A Short Summary of the History of the Czech Province of the Society of Jesus

After the approval, by Pope Paul III, of the “Formula of the Institute,” the outline of the newly established order’s way of life, the Society of Jesus began its remarkable expansion across Europe and its penetration into India and Latin America.

But the centre of the Society’s activity was in Europe. The lands of the Czech Crown were surrounded by the Germanic world. The Society of Jesus penetrated into this world very soon and the German Province was established, including also Austria. We cannot say precisely how those Czech persons who were interested found out about the Society, but it is clear that already in 1552 twelve young Czech men came to Rome to enter the Society. In 1555 another ten Czechs entered the Society of Jesus in Rome. It was probably not only this fact, but also the wish of both the Archbishop of Prague and the ruler which caused St. Ignatius to send the German provincial to Prague in 1555. He was Peter Canisius, later to be a saint and teacher of the Church. He dealt judiciously with the estates, the king, and the archbishop and in this way opened the door for the arrival of the first Jesuits in Prague.

Before his death in 1556 St. Ignatius sent the first 12 Jesuits to Prague to a newly prepared home by St. Clement’s Church (the former Dominican monastery). The letter of safe conduct is dated by St. Ignatius 2 April 1556). On 21 April 1556 the chosen Jesuits appeared in Prague. All of them were foreigners but could establish the schools since instruction at that time in Europe was conducted in Latin. On 7 July 1556 they opened theological and philosophical colleges as well as an academy (analogous to a grammar school). At the same time, they established two halls of residence: St. Bartholomew for noblemen, and St. Wenceslas for poor students.

In 1559 the first two Czech Jesuit priests Father Valentin Foit and Father Ondřej Pěšina came back to Bohemia. From this time on the Jesuits have preached the word of God from the pulpits of Prague. From Prague they went to the country, at first on missions, but later, when the number of Jesuits increased, for long-term work in different places belonging to the Czech Crown which at this time comprised Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia and Kladsko.

Jesuit activity was briefly interrupted when thirty Protestant leaders issued a decree on 1 June 1616 denouncing the Jesuits “now and forever.” Exile was not to last long and Jesuits gradually returned to their colleges. Firstly in 1619 to Český Krumlov, Prague and Jindřichův Hradec and then also to the remaining places. In 1622 they again began to teach at the university.

The administration of these activities was conducted by the German Province from 1556 until 1563. In this year a new Austrian Province of the Society was established and the Society’s houses in Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia and Kladsko were also joined to it. The growth of the order in our country was so great that the General of the Jesuits decided in 1623 to set up an independent Czech Province.

This Czech Province administered three universities on its territory: in Prague, Olomouc and Wroclaw. The colleges and residences providing religious services for worshippers continued to prosper. At its peak prosperity there were forty-eight institutions of this kind and, in addition to these, two mission stations came into being. Up to 1773 and the disbanding of the orders, beautiful Baroque churches were built everywhere Jesuits of the Czech Province worked. In the places where they had their colleges the Jesuits also built large schools and halls of residence. At the same time, however, Czech Jesuits also took part in the Society’s world-wide missions in India, China, Latin America and the Philippines.

It was not only the Jesuit teachers and priests who were of such importance for Czech cultural development, but also the scientists, prominent in various fields, and the excellent painters and sculptors. The Czech Province Jesuits carried out pioneering work of all kinds in their schools, which involved dramatic performances, ballet and also music.

Although the Society is not a charitable order its members did not exempt themselves from this kind of work wherever it was needed. Many Czech Province Jesuits served people suffering from the Black Death, sometimes paying the ultimate price. Twenty four Czech Jesuits died as a result of this work.

In 1754, Silesia separated from the Czech Province. In 1773, at the time of the disbanding of the order there were, excluding the Silesians, altogether one thousand one hundred and twenty-five members of the Czech Province, of which six hundred and twenty-three were priests. Seventy-eight members were at this time engaged in foreign missions. In the days of the independent Czech Province one hundred and sixty priests and brothers took part in the missions. Most of the priests were enlisted by the dioceses for parochial service while some of the professors carried on with their teaching.

Despite the world-wide renewal of the Society through Pope Pius VII’s Bull in 1814, the formerly famous Czech Province failed to become revitalised for a long time. Individuals who were interested in the Society of Jesus had to become members of the Austro-Hungarian Province (later only Austrian). On Austro-Hungarian territory Jesuits returned to the original places in the historical countries of Bohemia. At first, in 1853 to Šejnov-Bohosudov (Mariaschein) where they established a German Grammar School and a hall of residence for boys who were to dedicate themselves to the priesthood (the boys’ seminary of the Litoměřice diocese). In 1866 Jesuits returned to Prague-Nové Město, St. Ignatius Church. In 1900 they were also called to Hradec Králové. Otherwise, the dioceses entrusted them with new work in ecclesiastical service: in 1887 at St. Hostýn (a Marian shrine), and in 1890 in Velehrad (a shrine of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, and a parish). In 1913 the Archbishop of Prague entrusted Czech Jesuits of the Austrian Province with the Archiepiscopal Grammar School in Prague-Bubeneč and a hall of residence for the education of future priests.

Jesuits and the Birth of the Independent Czechoslovak State

After the end of World War I and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the independent state of Czechoslovakia came into being. Some communities in Bohemia and Moravia could not remain in the Austrian Province and the two communities in Slovakia could not remain in the Hungarian Province. By virtue of a decision of Father General Vladimír Ledóchowský the Czechoslovak Vice-Province was established. The residency at St. Ignatius in Prague became the seat of the head of the Vice-Province. In Bohemia, the colleges in Prague-Bubeneč, Bohosudov, and the residency in Hradec Králové, and in Moravia the college in Velehrad and a residency at St. Hostýn, belonged to the Vice-Province, while in Slovakia, the college in Trnava and the residency in Bratislava fell to the Czechoslovak Vice-Province.

