Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Jesuit Fr. John Whitney speaks during a Mass at Jesuit High School in 2007.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Jesuit Fr. John Whitney speaks during a Mass at Jesuit High School in 2007.
In step with strategic discernment begun by U.S. Jesuits eight years ago, the Oregon and California Provinces are gradually melding. The aim is not only more efficient operation, but more effective ministry, say U.S. leaders of the world's largest Catholic religious order.

The nation's 10 Society of Jesus provinces are expected to be four by 2020. The Oregon and California provinces will become the USA West Province by 2017 and will include Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and Hawaii.

It is not yet clear where the new western province headquarters will be, but the Jesuit offices located in Southeast Portland likely will remain for at least several years.  

The Jesuits will stay in Oregon and people in the pews and at Jesuit High School will not likely notice any changes, says Chuck Duffy, development director for the Oregon Province.

"By the time this is formally announced, it will be all in place and people will say, 'Oh, right,'" Duffy explains.

The two western provinces have already begun some shared operations. Jesuits in formation have been meeting together for two years and last year, a common novitiate was established in Culver City, Calif. The former Oregon Province novitiate near St. Ignatius Parish now hosts experienced Jesuits from all over the country who are going through a time of formation called tertianship.

Other joint works between the two provinces include social ministries leadership and closer collaboration among the region's Jesuit colleges and high schools. Already, Jesuits from each province have been given assignments in the neighboring province. Ordinations and vows ceremonies have been carried out together in Los Angeles and in Spokane.  

The strategic discernment predates the 2009 Oregon Province bankruptcy. Abuse lawsuits did not prompt the plan and did not change the pace of the process.

It was at a meeting in Portland eight years ago that Jesuit leaders from around the country asked then-Superior General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach what should guide the planning they were considering. He answered, "What are the needs of the people of God in our time, and how can we best respond to them?"

Jesuit governing systems have been intentionally fluid from the order's start in the 16th century. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder, wanted an agile spiritual force able to respond to the needs of the time.

When the Jesuits first came west, in the 1830s, they served in the Pacific Northwest. When most of the settlers headed to California during the gold rush of the 1850s, the Jesuits went south to minister among the people. The entire west coast was classified as a mission of the Jesuits' Italian Province of Turin. The California Province was established in 1909 and in 1932, the Oregon Province was formed.

"Provinces come and provinces go. It's always been that way," says Duffy. "A hallmark of Jesuit ministry is to let things go. Jesuits are meant to go to the frontier, where the need is greatest. They don't hold on to things."

Duffy says Jesuits have always seen themselves as members of a worldwide religious community.

The Chicago and Detroit Provinces merged in 2011 and are projected to join with the Wisconsin Province by 2017. Central and southern provinces could merge by 2014 and three East Coast provinces may combine into one by 2020.  

The reconfiguration is one part of a Jesuit effort to describe the apostolic order's mission anew and create more vibrant ministries. U.S. Jesuits held hundreds of meetings and retreats and produced a 2006 document that called the order especially to solidarity with those on the margins of society, but also with "all."

"The Spirit is still at work as the Society moves into a new phase of its ministry in the United States," Father Patrick Lee, the Oregon provincial, wrote this fall. Father Lee called the process a "moment of hope and joy."

The Jesuits are not the only religious community unifying provinces. The Congregation of Holy Cross formed a single U.S. province last year. Scores of women's religious institutes have merged.

To read more about the Jesuit process, go to