A Novitiate on the Move

Source: WCMA.pastperfectonline.com

Up until the years following Vatican II, novitiates were an oasis of stability in the Society of Jesus. Typically they were situated in rural settings, in institutions which attended to every need. Their daily order severely restricted outside apostolic activities, and offered a regular routine considered safe for spiritual seedlings in the Society of Jesus.

St/ Stanislaus Novitiate, Guelph, circa 1960

Often a novice director would carry on for a decade or more. Some of them were legendary in our province, like “Uncle Joe” Monaghan (he had three nephews in the Society),  novice master for 15 years and later rector of the novitiate community, holding up the old traditions for newcomers like myself.

But then, like other aspects of religious life, novitiates – and that includes ours – lost that easy stability. We were founded and situated in Guelph ON from 1913 onwards. But significant and frequent changes to the daily routine began in the mid 60’s when Fr. John English became novice master.

John English,SJ with Paul Sullivan, 1990 shoot for A Heart to Understand. Source: ignation.ca

Still it was not until 1994 that the novitiate moved to an urban setting, in accord with earliest traditions of the Society. This move, to St. Paul Minnesota, introduced yet another major change, in most ways a welcome one, because our novices now benefited from the advantage of a large group of peers from the USA.

In 2008, anticipating the union of the two Canadian provinces, a new bilingual novitiate was started in Montreal within the multi-ethnic area around the Université de Montréal. In 2017 the founding novice director, Fr. Erik Oland, became provincial, and it was deemed necessary to move the novitiate to Villa Saint Martin, a retreat centre whose director, Fr. Gabriel Côté, has now taken on the additional task of directing the novices.

Guelp farm. Source: ecojesuits.com

This meant a move away from the centre of the city to an attractive but institutional building close to the “back river” of Montreal, on a property of notable beauty, but situated within the sterile ticky tack of suburbia, with shopping malls some distance away and autoroutes which twice a day turn into parking lots, with upper middle class mansions near the river and islands of poverty further inland.

Jesuit novitiate, Montreal circo 2015. Source: ignation.ca

A move such as this one is complex. The novitiate now shares space with a lively retreat apostolate, and this entails adaptations to the schedule which at times can be creative but are often enough inconvenient. Fortunately there are opportunities for the novices to work nearby with immigrants and children of poorer neighborhoods.

Renovations are necessary to adapt the community space for the novices and the novitiate staff, and they are far from complete. If we were to get a large influx of novices, it would come under the frequent Jesuit category of  ‘a real problem, but thank God for it. ’

Finding space for the old novitiate library is another headache. Travel to more central parts of Montreal has become more problematic. A frequent subject of conversation is how to avoid bottlenecks and mitigate delays that are in any event unavoidable.

Villa Saint Maartin, Montreal. Source:commons.wikimedia.com

The formation we now offer our novices entails interruptions and work-arounds, but it corresponds more closely to how Jesuits live and work in this topsy turvy world. So life goes on and we expect its unexpected twists and turns.

How do we maintain both traditional and contemporary values of the novitiate in this new setting? How do we mitigate the negative factors, and how do we discover and take advantage of unexpected opportunities hidden in this new setting?

And the perennial struggle continues: how do we find a sufficient number of young men with passion for the ideals of Saint Ignatius and the contemporary mission of the Society he founded?

Jean-Marc Laporte, SJ lives in Montreal where he is the socius to the novice director for the Canadian Jesuits.

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