Modern Missionaries: The Jesuit Scholastics of Saint Louis University's Bellarmine House

By Molly Daily, Graduate Assistant for the Office of Marketing and Communication at Saint Louis University

Jesuit scholastics enjoy dinner together at Bellarmine House (photo courtesy of Saint Louis University)

Jesuit scholastics enjoy dinner together at Bellarmine House (photo courtesy of Saint Louis University)

At 6:00 PM on an ordinary Friday evening, twenty-seven young men gather in a spacious living room. They talk about their days, introduce themselves to guests, and joke about how no one will take the last pizza roll at dinner. Within moments, they will be called into the house next door to dine together at seven family-style tables.

This is the every day scene at Bellarmine House, just north of the Saint Louis University (SLU) main campus in St. Louis, MO, where the Jesuit community gathers daily for Mass, socialization and dinner. One of three sites for Jesuit scholastics in the United States to complete First Studies, Bellarmine House is home to young men who are learning to live their mission – in the home, in the classroom, and in their lives.

It’s a Home.

At Bellarmine House, Jesuit scholastics live in community – but their space looks and feels like a home, not a dorm.

Comprised of a row of five traditional houses, Bellarmine’s physical space makes all the difference in creating a homey feeling. “What that space fosters is a life with each other,” said Michael Mohr, S.J., a third-year scholastic. “A familial atmosphere is created, because you’re living in what normal people live in.”

Johnathan Pennacchia, S.J., a first-year scholastic, recognizes the grace and consolation in that familial setting. He said, “Often I’ll sit at the dinner table and think, 'If I weren’t a Jesuit, I’d never be sitting with all these guys.'" The “common spirituality and common call” unites the brothers and brings them into a community whose deepest purpose is to serve God.

The residents of Bellarmine House take community seriously. Every evening, residents of the house gather for Mass, social time and a meal. In a vivid description of the sacramental nature of this time, Pennacchia said, “To break bread together in the Chapel, and then to process to the dining house and break bread again: That two-hour block sums up Bellarmine House and the Jesuit community life.”

Though the community is not a domestic family, its members recognize the threads of family life that bring them together. Patrick Hyland, S.J., a third year scholastic, says community life reminds him of growing up with siblings. “We get to know each other pretty well, whether we like it or not,” he said. And while spending that much time with one another can cause disagreements, it also compels the men to take seriously the Jesuit call to see living in community as part of the mission.

“Acknowledging the community as a mission means we don’t clock in and out,” explained Hyland. “The people we live with, too, we are called to grow closer to, and love and minister to.”

It’s the Mission.

The mission of community life moves with scholastics into the life of the University. For faculty, the mission is clear. Ronny O’Dwyer, S.J., asserted that “Catholic education began on the Sea of Galilee” – so when he steps into the classroom, he’s emulating Christ.

For the scholastics, the mission is to learn – and to form others in that learning through their unique role on campus. “We’re Jesuits, not just other students,” said Hyland. “We’re called to be models of what Jesuit education is supposed to be.”

In the classroom, scholastics model SLU’s mission of a higher purpose, beyond grades and graduation. Take Pennacchia, who enters his philosophy classes ready to reexamine and understand the world. “The Society of Jesus wants to make sure we can tackle big questions not just from a philosophical standpoint, but so we can step back and look at the whole picture,” and answer those questions in a fully Catholic way. 

“It is noticeable that there are Jesuits in the classes,” said Pennacchia. So when they bring in questions on social justice and outside experiences from their own formation, students notice. Mohr recalls how his memory of a demonstration in Nicaragua colored his study of machismo in a Spanish course. “You try to integrate those things you’ve learned and apply it to a context relevant to the mission and the Society of Jesus,” said Mohr.

SLU is a place where that integration is welcomed. From its establishment 200 years ago as the first institution of higher learning west of the Mississippi River, to its sponsorship of the Land O’Lakes agreement on Catholic higher education, Saint Louis University is a place whose history is inarguably intertwined with the history of the Society of Jesus. In that atmosphere, Mohr feels comfortable bringing the mission to class because “the Jesuit name means something to the professors.”

It’s their lives.

Scholastics at SLU are called to move beyond the classroom, clearly applying what they have learned to the way they live their lives.

Residents of Bellarmine House commit to weekly community service – whether by tutoring, volunteering at a hospital, or serving in a high-need area. Whatever they do, these young men bring the questions of the classroom with them, and live their pastoral experiences in light of what they learn – a process that culminates in the third-year capstone, in which scholastics must articulate how they have integrated their pastoral and academic experiences at SLU.

But pastoral formation occurs on campus too. Feeling like he “couldn’t just be on a college campus again and be going to classes,” Hyland wanted to do something to mark the uniqueness of SLU as a home for scholastics. To fulfill his desire to make the scholastic community visible and accessible for students who might not share a classroom with Jesuits, Hyland took over Java with the Jesuits: a weekly program at SLU’s clock tower in which students can stop for a cup of coffee and a conversation with the Jesuit scholastics – no strings attached.

Java with the Jesuits has become a centerpiece of Hyland’s experience at SLU, something he sees as “a space at the crossroads of campus” where Jesuits, students and members of the University community can connect. And it’s all rooted in what Hyland sees as his purpose at SLU: “To integrate the spiritual, academic, intellectual and community parts of our lives.”

That purpose sums up the mission of SLU’s scholastic community: A space where young men live out their mission, and see how that mission becomes part of their lives.

Molly Daily is a candidate for a Master of Arts in Communication at Saint Louis University (expected in 2018).