Saint Louis University is home to the city's one and only Jesuit University in the heart of midtown. The University endorses the Jesuit mission, which is inherent in the culture and practices of the historically Catholic university. Saint Louis, Missouri has deeply rooted Catholic values and traditions, and these elements are continually reflected through Saint Louis University’s history, culture, and focus on the Jesuit Mission.
Saint Louis, Missouri was founded in 1764 by Pierre Laclede Liguest and Auguste Chouteau as a land grant by the King of France. The area was strategically chosen as a trading post, given its location on the Mississippi river, allowing for easy water transit and facilitation of trade. From the city’s very founding, the influence of French culture had its obvious impacts, including many religious aspects. Historically, the most dominant religion in France is Roman Catholicism; as much as 88 to 92% of the population identifies as such. This strong force of Catholic tradition and ideology traveled with the two famous Saint Louis settlers, stitching the ways of Catholicism into the fibers of the new city in North America from its founding. Since then, Saint Louis has celebrated and cherished the traditions of Catholicism, and the Catholic community does much to preserve the prevalence of Catholicism within the greater Saint Louis area and within their private communities as well. To this day, there are 198 parishes under the Archdiocese of St. Louis, and there is a strong culture of attending private Catholic institutions, especially for high school. Though much more secular than the original celebration, the celebration of the french holiday Mardi Gras lives on in Saint Louis as one of the largest celebrations worldwide in the historic district of Soulard--keeping the strong french Roman Catholic identity intact even beyond religious affiliations.
One of the goals of Ignatius, a highly regarded Spanish priest, theologian, and the founder of the Society of Jesus, along with serving God and others, when starting the Jesuit order was to provide excellent education. He was so dissatisfied with education in the 1600s so he decided to change that. Since the Saint Louis University was the first institution of higher education west of the Mississippi river, It has had the ability to embody the Jesuit mission in the community from an early start. As well as being the first College west of the Mississippi, SLU has had many other educational firsts. One of the missions that Jesuits teach is to be men and women for and with others. Within the first one hundred years that SLU was founded, it had created the first schools of law, 1843, medicine, 1836, and business, 1910, west of the Mississippi. By offering these career options, SLU has made it possible for residents of Saint Louis to invest in their future while also helping those in need. Later, in 1932, SLU established Saint Louis University Hospital. Over the years, SLU Hospital has provided excellent health care, it has become a level 1 trauma center and is a public hospital for Saint Louis. Because SLU Hospital has the resources to treat anyone who walks in, it continuously serves the needs of the community. Another goal which the Jesuits strive for is to help the oppressed. In 1944, SLU became the first college in a former slave state to adopt integration. SLU was able to provide an education for those who would not have been offered one. Later on, SLU opened a campus in Madrid Spain in 1969, by doing this the Jesuit mission was able to extend out from Saint Louis, Missouri, and Illinois. Finally, in an effort to try and improve the community, in every year since 1998 SLU has hosted make a difference day, the largest campus sponsored service opportunity. Even now, SLU has planned to improve and renovate the areas around campus, so it becomes a better environment not just for the students, but for the residents as well. The Jesuit goal of improving the community along with the school did not stop when Dr. Pestello was appointed president. SLU has just announced a new project to rejuvenate the community around campus. In the city’s central corridor area of midtown, SLU has committed to projects spanning 25 years that will redevelop the community. In hopes of rejuvenating the community SLU will spearhead the project in efforts to raise around $750 million to be put back into the community. Throughout the many years SLU has been around, the Catholic teachings of the Jesuits have made it possible to positively interact with the community. In keeping with the goals of a Jesuit institution, Saint Louis University, is not only concerned with its students but also the community that the school is in.
Saint Louis, Missouri has been home to the Roman Catholic university, Saint Louis University, for 198 years. Saint Louis University first opened its doors on November 16, 1818--only 54 years after the founding of the city--welcoming its very first students from Saint Louis and beyond. Its location in Saint Louis, however, has certainly shaped the traditions and culture embedded into the university’s rich history. The university itself identifies as a Jesuit institution, meaning that the school embodies the mission of the Jesuits, or the society of Jesus. As a Jesuit institution, Saint Louis University is devoted to “the pursuit of truth for the greater glory of God and for the service of humanity.” From this mission statement, many of the roles of the university within the Catholic institution become obvious. The university continuously enforces the identity of a Jesuit institution through promoting faith and justice, promoting Catholic traditions, and providing opportunities and institutions through which service by students and faculty is encouraged. Perhaps less obvious, however, are how leadership roles within the institution are reflective of the Catholic religion. At the university, students encounter professors and colleagues of many different heritages, religions, and races. Diversity is warmly welcomed within the university, and the collaboration between cultures is promoted through many channels. However, dating back to the very beginning of the history of Saint Louis University, one thing has remained constant throughout the transitions of Presidential leadership. Reflective of the values and importance of Catholic traditions and formal leadership roles within the church, every president of Saint Louis University before 2014 held a position of power within the Catholic Church. Dr. Fred Pestello, the 33rd president and chief executive officer of Saint Louis University, is the first lay president of the institution.
From an exclusive interview with Dr. Fred Pestello, we’ve been able to dig deeper into what the role of leadership entails inside of a Jesuit institution and within a largely Catholic community. Religion at Saint Louis University has always been something that sets it apart from other universities and makes the campus special. It provides a sense of community, love, hope, and trust; not only within the students, but within the faculty and staff as well. Saint Louis University is a community based on faith, and this principle heavily influenced those elected to leadership within the university; each previous president was a priest. Dr. Fred Pestello would be the one to monumentally change all of this, altering a structure that has been in place for almost two centuries. On March 20, 2014, Dr. Pestello was appointed to the position of President of Saint Louis University.
“When he took office on July 1 as Saint Louis University's 33rd president - and the first permanent lay leader in University history - Dr. Fred P. Pestello expected that he would spend the first few months of his historic tenure getting to know the people, places and programs that make SLU one of the nation's leading Jesuit research institutions.” (slu.edu)
Dr. Pestello is committed to making Saint Louis University a university that is known for its community and its academic achievements. Although not a priest, Dr. Fred Pestello is Jesuit educated and therefore makes it a priority to support the Jesuit Mission. He lives by the words “Higher purpose. Greater good.” These words give him hope and motivation in the day-to-day struggles. Even though there are obstacles to being a layperson at a Jesuit university, Dr. Pestello tells us how he “can more easily celebrate the Jesuits, what they have done historically, what they do as individuals here, how much they contribute to what Saint Louis University is all about; in a way that would be self referential, and perhaps be seen as immodest among the devout religious.”
From leadership, to culture, to tradition, and even daily mottos, Saint Louis University is truly a Catholic Institution that embodies the Jesuit mission. Saint Louis University stands out against other universities in the city and around the country; the University truly embodies not only the Jesuit mission, but the rich, cultural roots from which the city has flourished for centuries.
Content researched and written by Morgan Foster, Grace Gwin, Rachel Hartman, William Kainer, David O'Neill, and Fiona Tilson.
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