Deconstructing the Faith at St. Louis University

Sometime during the 1950s, administrators at St. Louis University acquiesced in the surreptitious removal of a statue near the campus: that of a Union Army officer who won a skirmish against Confederate sympathizers at the beginning of the Civil War. The land where the skirmish occurred was being acquired by the university, with the financial help of a lady whose grandfather had commanded the defeated pro-Confederates.

Around the same time, another sculpture was being erected on the university campus — that of the famous Indian missionary Jesuit Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet (1801-1873), preaching to two American Indians, with the inscription “Where the rivers meet, DeSmet began.” 

The sculpture was in front of what was then a newly opened Jesuit seminary, which was later taken over by the university.

Over the years, there were occasional complaints that the sculpture demeaned American Indians, but not until this year did university administrators act on those complaints.  

Just after May commencement, at a time when most people had left the university, it was removed without warning to a museum on the edge of the campus.

The decision to remove the sculpture is related to the now-famous case of Michael Brown, a young black man who, last August, was shot to death by a policeman in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. The university is miles from Ferguson, but for more than a week, protesters occupied the campus, and the administration made numerous concessions to them, including a promise to erect some kind of memorial to Brown.

That, in turn, is related to the changing of the guard at the university. Father Lawrence Biondi, a Jesuit, was forced to step down as president in 2014, after years of conflict with faculty and students. The new president is Fred Pestello, the first layman to head the institution. Father Biondi was scarcely a conservative in such matters, but in responding to leftist elements at the university, Pestello enjoyed a strong surge of approval, including a blog called Stand With Pestello.

The decision to remove the De-Smet sculpture was not submitted to the judgment of public opinion. Rather, as has now become standard on college campuses, a domineering and dogmatic left was simply treated as the voice of moral integrity.

A veteran anthropology professor pronounced the DeSmet sculpture “shameful,” but one of the notable things about this opposition was its failure to approach the subject in even a minimally intellectual, or even minimally accurate, way. It was, for example, often said that the two American Indians were kneeling before DeSmet, whereas, in fact, one was standing.

The liberal St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the sculpture was “construed as an attempt to convert [the Native Americans] to Christianity,” as though that were a guilty secret. St. Louis University calls itself an institution “in the Jesuit tradition,” and from their inception in the 16th century, the Jesuits have been deeply involved in missionary activity, coming to Missouri in 1823 for that reason. DeSmet did not set out to impose his religion, but began his numerous journeys because Native-American delegations came to St. Louis asking for a “black robe.” Eventually, the Jesuits established extensive missions in the Dakotas and the Northwest, which still exist.

Especially curious was the anthropologist’s seeming failure to understand the rich symbolism of the piece. The Indians were not shown submitting themselves to DeSmet as a white man, but to the crucifix that he held up for their veneration, a crucifix that he himself venerated every day of his life. Although the discipline of anthropology claims to understand every kind of religious practice, the De-Smet sculpture was interpreted in the crudest possible way — a white man lording it over two red men.

The scene had immense implications that its critics seemed not to understand. DeSmet himself, and an unknown proportion of the many American Indians who became Christians, believed that fallen humanity had been redeemed by Jesus on the cross and that those who embraced the cross shared in this redemption. The Gospel was the “good news” for everyone who accepted it, and conversion was at its heart.

Christian missionary activity is often condemned for having a disruptive effect on non-Christian cultures. But that is precisely the point: All of history is the story of the repeated transformation of cultures — sometimes peacefully, sometimes by violence — and the idea of a wholly unchanging culture is fantasy. Europe, including the ancestors of Belgian priest DeSmet, had itself been transformed, over centuries, by a religion from the Near East.

It now appears that the Jesuits and the university no longer have a tradition of their own, only a random collection of artifacts kept in a museum that is not much visited. Many Jesuits themselves appear to be embarrassed by their past.

The deconstruction of the tradition is not yet complete. The Jesuits in St. Louis operate a high school named for DeSmet. The university’s Pius XII Library is named for a pope sometimes accused of being a Nazi sympathizer. The most dominant building on the campus is the College Church, dedicated to St. Francis Xavier, an early Jesuit who was on fire to convert Hindus and Buddhists. Bellarmine House is named for the Jesuit (St. Robert) who restricted Galileo’s teaching of heliocentrism. Finally, the very name of the university and the city honors an ardent crusader who wanted above all else to reclaim the Middle East from Islam.

The work of enforcing political correctness is never done.

James Hitchcock, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of history at St. Louis University, his alma mater.