From the other provinces the residency in Opava (from the German Province) was incorporated in 1920, and the residency in Český Těšín (from the Polish Province), in 1924.

New Jesuit houses and works gradually appeared in the following places: 1922 in Ružomberok, 1925 in Podmokly, 1930 in Košice, 1932 in Doupov, 1933 in Děčín, and in Benešov near Prague.

By the time of its establishment, the Czechoslovak Vice-Province had one hundred and fifty-three members, of whom seventy two were priests, twenty nine scholastics (i. e. members studying for priesthood), and fifty two brothers. On 25 December 1928 the Czechoslovak Vice-Province was promoted to the Province. In 1929, the Czechoslovak Province had two hundred and seventy-one members, of whom ninety-nine were priests, ninety-three scholastics and seventy-nine brothers. By virtue of the decision of the Father General, the Slovak Vice-Province, independent of the Czechoslovak Province, came into being on 1 January 1931.

In October 1937, a new provincial Philosophical Institute was opened in Benešov. The Province, together with the Polish Province and the Slovak Vice-Province, was entrusted with the territory of North Rhodesia—today’s Zambia—in Africa. Czech Jesuits could also leave on missions to China, and one priest, three scholastics and one brother were prepared for this mission. At the same time two scholastics were also prepared for the mission in Russia.

The General decided to give back the Province its earlier famous name: the Czech Province. But the events leading up to World War II were already under way. The result of these events was the affiliation of the houses in Bohosudov, Děčín, Podmokly, Doupov and Opava to the German Province, and the house in Český Těšín to the Polish Province. In this way the Czech Province lost sixty-nine members. The Czechoslovak Province performed easily overlooked but important work in the education of young priests in Czech Grammar Schools in Prague-Bubeneč and Velehrad and in German Grammar School in Bohosudov.

One work of great importance was that of carrying out spiritual exercises. The main centre for this was Velehrad, with a special retreat house Stojanov, and, after building the pilgrim house in St. Hostýn, the exercises could also be made there.

Another notable field of activity was that encompassed by the Marian Sodalities, especially in places where Jesuits worked, but also in places they visited. Other Jesuits work was the press apostolate. The Province published the following Czech periodicals: Posel Božského Srdce Páně (Messenger of the Lord’s Divine Heart), Ve službách Královny (In the Queen’s Service), Hlasy svatohostýnské (St. Hostýn Voices), Velehradské zprávy (Velehrad News), Zprávy české provincie T.J. (The Society of Jesus, Czech Province, News). Czech Jesuits also published a German magazine Mariascheiner Sodealenkorrespondenz at their own expense.

The editors from the Czech Province worked on the Czech Catholic magazines “Neděle—týdeník pro obecný lid” (Sunday—a weekly for laypeople) and “Dorost—časopis pro mládež” (Youth—a magazine for young people).

Members of the Czech Province also served as spiritual advisors in diocesan seminaries; on a long term basis in the Brno, Litoměřice (for German students) and Hradec Králové dioceses and, for a short time, in Prague and České Budějovice. The apostolate in the suburbs of Prague and in the districts on the fringe of the developing city was also of great importance. Something completely new was their work aimed at bringing different strands of the Christian faith together (known in these days as the ecumenical movement), especially the attempt at reconciliation with the Orthodox Church. Jesuits prepared seven union congresses in Velehrad and played a significant part in it with their lectures.

The Czech Province During the World War II

On 15 March 1939, the German army occupied Bohemia and Moravia, and the part of the Reich known as the “Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia” came into being. German authorities, with the extensive help of the Gestapo, struggled against the Catholic Church. The Jesuits in particular found themselves in a difficult position.

First of all, the schools administered by Jesuits were gradually closed. Even in 1938, before Bohosudov was affiliated to the German Province, the local grammar school with its hall of residence was closed. In 1942, both Czech grammar schools with halls of residence—Prague-Bubeneč (after the seizure of the building the school was situated in Smíchov), and in Velehrad—were closed. For the Reich’s purposes, the buildings of Benešov college near Prague were seized and the teachers and students had to leave in just a few hours. In 1943 the residency at St. Ignatius was occupied. The Provincial Office and the Fathers, together with the brothers, moved into a number of rooms above the sacristy beside the church, and into the garden house, which was originally built as a small printing office. The theology students found a home with the Premonstratensians at Strahov. Both houses where our members mostly led spiritual retreats—Stojanov in Velehrad and the pilgrim house at St. Hostýn—were seized. All our periodicals were gradually suppressed.

The principal target was people and the rate of arrests was relatively high. At the beginning three priests were arrested—the first already in 1940. Others followed, after a few months, in 1941. They all ended up in Dachau concentration camp, from where they returned after the end of the war. Then two Jesuit priests were interned for some time. They were finally released, but were ordered to stay in one place. In 1942 one German scholastic, but a member of the Czech Province, was arrested and executed in Brandeburg-Gorden. In 1944 a large-scale rounding-up of Jesuits occurred in Prague. This included some theology students and their professors at St. Ignatius, but it occurred mainly at Strahov, where eight priests and sixteen students from the Czech Province were arrested. All were convicted by a special court “Sondergericht” and went mainly to the concentration camp in Terezín. Three of them were deported to a house of correction in Bernau, Bavaria. One priest and one student died (in the Pankrác prison in Prague). The rest returned after the end of war.

Otherwise, the Province was afflicted with the taking away of some scholastics and novices (in total five people) to perform forced labour in the Reich. One of them died there.

Some Jesuits who were abroad (four priests and one brother) were called-up to the Czechoslovak army-in-exile being established in London. In this way the Jesuits suffered under the German occupation.