Jesuit Center
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History of the Jesuit Center


In the years 1927 and 1928 an exploding Catholic population in the Maryland - New York Province was creating a need for an administrative split to produce two provinces. Along with that decision was the necessity of an additional novitiate for the training of novices. Pennsylvania was a good location for the school that was to teach and form Jesuits of the Maryland Province. During this time, the prevailing Jesuit training concept was to remove novices from the mainstream and educate them in an idyllic, secluded setting. Attracted by Wernersville’s rail lines, beautiful topography, and health resorts, the Jesuits selected the Mary Gaul Homestead in Lower Heidelberg Township, Berks County, Pennsylvania, as the site for the new project.


The buildings and grounds of the Jesuit Community near Wernersville were the gift of Nicholas and Genevieve Brady, close friends and benefactors of the Jesuit Community of the Maryland – New York Province. Nicholas was one of the great financial powers of his day and used his great wealth for philanthropy. Devout Catholics, Mr. and Mrs. Brady took an active interest in the planning and design of the new center.

Nothing was spared in the construction of the Wernersville facility. The Novitiate Building was designed by the noted Boston architecture firm of McGinnis and Walsh in the English Renaissance style. McGinnis and Walsh were among the premier ecclesiastical designers of their day. Funded by Mr. and Mrs. Brady at an estimated cost of $2 million, the Novitiate featured carved oak, marble, coffered ceilings, and ornate details executed by European and local craftsmen. Construction on the “house” began in 1928.

Dogwoods on south lawn

At that time the building was going to be called the St. Stanislaus Novitiate, because St. Stanislaus is the patron Saint of novices. However, Nicholas and Genevieve Brady were well aware that the beatification had begun for Isaac Jogues in 1880, and at their request the name was changed to the Novitiate of Blessed Isaac Jogues, to honor one of the North American martyrs slain in New York in 1646. The Canonization Ceremony for the new Saints occurred June 29, 1930, which coincided with the opening of the Novitiate when “Blessed” was changed to “Saint.” The Novitiate was completed in May of 1930. Sadly enough, Mr. Brady never lived to see the results of his wonderful generosity. He died on March 27, 1929 in New York. When the house was completed in May, his body was transferred from New York and Mr. Brady was buried in the Crypt under the altar. On May 31st, Cardinal Dennis Dougherty, Archbishop of Philadelphia, laid the cornerstone and blessed the new building. The first community of scholastics arrived on June 2, 1930 and the Novitiate was well on its way to fulfilling its intended purpose.

The facility operated as the Novitiate until changes in Catholicism in the mid-1960’s were felt around the world and this was true for the Novitiate in Wernersville and for whatever reason, enrollment at St. Isaac Jogues dwindled. The Juniorate was closed in 1966 and the upper level scholastics were sent to other houses in the province for their junior year of studies or to college and graduate courses and the Novices would continue at St. Isaac Jogues.

Because of the low census, there was talk of closing and selling the Novitiate building. The Provincial called a meeting to decide what to do with the Wernersville house. At that meeting, George Schemel, S.J. asked for permission to use the facility for two years to start a spiritual center. Permission was granted, and while Novices continued their training and formation in the East Wing, the newly formed Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth turned toward those who espoused the principles of Vatican II. Religious and laity, men and women came for spiritual direction. The main thrust was discernment and directed Spiritual Exercises, all based on the work of St. Ignatius Loyola. The retreats were and are still geared toward helping people grow spiritually and to help clarify their direction in life, and to free the person to make good, elective decisions in their life.

The Novitiate program continued to operate in Wernersville for another twenty-seven years, and in1993 it was relocated to Syracuse, New York where Novices are still admitted. But the doors to the Jesuit building were not closed. The doors, cloister gates in the halls, and the gate at Church Road, always a symbolic boundary, were opened. All these were opened to ecumenical groups who sent their church councils for retreats, opened to those of all denominations, looking for spiritual instruction. And most amazing of all, the doors were opened to women.

Today, women comprise a large percentage of the spiritual directors as well as the retreat participants. Over the past 30 years, female colleagues have collaborated with the Jesuits as full time staff members, and their unique contribution to the spirit and ministry of the center is greatly appreciated.

A portion of the house is now home to Jesuits who are retired or still active in the community as hospital chaplains, prison chaplains, helping out in a parish ministry, or as Spiritual Growth staff members of the Jesuit Center. Many of the now retired Jesuits arrived at the Novitiate of St. Isaac Jogues as fresh, young men, full of spit and fire, eager to conquer the world as Jesuits. They taught in colleges and prep schools, they were chaplains in Vietnam, or they were pastors in a parish. Many were missionaries in India, in the Philippines, to the American Indians out west, in Africa, in Chile, in Burma. Others dedicated their lives to the daily operation of Jesuit institutions or the Curia itself. After leading full lives, they have returned. The Jesuit Community has opened its doors and extended its invitation to be a place of spiritual sustenance for those who seek peace within.


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2005-2008 Jesuit Center
501 N Church Road  •   Wernersville, PA 19565

Last modified: October 22, 2013