The young Jesuit novice knew he had to flee the violence of the revolution sweeping the Italian states. It was 1848, and the revolution had taken a decidedly anti-Jesuit turn, forcing many Jesuits to quickly leave their homeland. Eighteen-year-old Aloysius Varsi, S.J., barely escaped the Turin Province of Italy with his life.
Aloysius Varsi was born into a noble family in Sardinia in 1830, joined the Jesuits of the Turin Province in 1845, and after departing Turin, studied mathematics and physics at the University of Paris. He later studied theology in Louvain, Belgium, and prepared himself to become a missionary and scientist in China, planning to oversee the Peking Imperial Observatory. A change of plans, however, sent him first to Boston for another year of theology, then to a stint as a chaplain for the Union Army during the Civil War, and eventually to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where he taught mathematics and physics from 1862 to 1864. Fr. Varsi was ordered to California in 1864 to teach physics, chemistry, and mathematics at Santa Clara College, and three years later he became the school’s president. He served as president for nine years, during which time he oversaw major construction projects on the campus, purchased land for a wine-producing vineyard, increased enrollment, and significantly reduced the school’s enormous debt. In 1877, he was appointed Superior of the California Jesuit Mission, a position he held until 1883. Upon assuming this new office, he took up residence at St. Ignatius College in San Francisco, where he was instrumental in the financially and politically complex relocation of St. Ignatius Church and College from Market Street to Van Ness Avenue, a move initially opposed by the Archbishop of San Francisco. Fr. Varsi also taught mathematics and physics at St. Ignatius College, and engaged in charity work in the city. In 1883, he stepped down as the Jesuit Superior and became prefect of St. Ignatius Church, continuing his work with the poor of San Francisco and teaching mathematics and physics at St. Ignatius College.
During the Christmas season of 1878, the Jesuits of St. Ignatius Church and College, led by Fr. Varsi, gathered clothes and put on a Christmas-tree festival for children living in poverty in San Francisco. In that same year, Fr. Varsi had become interested in the work of the Francesca Society of San Francisco, which was headed by Mrs. Bertha Welch, one of the wealthiest individuals in the city. Fr. Varsi assisted the Francesca Society in securing a large gift of goods from a San Francisco business, Murphy, Grant & Co, to be given to the poor that Christmas. Fr. Varsi also provided the Francesca Society with rooms in St. Ignatius Church for their charitable activities. In 1880, Fr. Varsi was asked to take over the direction of the Francesca Society, and he continued to enjoy a close working relationship with Mrs. Welch. By 1904, St. Ignatius Church and College was distributing clothes and food annually during the Christmas season to hundreds of needy children and families living in poverty in San Francisco.
No benefactor was more important to the well-being of St. Ignatius Church and College in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than Bertha Welch. She made major financial contributions to the church and college during the institution’s Golden Age from 1880 to 1906, supported the Jesuits of San Francisco during their bleakest hours following the earthquake and fire of 1906, and played a major role in the rebirth and rebuilding of the institution.
Bertha Welch was born in Paris in 1849 and married a wealthy New Orleans businessman who made a fortune in sugar production. The Welch family settled in San Francisco in the 1880s, and their three sons all attended St. Ignatius College. Following the death of her husband, Mrs. Welch gave sizeable gifts from her inherited estate to St. Ignatius Church and College and to various Catholic charities in San Francisco. One of the first charities assisted by Mrs. Welch was the Francesca Society of San Francisco, named after Saint Frances of Rome and dedicated to distributing clothing and food to poor families in San Francisco.
In April 1890, Mrs. Welch made her first direct contribution to St. Ignatius Church. It was for $50,000, and it enabled Aloysius Varsi, S.J., prefect of St. Ignatius Church, to add substantially to the art, paintings, stained glass windows, sculpture, and other decorations of the church. Mrs. Welch soon gave another $50,000 to the church for the purchase of one of the finest church organs in America, referred to by one newspaper as the “King of Instruments.” In 1898, the president of St. Ignatius College, John Frieden, S.J., appealed to the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Louis Martin, to grant Mrs. Welch a rare honor: to be designated a benefactor of the Society of Jesus and “admitted to a share in all the good works performed by the Jesuit Order.” Fr. Martin agreed to this request.
When the earthquake and fire struck San Francisco on April 18, 1906, Mrs. Welch was in New York. When she learned of the destruction of St. Ignatius Church and College, she immediately telegraphed Fr. Frieden, offering the Jesuits her mansion on Eddy Street as a temporary residence. Eighteen Jesuits from the displaced Jesuit community soon moved into her home, established a temporary chapel, and lived there for the next five months while they built a temporary church and college on the corner of Hayes and Shrader Streets. During this time, Mrs. Welch moved to her country house in Menlo Park and continued to provide financial support for the Jesuits of San Francisco. In 1920, Mrs. Welch donated $200,000 to the Jesuits for a faculty building next to the new St. Ignatius Church at its current location on the corner of Fulton Street and Parker Avenue. The building, appropriately named Welch Hall, served as the residence of the Jesuit Community from 1921 to 1959 and as the residence of the St. Ignatius High School Jesuit staff until it was demolished in 1970. Bertha Welch died in 1922, and a Requiem Mass was celebrated for her in St. Ignatius Church by Archbishop Edward Hanna of San Francisco. Today on the University of San Francisco campus, the large expanse of grass between St. Ignatius Church and Campion Hall, where the Jesuit residence once stood, is named in honor of Bertha Welch.
Aloysius Varsi, S.J., personifies a blend of mathematical and scientific rigor, faith, and social justice. These guiding principles are salient at today’s University of San Francisco. During the year ending on June 30, 2012, 6,940 USF students performed 331,352 hours of community service. USF is one of the few national universities that require all undergraduates to complete a service-learning course to graduate, and the university has more than 50 student organizations and five living–learning communities dedicated to community service. Due to this community outreach, the Corporation for National and Community Service placed USF on the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for seven years in a row, beginning in 2006. USF was among a group of 62 universities in 2006 to receive the Carnegie Foundation Community Engagement Classification for both curricular engagement and outreach and partnerships. In 2012, the Washington Monthly ranked USF 19th out of 281 national universities in community service participation and hours served. USF’s President, Stephen A. Privett, S.J., was chosen in July 2010 to serve as the chair of the California Campus Compact, a coalition of leading universities that works to advance civic and community engagement on their campuses. USF was selected as one of five universities in the nation to receive the 2012 Higher Education Civic Engagement Award from the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, in recognition of its contributions to the community, leadership and professional achievement, and enrichment of student learning.
The social justice initiatives of Fr. Aloysius Varsi, Bertha Welch, and thousands of other individuals in the extended University of San Francisco community stretch from the nineteenth century to today.
Alan Ziajka, Ph.D.
Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and University Historian