The Jesuits, as they are commonly known, were founded in 1540 by St. Ignatius Loyola—a Basque nobleman and soldier—and seven of his companions, who placed themselves at the disposal of the Holy Father for the service of the Church wherever the need was greatest. For over 450 years, Jesuit priests and brothers have served the Church in new and creative ways. Inspired by the vision of St. Ignatius Loyola, Jesuits desire to love and serve God in all things as companions of Jesus. Today there are nearly 20,000 Jesuits serving the Church in 112 nations on six continents.
Less than a century after the founding of the religious order, Jesuits began arriving on the shores of America. French Jesuits explored the woodlands of Maine and celebrated, in 1611, the first known Mass on American soil, at the mouth of the Kennebec River. English Jesuits established a mission shortly after arriving in Maryland in 1634. French Jesuits such as Jacques Marquette came and rode their canoes along the unchartered waters of the Great Lakes. By the 1680s, the men in black robes also were coming from Spain and setting up churches and villages in today’s American Southwest.
For more than a hundred years in America, Jesuits operated under the auspices of their native provinces in Europe. Then, in 1833, these pioneers established the Maryland Province of Jesuits — the first in the United States. Jesuit colleges and universities began a period of explosive growth as Jesuits sought to educate waves of immigrants.
Today, in the United States, there are seven Jesuit provinces each headed by a provincial superior appointed by the Superior General in Rome. They are the California, Central and Southern, Chicago-Detroit, Northeast, Maryland, Oregon, and Wisconsin Provinces. Although each province has its own administrative headquarters, these seven provinces, along with the Canadian provinces, are organized into a conference to promote common goals and oversee international projects. Headquartered in Washington, DC, the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States provides liaison staffing in the provinces, in various national associations, and at the Society’s international headquarters in Rome. A president, appointed by the Superior General, oversees the work of the Jesuit Conference.