Dinner at the St. Ignatius Jesuit Residence often involves an informal lesson or two on the history of the Society. The community I live in includes a number of accomplished raconteurs, and over the past couple months my experiences at table have been enriched by many anecdotes about Jesuit life in the 1940's, '50's and '60's. The older men here often tell stories about their own experiences in formation at the old Chicago Province novitiate in Milford, Ohio, in theology at West Baden College in Indiana or Bellarmine School of Theology in North Aurora, Illinois and working both as regents or young priests in the province's various high schools. Oral history provides an important medium through which the culture, customs and traditions of the Society are passed on, so hearing these stories is an important part of my formation as a Jesuit.
Monday's dinner provided a somewhat surprising lesson in Jesuit history. On the menu that night was beef stew served with cornbread. The older Jesuits in the community partook of this meal with great relish, some mashing up the cornbread and mixing it with the stew and others keeping the bread on the side and washing it down with maple syrup. I'd had an unusually heavy lunch (a cheeseburger and fries from Chicago's Busy Burger
down the street) and I'm not much of a beef stew afficionado anyway, so I went light on the entree. One of my brother Jesuits noticed this and urged me to go up for seconds, noting that beef stew and cornbread were part of Jesuit tradition. I'd never heard this before, so I asked for an explanation. I was told that beef stew and cornbread were served regularly at the old novitiate in Milford - especially at breakfast. I must have looked fairly incredulous, because my dining companion helpfully explained that at Milford the novices had to wait a fairly long time after waking up before they had breakfast - rising at 5 a.m., each member of the community would perform his morning ablutions and meditate for nearly an hour before attending Mass and finally moving to the refectory for the first meal of the day around 7 o' clock. Under these circumstances, many novices welcomed the prospect of a hearty breakfast of beef stew and cornbread.
Having discovered the importance of beef stew and cornbread as menu items at the pre-Vatican II Milford novitiate, I wondered whether the tradition was unique to my own Chicago Province. I found a partial answer last night in the pages of I'll Die Laughing!
by Father Joseph T. McGloin, S.J. A bestseller when it was first published in 1955, I'll Die Laughing!
offers a lighthearted and affectionate if decidedly tongue-in-cheek account of Jesuit formation before the Second Vatican Council. In its day, McGloin's book played the role that books like The Fifth Week
and In Good Company
have played more recently as introductions to Jesuit life for young men interested in joining the Society. Anyhow, regarding his own novitiate at Florissant, Missouri, Father McGloin writes: "Three times a week, we had corn bread and stew for breakfast. The number of square feet of corn bread and the number of barrels of stew consumed over the course of a year would probably astonish even Ripley."
Putting Father McGloin's recollections in a larger context, one may surmise that the cornbread-and-stew tradition came to Milford from Florissant. In 1928, the Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus, which then covered nearly the entire middle third of the United States, was divided into two, with northern Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio forming the new Chicago Province. The new province adopted the traditions of the old, especially in the area of formation; thus, the new novitiate at Milford followed the ordo
of the Florissant novitiate virtually to the letter. It's easy to imagine the custom of eating cornbread and stew several times a week came to Milford in this manner, but that still leaves a few questions unanswered. How, for example, did the cornbread-and-stew tradition begin at Florissant - did it originate there, or was it brought from somewhere else? Were cornbread and stew staples at other American novitiates as well? My interest in such questions may be enough to convince some readers that I'm crazy; if nothing else, this interest shows how fascinated I am by the minutiae of Jesuit history. Whatever their sentiments, readers will no doubt be consoled to know that I'm not going to lose any sleep over these matters. However, if anyone out there - particulary Jesuits and others with knowledge of our formation - has any data on this strikingly obscure topic, feel free to post a comment. AMDG.