Puerto Rico’s Jesuits officially became part of the Central and Southern Province on Dec. 3, the feast of St. Francis Xavier. The understated Mass and dinner that Jesuits celebrated in their San Juan residence that evening belied the drama of reaching that point.

Fr. Mario Alberto Torres
Puerto Rico: Jesuits Bet on Change

Puerto Rico’s Jesuits officially became part of the Central and Southern Province on Dec. 3, the feast of St. Francis Xavier. The understated Mass and dinner that Jesuits celebrated in their San Juan residence that evening belied the drama of reaching that point.

In 2009, Fr. Mario Alberto Torres became regional superior of the 26 mostly native Puerto Rican Jesuits. As an independent region, they functioned much like a province, but with fewer men.

“I had a sense that our most important need was to come up with a common sense of mission, a common sense of who we are and why we are doing what we do in Puerto Rico,” Torres said. He started a process of meetings, study and prayer to accomplish that.

As they were finishing the strategic discernment process, the Society of Jesus’ superior general, Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, called on Jesuits worldwide to restructure themselves, especially the smaller units such as Puerto Rico.

 “We could not in any way remain a region, so we had to go looking for other possibilities,” said Fr. Larry Searles, former superior of the San Juan community, and a native of Rochester, N.Y. Torres said Nicolás encouraged them to be creative.

“His main message to us was to focus on the mission, then figure out the structure and don't worry about the way things have always been done,” he said. “He told us to be bold and propose something that might make the mission feasible.”

That challenge echoed a theme from General Congregation 35, which charged Jesuits worldwide to imagine new ways of encountering and serving God.


Fr. Baudilio Guzmán is the chaplain of the parish elementary school, Academia San Ignacio de Loyola.
Myriad Ministries

Puerto Rico Jesuits serve in a variety of ministries including two parishes; a grade school, a high school, four non-Jesuit universities and the diocesan seminary; pastoral ministry in two universities; a youth service program in Latin America; the Spiritual Exercises; a religious anthropology museum; marriage renewal; radio programming and Christian Life Communities.

They have a strong sense of mission, and see their having educated, shaped and influenced Puerto Rico’s leaders as clear evidence that their work has made a difference on the island.

A boy can study 12 years on the same campus, first in the coed primary school, Academia de San Ignacio, and then at the all-boys high school, Colegio San Ignacio. His sense of belonging runs deep. A marketing study found that alumni feel close to the school and keep that feeling throughout their lives.

One woman said she likes to visit the high school even though her son graduated. She still feels a connection.

Music at the high school is infectious. A small chorus of faculty led the singing at two morning Masses during Advent. When Mass ended, the chorus started another song, and then another. On another day, the musicians included three guitarists, a base player, a drummer, a keyboardist and a handful of others playing rhythm instruments.

Academia Director Luis Pino said that Jesuits at the two schools often are asked to baptize children and preside at weddings for families of the students, and in doing so, become like part of the family. Ties continue. 

Puerto Ricans Leaving Island

The high school’s students historically have done well and some have become leaders in their community, but the island’s recent economic and social problems have prompted many graduates to leave.

A wave of Puerto Rican migrants has been leaving the financially troubled island for the U.S. South, primarily Florida, upending the U.S. territory’s traditional migration patterns to communities in the Northeast since just after World War II, according to the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project. Today's emigrants are professionals and blue collar workers in their 30s to 50s, productive people who hold full-time jobs and contribute to the island's economy with their income taxes. Among them are people who would have sent their children to Jesuit schools and attend Jesuit parishes, but are leaving Puerto Rico.

Parents of three young graduates of Colegio San Ignacio who went on to study at Jesuit universities in the U.S. said their sons likely would not return to Puerto Rico because of its poor economy and lack of jobs.

Starting in the 1950s, Puerto Rico experienced an economic boom as U.S. companies opened factories on the island. The island lacks natural resources, so businesses had to import all material and export finished products. That worked out well as long as U.S. federal tax law exempted companies from paying federal tax on their Puerto Rico profits. When the tax laws changed in 2006, the economy fell into an eight-year recession. Factories closed and jobs disappeared.

The Puerto Rico government struggles with a debt of $70 billion. Bloomberg News has reported that as Puerto Rico’s population shrank and the economy contracted 16 percent since 2004, the government kept selling enough bonds to saddle each man, woman and child with $19,000 in debt.

When the government announced in 2009 that it would lay off public workers, riots broke out. An estimated 15,000 to 30,000 people lost their jobs. Robbery and other crimes increased in the following years.

Private streets secured by big iron gates keep strangers out of middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. The gates reflect the fear that motivates people to leave.

