Sense and Nonsense: The Old Jesuit House

I began to write this column on a Sunday morning last winter, during the heaviest snowstorm in years. The scene on Georgetown University’s campus was stunningly beautiful. Before breakfast, I went into the inner courtyard to take a photo of the Healy towers from the back, then of the small chapel, the trees and old brick buildings, and the fountain that constitute the inner quadrangle. As in the spring with the double cherry blossoms in full bloom, so in a winter snow, the place could not be more lovely. I realized that this would be the last time I would be living exactly in the midst of this beautiful scene—place matters.

This summer, the Jesuit community moves to new quarters. I first lived in these old community buildings from 1956 to 1960, during graduate school. I was gone for the next 18 years in San Francisco and Rome but also four years at Alma College—now closed—another lovely spot in the Santa Cruz mountains outside of Los Gatos, California.

The Jesuits have lived on this Georgetown campus since 1789. Below is their graveyard, the record of their presence in this place. The old religious house actually consisted in three brick buildings—named Ryan, Mulledy, and Gervase—dating from the 1830s to 1840s. The buildings are being turned back to the university for what I presume will be offices. The new president told the Jesuits that these buildings were very valuable. I am not sure they weren’t surprised.

In principle, one should be slow to move from old buildings, even though these buildings need a thorough renewal of pipes, electrical wiring, and roofs. Washington, in fact, is full of restored buildings; that’s part of its charm. This option the Jesuits could have chosen, but did not. The present buildings are in the center of the campus, right behind the Healy building, a spectacular Flemish gothic structure, one of the very beautiful landmark buildings in Washington. This structure is the jewel of the campus and of Georgetown itself. Seen from the Key Bridge on the Potomac below, it is entrancing. Across in the Old North building, George Washington once spoke. Over a century ago, a small, beautiful chapel was placed at the back of the quadrangle. Since then, the inner space has been beautifully redone with a fountain (it had two fountains before the bicentennial of the university in 1989), with flower beds and cherry trees.

Originally, the Gervase and Mulledy buildings were separate but were connected with offices and an elevator, said to be the second oldest elevator in the District. I often tried to calculate whether the total distance this busy Otis had traveled in its day was equivalent to a trip to the Moon. At the top of this elevator is a wonderful sun porch where I often sat in the morning or evening to see the vista down the Potomac bend, the monuments, the island, the planes coming into Reagan Washington National Airport. In old buildings, we find odd corners, basements with space, with exercise, TV, computer, and laundry rooms.

Our dining room in the Ryan building (a student dining room during my early years here) is quite handsome. I suggested to our Marriott chef that he buy the room and kitchen below (perhaps slated to become part of the library across the way) and open an elegant restaurant called “The Old Jesuit Dining Room.” He would make a fortune!

Interestingly, I have seldom met a layman who, on being told that we were moving, did not say in some astonishment, “Why would you do such a thing?” “Why are you marginalizing yourselves?” Needless to say, I have no answer. I must confess that I am brokenhearted about this move, even though we’re only going to be down the hill a couple of blocks. I told one of the men, “At least my new room will not be freezing in winter winds like the present one can be.” He replied, “How do you know?”

We are across from the library, in the same stately buildings that form the university quadrangle, across from the chapel; other classrooms and offices are within a few minutes walking distance. Usually, in the morning, I take a walk, which I hope I will continue to do. When I return to campus, I’m usually on O Street at the current main entrance. I never cease to be struck by the beauty of the Healy building, with its statue of John Carroll, the founder of Georgetown, before it. In the early morning, with no one around, with the awareness that I have lived in these buildings for, lo, much of my life, I have the feeling that they are somehow mine, they are so dear to me. Though I am not against newness, once moved, it will never be quite the same.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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