did a fourth year of theology in Boston. 

On his way back from Boston in 1861, Hill witnessed one of the key moments in the early stages of the Civil War in St. Louis. In his autobiography, Hill wrote, "As I reached the college, the open lot 7 to 8th Green to Morgan Sts. was filled with laborers whom the mayor was to meet and give them work: a raw German regiment passed a few minutes later, and were frightened; when they reached Olive and 7th being still badly scared, they fired on a crowd standing about the stable door, killing and wounding quite a number by this cowardly act."

Missouri was a slave state poised aggressively on the frontier of Southern territorial expansion. St. Louis was a key strategic asset for the Union in the West, but Saint Louis University drew a number of students from the South, mostly French-speaking sons of wealthy families.

The war had an immediate impact on the colleges. "Our boarders here (St. Louis) and at Bardstown are Southerners or secessionists, whom we shall be forced soon to send back some way or other to their families," said Fr. William Stack Murphy, who believed the South had a right to secede.

"The city of St. Louis is in great danger of being sacked and burned in case the secessionists get the upper hand in Missouri," Jesuit Fr. Peter De Smet wrote in a letter to Father General Jan Roothaan on Oct. 20, 1861. "Several of Ours without regard to the instructions of your Paternity, as published by the Provincial, continue to manifest secessionist sentiments, at least in the house. No good and much harm can result from manifestations of this sort. Indiscretions are filling the prisons more and more every day."

Hill and other young Jesuits might have been in uniform had De Smet not used his Washington political connections to win Jesuit scholastics an exemption from military service.

St. Louis Archbishop Peter Kenrick ordained Hill a priest at the Cathedral of St. Louis (Old Cathedral) on Aug. 24, 1861. Two years later, he went to Frederick, Md., for tertianship, the final year of Jesuit formation. Even though he escaped the army, Hill could not avoid the Civil War.

"In going to and from Hagerstown I passed the scene of the battle at South Mountain; the trees were riven and torn to pieces by cannon balls and bombshell, and the ground was covered with the debris of a camp,” he wrote. “Near Hagerstown is the Antietam, a stream about a hundred yards wide, and of a lively current. A great battle was fought a few miles down it. "

Near the end of Hill’s tertianship, his final retreat was interrupted by war when Confederate General Jubal Early's men advanced toward Washington.

"The Monocosy Junction (in the Battle of Monocacy Junction, July 9, 1864) was then held by the union troops to the number of ten thousand; during our retreat General Early with forty thousand troops advanced from the Shenandoah Valley and attacked the town; we could see his men on South Mtn. three miles off; their shells struck a protestant church, aimed at people in the cupola supposed to be there to reconnoiter: the shells flew for 2 days. Almost incessant, their peculiar droning sound had a saddening effect.

"Two regiments made an assault on General Wright and his ten thousand; they were two Louisiana regiments, and they were nearly annihilated. . . . This battle spoiled our Retreat."

The Jesuits faced a difficult choice. They closed St. Joseph's College during the war because its students could not get to Bardstown from the South.  Should they reopen it after the war? As a boarding school, it required a lot of men to run. Jesuits from St. Charles College in Grand Coteau, La., became available to teach there when the Missouri vice-province turned St. Charles over to French Jesuits from the province of Lyon.

"We barely had enough people to sustain St. Louis and we knew we weren’t going to have enough for Bardstown after the war was over," Jesuit  historian Fr. John Padberg said.

There were also questions about who owned the land. The Jesuits did not want to invest in buildings on campus land they did not own, and they could not resolve the question in Bardstown.

The Jesuits decided not to reopen the college after the Civil War.

Xavier College in Cincinnati survived the conflict although its residences for faculty and students needed attention. Fr. Ferdinand Coosemans, the first Missouri provincial, named then-45-year-old Walter Hill Xavier's sixth president (1865-1869). He built a large four-story brick building that contributed to the school's development and still bears his name.

Coosemans next tapped Hill to be his executive assistant and asked him to obtain a charter for St. Mary's College, which the Missouri Province wanted to open in Kansas. Hill persuaded Kansas authorities to give the school tax-exempt status and academic standing. 

After two years working in the internal governance of the Society, Hill became professor of philosophy at Saint Louis University in 1871.

"Fr. Walter Hill was the best teacher I have ever known," wrote Dr. Louis Boisliniere, a prominent St. Louis physician. "He was methodical and direct. ...His clear arrangement of the subject matter enabled the members of the class to understand the subject as a whole and the component parts in their interrelation."

Hill wrote two textbooks, “Elements of Philosophy” (1874) and “Ethics” (1879) that were the first attempts to make the principles of scholastic philosophy available to American students in English rather than in Latin. “Elements of Philosophy” became the accepted textbook of metaphysics in the English-speaking, Catholic world, and both books were used extensively in Catholic academic circles.

Writing “Ethics” was a tougher assignment. "It is a hard, dreary undertaking," Hill said.

The Kentuckian found a subject much more to his taste when he recorded stories of the early Missouri Jesuits. Except for De Smet's accounts of the Rocky Mountain missions, there were no histories until Hill began to write about the pioneer Jesuits, men he knew from his early days at Florissant.

In 1879, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, Hill published “Historical Sketch of the Saint Louis University.”

Hill's willingness to try new things, like making philosophy accessible to English speakers, echoed other risks taken by Jesuits in the United States. While normal practice said Jesuit schools should teach just the classics in Latin and Greek, Saint Louis University started what amounted to a business school.

"It was the kind of thing the Jesuits did by listening to the needs of the time and responding as well as they could within the structures of the charism of the Society itself," Padberg said. "Some of the Eastern schools at one point in 1863 really thought that St. Louis had betrayed the whole nature of the Society of Jesus."

Hill gave up teaching in 1884, the year that the cornerstone of the new St. Francis Xavier (College) Church was placed. Hill devoted himself to priestly ministry at Sacred Heart Parish in Chicago. When an accident impaired his eyesight, preventing him from active parochial work, he returned to St. Louis in 1896 and died 11 years later. 

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