From the Archives: a history of the Jesuit Noviceship

POST BY MAllen

St Stanislaus Kostka SJ

The feast day of St Stanislaus Kostka SJ, patron saint of Jesuit novices, is 13 November.  St Stanislaus was born in 1550, and faced great opposition from his family to his wish to become a Jesuit novice.  He ran away from the family home in Vienna and walked to Rome, via Dilingen in Germany, despite being frail and prone to illness.   Once in Rome he became a Jesuit novice and impressed all with his great holiness and devotion, but lived only 10 months more, dying on 15 August 1568, at the age of 18.  He was beatified in 1605 and canonised in 1726.  He has long been recognised as the Jesuit novices’ own saint.

Novices are Jesuits in the first two years of their Jesuit lives.  At the end of their time as novices they take vows which are often referred to as First Vows, and are then allowed to use the initials SJ after their names. During the two years of the novitiate, novices learn how to pray, how to live in a Community, and about the Society of Jesus.  They do apostolic work, and make the Long Retreat, the 30 day Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola.  In essence, in the novitiate they learn how to be a Jesuit.

In the British Province, the novices have always lived together in one community for the two years of their novitiate.  From 1860 to 1950 the novitiate was based at Manresa House, Roehampton, then it moved around for the next 25 years, being housed variously at Harlaxton, Edinburgh, Prescot, Liverpool, until in 1976 it settled in Birmingham.  Currently Manresa House in Birmingham is home to the novitiate for the British, Irish, North Belgian and Dutch Provinces.

The Jesuits in Britain Archives hold resources which shed light on the life of novices in the British province.  Letters and written accounts both published and unpublished allow us to see how novices fared in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

Denis Meadows entered the novitiate in 1907.  He became a Jesuit but left in order to volunteer in the army in the first world war.  He published an account of his ten years with the Jesuits, Obedient Men, in which he describes his first impression of Manresa House at Roehampton:

‘Some kind of building lay ahead, square and rather lofty.  It looked to me very like a wing of Knightsbridge Barracks.  The buildings suddenly began to give back an echo of the thud of hooves.  We were in a quadrangle, one side open to the driveway, the other three consisting of buildings full of lighted, curtainless windows.  It was a bleak prospect.  Not until next day did I see the other side, the beautiful Georgian country house onto which this barracklike structure had been added.  My first impression of the house of novices was bleakness; that impression was never quite obliterated in the two years I spent there’ (p. 6)

Novices at the front of Manresa House, Roehampton

Rear of Manresa House, Roehampton

Fr Martin D’Arcy SJ was a novice at Roehampton at the same time as Meadows, having started a year previously in 1906.  His unpublished autobiography also suggests that the novitiate at this time was bleak, and gives some reasons why this was so:

‘In those days novices were treated very roughly.  The theory was that to be a follower of St Ignatius self-will had to be broken.  St Ignatius taught that the only road to holiness led through humility.  There were various exercises in the novitiate which did throw over ones opinion of oneself and destroyed pretences.  The [values] of the novitiate were mostly service:- the ablest might be put under the more stupid & trying.  Penances were given for breaking objects as well as rules’ (ABSI/SJ/21/1)

Extract from Fr Martin D’Arcy’s unpublished autobiography

Other accounts of the novitiate emphasise only the happiness of the novice.  Fr John Luck SJ was a novice at Roehampton in 1888-1890, and wrote letters to his family throughout this time, such as this letter to his mother written on 23 September 1888, when he had been at Roehampton for a couple of weeks:

I began the Retreat on Thursday week, and never enjoyed anything more in all my life.  We made four Meditations each day of one hour each, Father Rector (Fr. Scoles) having prepared the points first for us.  You would never think so many beautiful and instructive thoughts could be drawn from a subject or parable as Fr Rector can draw from one.  You will perhaps be surprised to know that I never once felt the Retreat irksome.  The seven days passed by quickly and the Retreat closed by each receiving his habit on Thursday night.  You may be sure I was pleased when I received mine.  We wear them all day except during exercise, i.e. sweeping and rolling the lawns, and games. (ABSI/SJ/3/1/2)

Luck’s letter to his mother, 1888

To his father, in 1890, John Luck wrote:

‘Yet if you knew the peaceful happiness of religious life I do assure you that you would wish every child of yours to live & die in it.  And you know how incompatible this would be with idleness.  From 20 minutes past five, when I rise, till 10 o’clock at night when I go to bed I don’t think I spend one idle minute’ (ABSI/SJ/3/1/15)

