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Jesuits in Jersey


Maison St Louis

From When Jesuits were giants: Louis-Marie Ruellan 1846-1885 and his contemporaries

Jesuit weather tower

Maison St Louis

Maison Saint Louis, in St Helier, Jersey was Louis Ruellan’s new assignment. No danger here of being lapped in comforts. The house, or, better, the recently renovated hotel, which had once accommodated a select number of wealthy guests, was now home to 185 refugees from the philosophate-tehologate at Laval,to some displaced members from the thirteen colleges of the Provinces of France and Champagne, and to a handful of Italians, Irish, Germans and Englishmen.

Beginning in mid-August 1880 these fugitives began migrating in droves on to this island refuge from Saint Malo and Granville. Before taking wing, they shed their French soutanes and took on the quickly appropriate and oftentimes ill-fitting plumage of English clergymen. Curious citizens of Jersey would crowd about the Saint Helier quay or would line up along the streets to catch as glimpse of the infestation of these black-suited men, and they would follow the progression of their bouncing umbrellas as they flocked in pairs up St Saviour’s Road to their new sanctuary, the erstwhile Imperial Hotel.

Later these same good citizens would spy on the strange-acting foreigners whenever they went to the beach, to see for themselves whether they really did have cloven feet. Then there was the story about the time that all two hundred ‘men in black’ went to St Catherine’s Beach and how they stayed on after the sun had set, wading along the rocks in the light of a full moon, making their evening examination of conscience. A hidden spectator mustered up enough courage to approach one who had wandered from the group and ask what they were doing, only to get the disturbing reply:”We are going about our business.” Silently creeping around shore rocks in the light of a fulol moon – What indeed was their business?”

The observer might have been appeased by hearing that the business of the first arrivals at the hotel was to scrub and paint the kitchen and to transform the grand ballroom into a chapel and the dining room into a refectory. Other tasks included setting up classrooms in the salons, stables and laundry. Bedroom space for them all presented greater problems. The former smoking room was easily converted into a dormitory, and, providing the cots remained piled up along the walls, the hotel guest rooms needed no alteration for daytime use. At night, when the cots came down, the halls became overflowing dormitories. Those who were fortunate enough to be assigned to the servants’ quarters and spaces between the roof timbers on the fifth floor had more privacy but less light.

The Imperial Hotel as it was bought by the Jesuits to become Maison St Louis

New appointment

By the end of 1881 two noteworthy events took ploace that relieved the internal and external tensions in the house, First, Emmanual Mourier replaced Rene de Maumigny as Rector, allowing the latter to stay on as the house treasurer and teacher of mathematics. Second, the Jesuits were able to rent two more pieces of property, which somewhat eased the crowded conditions in the main building. One of these purchases, The Retreat, a large house some three hundred yards up St Saviour;s Road, was renamed Saint Mary’s; the other at Rouge Bouillon was called Saint Joseph’s.

With the ringing of the 8.45 bell each evening, fifty theologians would file out of Maison Saint Louis, two abreast, in dead silence; thirty of them would turn up St Saviour’s Road to Saint Mary’s and twenty would walk down to Saint Joseph’s. It is little wonder that these strangers caused such a stir among the local inhabitants and that their habits were judged to be anywhere between bizarre and diabolical.

Shortly after they had settled in at Saint Helier, the Jesuits were joined by seventy students from the Ecole navale at Brest, more formally known as the College de Notre Dame de Bon Secours. These students and their Jesuit teachers were temporarily housed in hastily found quarters, where they carried on, almost uninterruptedly, the studies that had been cut short by the Ferry Laws. It was because of the overwhelming Protestant majority in Jersey that the Catholic bishop of Southwark in England, whose jurisdiction included the Channel Islands, was against the French Jesuits coming to St Helier to set up a seminary and a college. He finally let himself be persuaded by the local Irish-born parish priest, Jeremiah McCarthy, a scrappy, eloquent friend and ardent supporter of the exiles, who argued with force that the presence of the fathers would not breed a serious anti-papist virus but that it would prove beneficial to the island’s Caholic minority. Earlier McCarthy’s rhetoric had won over an influential ally: Henri Chambellan, the provincial of the Province of France, who came to Jersey incognito in the summer of 1880 to inspect the Imperial Hotel, which would soon be put up for sale and which was across St Saviour’s Road from McCarthy’s parish church.

Imperial Hotel

The Imperial Hotel had been begun in 1863, but it was not finished until 1866, and when it opened, it was said that ‘the splendour and extravagance of the finished hotel was unimaginable’. The main building consisted of five stories in a central block,m flanked by two wings on either side and having eighty windows on the façade. The left flank contained the drawing room and dining room that, as we have seen, became the chapel and refectory; on the right flank were the smoking room and other spacious salons. A grandiose staircase led to the portico over an extended basement, in front of which was ‘le skating’, a rink that challenged vacationing ladies whose interest and daring went beyond croquet to become adventurous on roller skates.

Despite the hotel’s eloquent promotional brochures, which advertised the glories awaiting the traveler to Jersey in the spring, the Imperial had never prospered; it was too expensive for tourists in an age that saw a slump in the economy, and therefore, just as mild spring breezes began to blow in May 1880, it had to close its doors. Chambellan agreed with McCarthy that it was an ideal place for his purposes, and he wanted to buy it immediately, but was prevented from doing so because foreigners could not purchase land in Jersey. Once the English provincial was assured of the bishop’s approval, he empowered McCarthy and three English Jesuits, Arthur Knight, Eric William Leslie and George Sidreaves, to act as his proxies and to pay the required £20,000 cash that Chambellan had given them for the purpose. The deed was signed at the end of May, and the contract passed by the Royal Court on June 6, some three weeks before the Jesuits were forced out of Laval. Because June 21 was the feast of the young Jesuit scholastic saint Aloysius Gonzaga (Saint Louis Gonzague in French), the Imperial Hotel took the name Maison Saint Louis.

The Jesuits of the Province of France were now the de facto owners of a considerable part of La Fregonniere, the property upon which the hotel was built. Ironically this same piece of property had played a part on the stage of Jesuit history at an earlier date. After the Ordinances of 1828 suppressing the Society in France were passed, two Jesuits, Pierre Ladaviere and Nicolas Petit, were sent to Jersey to look into the possibility of establishing a house of studies or a college. They found a nine-acre farm, Le Clos de la Fregonniere, consisting of two buildings and an apple orchard that climbed the slopes behind Saint Helier on St Saviour’s Road. The owner was willing to sell the property, but the States, Jersey’s governing body, was opposed to its acquisition by Jesuits. Ladaviere and Petit shook the dust of Jersey from their sandals and left for North America.

The second time the French Jesuits attempted to settle in Jersey was in 1842. The political situation at home that year made it apparent that the Society was about to be exiled once again. At the same time, families of emigres of the 1789 French Revolution, who had settled in the Channel Islands, were eager for the Jesuits to establish a school either on Jersey or Guernsey. As a result, a second delegation came to Saint Helier to look into the possibilities of transplanting one of the French colleges there, but the unofficial voice of Louis Philippe’s government, the newspaper Le Constitutionnel, so intensified its attack against the men in black that when the States met, the delegates requested that, despite the prevailing laws guaranteeing freedom of education, the Governor refuse the Jesuits permission to open a college or to take refuge in Jersey.


Probably the most important achievement of the Jesuits while they were in Jersey was the establishment of an observatory, which became an important element of the island's weather recording and forecasting service.


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