“Ignatius [was] a man born between two worlds: the stable cosmos of the Medieval synthesis and the expanding horizons—physical, social, and intellectual—of Renaissance Europe. Born months before Columbus set sail, Ignatius’ life was likewise a journey of discovery, an exploration of a world of shifting frontiers, a pilgrimage that led him to the heart of the modern city.” (Thomas M. Lucas, S.J.)
The Society of Jesus was founded in 1541, for “the defense of the faith and the care of souls.” Given the two major movements of the 16th century—the Protestant Reformation and the European voyages of “expanding horizons”—the new Religious Order was called upon principally for education and evangelization. When Ignatius died in 1556, the Jesuits numbered over one thousand, the colleges of the Society numbered thirty-eight, and there were Jesuit missionaries in India, Brazil, the Congo region, and Ethiopia. One hundred years later, they were in New York.
The Jesuits originally came to Yorkville in Manhattan not to open a Parish, but to minister to the poor and ill inhabitants of the city’s East River Islands (Randall’s, Blackwell’s, Welfare and Ward). The city institutions on those islands included a prison, an orphanage, the hospital for infectious diseases, the mental asylum, the poor house, and a potter’s field. The Jesuits traveled by train from Fordham University for these corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and soon it became evident that a permanent base close by was called for. In 1866, the archbishop of New York invited the Jesuits to the Parish of St. Lawrence O’Toole, a poverty-stricken, predominantly Irish parish, situated between the mansions of Fifth Avenue and the villas overlooking the East River. The first Jesuit pastor was Father Victor Beaudevin, S.J.
A dynamic series of Jesuit pastors soon established a school, and made plans for a new church, to face Park Avenue. The raising of funds was not easy, but when a large section of the ceiling fell in during Sunday Mass—no one was hurt—the parishioners considered the event a mandate from Heaven, and donations poured in at a rapid rate.
From our parish history:
On December 11, 1898 the Roman Catholic Church of St. Ignatius Loyola was dedicated by the Most Reverend Michael Corrigan, third Archbishop of New York. The building stands on the site of the former St. Lawrence O’Toole Church, founded in 1851 and named for a twelfth-century Archbishop of Dublin, by the parish’s first pastor, the Rev. Eugene O’Reilly from Ireland. The parish was entrusted to the care of the Society of Jesus in 1866 and marked the Jesuits’ first major apostolate in the Yorkville area of New York. Replacing a modest brick building dating to 1853 which had replaced an even more modest wooden structure built in 1852, the present grand limestone edifice stands as testimony to both the growing affluence and confidence of the Catholic community on New York’s Upper East Side.
The imposing physical plant, made of “American bricks and Italian marble,” consists of the church, the Parish House, the St. Ignatius Loyola School, and the Pre-school. Together with Loyola School, Regis High School, and Jesuit Residence on 83rd Street, the Society of Jesus has been true to its mission of “defending the faith and helping souls” for over 150 years.
“Yorkville” today is more a reminiscence of the immigrant settlement of Irish, German, Hungarian, and Italian laborers who built and adorned the magnificent churches, museums, and residences on the Upper East Side. The Parish of St. Ignatius Loyola-St. Lawrence O’Toole has grown and adapted to the generations of Catholics who have been educated in its schools, comforted in its sacraments, enlivened by its community, and who have encountered in its pews the love of Christ.
— Fr. Michael Hilbert, S.J.