He also describes how the novices’ days were organised:

‘This is the way we spend our time each day, we are called at 5.20 a.m., Morning Oblation 5.50 in Chapel, Mass 7—0, Breakfast 7.35 and afterwards reading, outdoor exercise, studies &c. till dinner at one, then Recreation till 2-30.  Rosary, read Imitation of Christ, exercise, free time and at 5-0 coffee and bread and visit & meditation in the Chapel, then study or whatever the order is and then supper at 7-35, then Litany of the Saints and sometimes Benediction and at 9-45 to our rooms.’ (ABSI/3/1/2)

And talks about their living arrangements:

‘…fine large dormitories which in the winter will be heated with warm water, each [novice] has a separate cell (“cubicles” we call them) partitioned off to himself.  I have also two drawers for my clothes, a washhand stand, looking-glass &c is in each cubicle; so you see everything is most comfortable, I sleep very well, and awaken just before the caller comes every morning.’ (ABSI/3/1/2)

Manresa House at Roehampton had beautiful grounds adjacent to Richmond Park, separated from it only by a ha-ha.  Luck certainly appreciated the beauty of his surroundings, in a letter to his mother written in May 1890 he wrote:

‘Well we are in Our Lady’s beautiful month, and all the earth has donned its very best “spring fashions”. Our grounds look beautiful.  Flowers bloom everywhere.  The fruit-trees are in full-blossom.  The great oaks, & elms, & chestnuts, & beeches & limes are all doing their very best not to be outdone by their ‘sweet’ little brothers.  The lawns are like strips & squares of verdant velvet.  Mowing, rolling, and sweeping are the order of the day.  And then the birds.  We have crows, rooks (a rookery too) blackbirds, thrushes, jackdaws, wrens, robins, great tits, ox-eyed tits, hawks, swallows, nuthatches, starlings, sparrows, and one of the brothers caught even an owl on the grounds the other day.  It was a rare species I believe, and a beautiful one, so Fr Rector ordered it to be released.’

Also in May of each year, the novices had to preach on texts which were given to them by the rector.  This took place in the refectory, when dinner had been eaten, and appears to have been a great ordeal for the Novices.

Refectory, Manresa House, Roehampton, where the novices preached their sermons in May

John Luck wrote to his mother in May 1890:

‘Another tribute of our love for Our Bl Lady is the course of May Sermons on the titles of her Litany.  Mine this year is “Stella Matutina”, and I hope to preach on Sat the 14th inst.  I shall have the most critical, & seemingly most unsympathetic audience in the world.  I shall see the square tops of more birrettas than the faces they cover.  “All their attention” as Lacordaire said “seems to be bestowed on their plates & their contents” So please pray for me, not that I may not break down or anything of that sort, that wouldn’t matter much, but that my few words may bear some fruit’ (ABSI/3/1/17(1))

Fr D’Arcy also had something to say about these sermons:

‘Novices had to preach… in the refectory, always a nerve-shattering experience, with the old Fathers comparing the present with the past, Professors quick to criticise, the Juniors quick to laugh, & the novices to be faced afterwards, and the grim figure of Fr Considine watchful & probably censorious.’ (ABSI/SJ/21/1) [p18]

Since St Stanislaus Kostka is the patron saint of the novices, it is not surprising to learn that the 13 November was a special day for the novices. In 1888 John Luck and his fellow novices enjoyed a talk about St Stanislaus Kostka followed by a concert:

‘Tuesday was a great feast for us, being that of St Stanislaus, Model of Novices, we went for a walk in the morning, At two o’clock a panegyric was preached very eloquently by one of the Novices, and in the evening there was a Séance (a concert) which I enjoyed greatly.’ (ABSI/SJ/3/1/3(2)) 

In 1907 Denis Meadows and his fellow novices celebrated the 13 November with a feast:

On November 13 we kept the feast of St Stanislaus Kostka, our patron saint.  It was a joyful day.  The sacristan turned out his best vestments and cottas for the community Mass.  We went down to our feast-day dinner in high spirits. (Obedient Men p. 120)

For the last 44 years the novitiate has been based at Harborne in Birmingham, in a building, like that at Roehampton, named Manresa House.  This is where novices are based for their novitiate today, and where they take their First Vows.  Among the most recent acquisitions made by the Jesuit Archives is this order of service for the Mass of First Vows in 2019.

If you are interested in any of the material mentioned in this blog post, would like to make an enquiry or book an appointment to visit the Jesuits in Britain Archives, please contact us.

Lucy Vinten Mattich, Assistant Archivist