“Poverty in Puerto Rico is a hidden poverty,” Torres said. According to U.S. Census data, close to 50 percent of the population has an annual income below the federal poverty threshold. People find ways to get by. 

Considering Their Options

Jesuits in Puerto Rico knew that they needed to develop a new apostolic plan to address these changes. They began a long and thorough process of meetings that led to a mission statement and apostolic plan that set priorities of promoting Ignatian spirituality, working with the poor and strengthening the intellectual and educational apostolates.

They also considered ways to collaborate more widely with Jesuits and others. Options ranged from creating a Caribbean province to allying themselves with provinces in Latin America, Europe or the United States. Some Jesuits in Puerto Rico were afraid of losing their community’s identity in a larger province and closing the possibility of ever integrating with others in the Caribbean.

In the end, a majority of Puerto Rican Jesuits opted to join with the Central and Southern Province. Similarities in ministries, especially the emphasis on education, and parallel apostolic challenges motivated the decision for union. The historical link between Central and Southern Province and Central America was seen as something that would broaden the apostolic horizons for the Jesuits in Puerto Rico.

The men of the Central and Southern Province, after a short process of discussion and discernment, agreed to welcome the Puerto Rico Region, and Fr. Nicolás approved the union on Nov. 14.

How It Will Play Out

Uniting the Puerto Rico Region and one of the nation’s largest provinces brings many challenges, including working in two languages. But as Central and Southern Provincial Fr. Ronald Mercier said in a letter announcing the decision, “Knowing the challenges ahead, we all experienced peace in the decision to move forward, a sign of the working of the Spirit.”

For his part, Torres said he is excited about new possibilities.

“You're a province looking to expand your horizons and develop a closer relationship with Latin America,” he said. “If we work this right, we can establish a model of how Jesuits from different cultures can work together and live together, being diverse yet, at the same time, sharing a common mission. That's very exciting to me.”

The province already has a significant Hispanic ministry. Jesuits in El Paso, Texas, for instance, serve Catholics on either side of the border with Mexico. This latest move pushes the province to be even more multi-cultural.

The island of Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory in the Caribbean with a well-defined identity and history that predate the pilgrims’ arrival in the United States.

“We are proud of our history, both the Spanish and the American elements. We know who we are,” Torres said.

This summer, Fr. Flavio Bravo will move from Strake Jesuit High School in Houston to become the superior of the Puerto Rico community.

Torres said he hopes the Puerto Rico Jesuits joining with brothers on the U.S. mainland will renew the Society of Jesus in both places.

 “The ‘we’ will get larger and more culturally diverse and more creative about meeting the needs of God’s people,” he said.

“I think we can come up with better answers in terms of what do we do to help the people all over the province.”

Timeline: Jesuits in Puerto Rico

1597 / Blessed Charles Spinola and Jerome de Angelis land in Puerto Rico on their six-year long voyage to Japan, where they will eventually die as martyrs. They preach to scattered settlers on the islands.

In the 17th and 18th century, there is no Jesuit community in Puerto Rico.

1858 / Jesuits from Spain assume direction of the diocesan seminary, which accepts students not destined for the priesthood. They take over the old Dominican church in San Juan, renaming it San José. Men from the Jesuit province of Castile staff the seminary.

1870s / Colegio San Ignacio splits from the diocesan seminary and moves to Santurce.

1880 / The province of Castile splits. Jesuits from the new Toledo Province are assigned to Puerto Rico.

1886 / Jesuits leave Puerto Rico for Peru when opponents made their work impossible.

Between 1886 and 1946, Jesuits from Spain sporadically visit the island to do pastoral work.

1945  / Fr. Antonio Quevado arrives in San Juan. Bishops entrust the minor seminary and a retreat house to the Jesuits.

1952  / Colegio San Ignacio begins again, first in Santurce and then in Isla Verde.

1955  / Colegio San Ignacio moves to its current location in Urbanización Santa Maria. Jesuits from the Antilles province -- assisted by Jesuits from New Orleans, California and Mexico -- staff the school during its first seven years of existence.

1959  / Puerto Rico becomes part of the New York Province.

1980  / A novitiate is established in Caimito, an outlying working class district of San Juan. Vocations grow steadily.

1987  /  Puerto Rico becomes an "independent region" of the Society.

2014  /  Puerto Rico becomes part of the Central and Southern Province.

Jesuit Spirituality Center
Situated on 900 acres of farmland, the Jesuit Spirituality Center at Grand Coteau provides a quiet environment for those seeking God through the Spiritual Exercises.