Nuestra Historia - El Distrito de las Escuelas - the Jesuits

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By Jesus L. Lopez

In September 1874, five years after the arrival of the Sisters of Loretto, an order of Italian Jesuits from Naples came to Las Vegas and established a private school for boys. They opened their school in a house owned by Manuel Romero, who donated it to the Jesuits for the “propagation of the Catholic faith and the education of the young men of New Mexico.” (The house has been owned for many decades by Rose Serna and her family, and is located on the west side of South Pacific Street, at the turnabout intersecting with Socorro Street, and in the early days was known as La Casa Redonda, as it encloses an inner courtyard on all sides.)

The boys’ school was under the direction of Fr. Donato Maria Gasparri. He and his fellow Jesuits had left Naples in exile, after a wave of anti-clericalism spread throughout Italy beginning in 1860. Like the Sisters of Loretto, the Jesuits were recruited by Bishop Lamy, and joined Lamy in the New Mexico diocese as early as 1867, making their way to Las Vegas a few years later. (In 1875 the New Mexico diocese was elevated to an archdiocese and Lamy became Archbishop of Santa Fe.)

Within a year after opening their school in Las Vegas, the Society of Jesus, the formal name for the Jesuit order, also began publishing La Revista Católica, which became the leading Spanish language Catholic publication in the Southwest.

The Jesuits continued publishing the weekly newspaper in Las Vegas until 1918, when they moved their publishing house to El Paso, Texas. (A Spanish weekly, La Revista Católica circulated widely throughout the Western hemisphere, and before it ceased operations in 1958, its press offered a variety of religious materials which also had extensive circulation throughout the Southwest, Latin America and overseas.)

By 1877 the Jesuit boy’s school on South Pacific Street had an enrollment of 132 pupils, with seven faculty members, and expanded into additional quarters across the street from La Casa Redonda (the round house), at a home owned by Don Francisco López, a prominent freighter and businessman. During this time the Jesuits began offering collegiate level instruction, and the boys school expanded into a college, offering an extensive curriculum, which included mathematics, geography and the humanities, including history, Spanish, English, French, Italian and Latin. (Day pupils paid $1 to $3 per month in tuition, boarding pupils paid $200 per year, and tuition was waived for needy students, many of whose families contributed in-kind, with beef, mutton, eggs and other goods or services.)

In 1878 the Jesuits erected a new school building at the south end of South Gonzales Street, just east of the acequia madre, and in 1886, with an enrollment of 246, a substantial addition was made to the building, which is pictured with today’s column. El Distrito de las Escuelas now boasted the academy of the Sisters of Loretto at the north end of South Gonzales Street, and the Jesuit College at the south end.

In 1881, the San Miguel County Commission allocated public funds for the Jesuit College on the condition that it be made available, at least in part, for free public education. This designation and allotment of taxpayer funds made the school one of the first public schools in New Mexico, and some historians maintain that it was in fact the very first public school in the New Mexico Territory. (As its successor, and today occupying the entirety of El Distrito de las Escuelas, the West Las Vegas School District would hold the distinction of being the first public school district in New Mexico.)

Las Vegas soon became an education mecca. Attracting students from as far away as Durango and Chihuahua, Mexico, and Pueblo and Denver, Colo., Las Vegas was known for several decades as one of the more literate communities in New Mexico. Young men from throughout the Territory came to Las Vegas to enroll at the Jesuit College, and many future leaders of the time were educated there, some of whom will be named in our next column.

The Jesuit college thrived in Las Vegas until 1888, when the Jesuits left, taking with them their centuries-old erudition and learning. As we continue this series about El Distrito de las Escuelas and early education in Las Vegas, we will recount both the reasons for the Jesuits’ departure, and our town’s great loss when they founded elsewhere a prestigious and acclaimed university. (The Jesuit order was founded in Spain in 1539 by St. Ignatius of Loyola.)

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.