The Jesuits and Science

Scientific Observatories of the Jesuits of Canada

From the end of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century, Jesuits built observatories around the world to study the emerging sciences of the era, such as meteorology, seismology, and geomagnetism. Many of these observatories were part of Jesuit missions, including the missions in China, the Philippines, and Ethiopia. Jesuits were often among the first to establish earthquake-related communication networks and alert systems for local communities. Other observatories founded in North America facilitated the study of earthquakes and microearthquakes at a distance.

The Jesuits of Canada, alongside their international peers, participated in the evolution of these sciences. This exhibit offers insight into three observatories founded and operated by Jesuits of the Province of Canada: the Observatoire sismologique du Collège de Saint-Boniface (Manitoba), the Observatoire de géophysique du Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf in Montreal, and the Addis Ababa Geophysical Observatory (Ethiopia). The exhibition also provides an overview of the impressive career of Ernesto Gherzi, S.J., whose path reflects the changes in scientific research taking place at the beginning of the 20th century.

The Archive of the Jesuits in Canada holds the archival fonds of Jesuit scientists who were integral to the development of the observatories, as well as the fonds of the colleges they were associated to. The publications, textual documents, and photographs included in these fonds reveal the Jesuits’ impact on the field of geophysics and their devotion to the teaching of such sciences in Canadian Jesuit colleges. A research guide, available on our website, identifies the fonds relevant to the study of these themes.

Exhibit research, curation and texts:
Dominique Robb (Young Canada Works Intern, 2020-2021), and the AJC staff
Digitization: Christiane Desjardins
Graphic design: Henria Aton

Exhibition Modules

Observatoire sismologique de Saint-Boniface

Joseph Blain, S.J. founded the Observatoire sismologique du Collège de Saint-Boniface after a public appeal issued in 1908 by Frederick Odenbach, S.J. Father Odenbach, then affiliated with St. Ignatius College (Ohio), wished to organize a network of seismological observatories in Jesuit colleges.

Joseph Blain, S.J., [192-?], GLC_BO-

Born in Saint-Rémi-de-Napierville (Quebec), Joseph Blain, S.J. (1859-1925) was part of the first group of Jesuit teachers who took over management of Collège de Saint-Boniface (Manitoba) in 1885. There he taught grammar, belles-lettres, and rhetoric until 1890, and returned in 1898, after completing his studies, as prefect of studies and science teacher. Having returned to Collège de Saint-Boniface in 1898, Father Blain founded a science department equipped with laboratories and instruments to study physics, chemistry, seismology, and astronomy.

Following Father Odenbach’s recommendation, Father Blain purchased the Weichert, a German seismograph, in 1910. An article in Le Manitoba announced the first uses of the seismographthe first in Western Canadain early January of that year. Father Blain proceeded to record earthquakes occurring around the world, including in Montreal, Mexico City, Alaska, and even Indonesia; he then communicated this information with other observatories.

Physics cabinet, Collège de Saint-Boniface, 1906, GLC_C-

 The Observatory’s establishment corresponded with the college’s scientific mission at the time. Father Blain was also responsible for establishing a physics cabinet and a chemistry laboratory. Moreover, around 1915, the school’s astronomy course was enhanced with the installation of a new telescope.

Father Blain left Saint-Boniface in 1920 to teach at the Collège des jésuites d’Edmonton. Two years later, a fire consumed the entire college campus, causing major human and material losses, including the scientific instruments. The College transferred its activities to the Petit Séminaire building, but the Observatory was not reinstated.

Joseph Blain, S.J., [191-?], GLC_BO-17.4.2

A founding member of the Historical Society of Saint-Boniface as well as member of the local branch of the Royal Astronomy Society, Joseph Blain, S.J. gave conferences to these associations on seismology and astronomy. He also participated in several expeditions with the history and archeology club of the Collège de Saint-Boniface, including the 1908 trip that led to the discovery of the site of La Vérendrye’s last expedition (1736).