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
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.
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 seismograph—the first in Western Canada—in 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.
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.
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).
Observatoire de géophysique de Brébeuf
Equipped with a seismometer and a recorder, Maurice Buist, S.J., established and directed the Observatoire de géophysique du Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf beginning in 1955. Soon thereafter, meteorologist Ernesto Gherzi, S.J. joined the team as director of research.
The research conducted at the Observatory was focused on seismology and radio-meteorology. Throughout the 1960s, it was regarded as the most well-equipped seismological station in Canada. Recordings taken at the observatory were regularly communicated with the federal government’s geophysical department. The Observatory moreover maintained numerous international contacts through the dissemination of its publication, the Bulletin de géophysique, directed by Father Buist until 1983.
Over the decades, the Observatory welcomed more Jesuit researchers. Émile Cambron, S.J. briefly collaborated with Father Gherzi in 1972 after his return from Ethiopia. After teaching physics and chemistry in Ziguinchor (Senegal), Paul-Émile Tremblay, S.J. arrived at the Observatory in 1978, first as a collaborator, and later as assistant director. In 1984, he succeeded Father Buist as the Observatory’s last Jesuit director, a position he maintained until 1997. Pierre Gouin, S.J. joined the team from 1986 to 2004 to study historical earthquakes in Quebec.
Fathers Buist, Cambron, Gouin, and Tremblay also taught sciences—including physics, chemistry, and mathematics—at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf. Their involvement testifies to the importance of the sciences in the college’s pedagogical mission.
Addis Ababa Geophysical Observatory
Associated with the University College Addis Ababa (UCAA) in Ethiopia, the Addis Ababa Geophysical Observatory was founded in 1957 by Pierre Gouin, S.J., who also served as its first director. A professor of physics and geophysics at UCAA since 1954, Father Gouin split his time between his teaching duties and his pursuits at the Observatory until 1978. Émile Cambron, S.J. joined Father Gouin at UCAA in 1957 to teach physics and supervise the science laboratory. He thus became part of the Observatory team, where he oversaw the astronomy component.
Born in Sherbrooke (Quebec), Émile Cambron, S.J. (1896-1978) studied astronomy and physics at Université de Montréal. From 1930 to 1953, he taught physics and mathematics at Collège Sainte-Marie, where he also supervised the science laboratory that housed a large telescope for astronomical observations.
Like many large cities in Ethiopia, Addis Ababa is situated in a seismic zone, at the junction of three active faults. Addis Ababa is also near the Earth’s magnetic equator, making it an ideal place to study seismology and geomagnetism. Notably, research conducted at the Observatory helped warn the local population of imminent earthquakes and inform the government of the adequate infrastructures to be put in place.
Born in Champlain (Quebec), Pierre Gouin, S.J. (1917-2005) joined the Jesuits of Canada at Tafari Makonnen School in Addis Ababa to teach sciences in 1946. After earning a master’s degree in physics with a major in seismology, he returned to Ethiopia in 1954 to teach physics and geophysics at the University College Addis Ababa. In 1957 he founded the Addis Ababa Geophysical Observatory, which he directed while maintaining his faculty position.
In 1957, the newly-instated Observatory participated in the International Geophysical Year in Barcelona. These conferences, attended by more than fifty countries, played a key role in the dissemination of knowledge in the field of geophysics.
Father Cambron worked at the Addis Ababa Geophysical Observatory from its foundation in 1957. In 1959, he was named assistant director of the Astronomical Observatory and, in 1967, professor of astronomy. Father Cambron returned to Montreal in 1972, where he worked closely with Ernesto Gherzi, S.J. at the Observatoire de géophysique du Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, until his retirement in 1973.
Under Fathers Gouin and Cambron, the Observatory received many civil servants, diplomats, and leaders, including the Ethiopian Emperor himself; such visits attested to the high level of research pursued at the Observatory, and its recognition by an international community. In the 1970s, the new political regime in Ethiopia pre-emptively forced the Jesuits to leave the country.
Father Gouin left Ethiopia in 1978, and in 1979 founded the geomagnetic section of the Manilla Observatory (Philippines), which he directed until 1981. He then taught physics at Kenyatta University in Nairobi (Kenya) from 1982 to 1986. He returned to Montreal permanently in 1986 and worked at the Observatoire de géophysique du Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf.
Father Gouin is the author of Earthquake History of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa (1979) and Tremblements de terre « historiques » au Québec (de 1535 à mars 1925) (2004).
The impressive path of a scientist of his time: Ernesto Gherzi, S.J. (1886-1973)
An important scientific figure of the 20th century, Ernesto Gherzi, S.J. consecrated his life to the study of science, following the example of many Jesuits before him. Both a specialist and a jack-of-all-trades, his path took him to different corners of the world. It reflects the current of professionalization in scientific research at the beginning of the 20th century, which was characterized by the specialization of fields of research and the proliferation of professional associations at the expense of organizations that previously catered to amateurs.
Born in San Remo, Italy, Ernesto Gherzi, S.J. entered the Society of Jesus in Paris in 1903. A meteorologist specializing in the study of typhoons, Father Gherzi worked at the Zikawei Observatory (China) from 1920 to 1949, including ten years serving as director. Upon returning to China from a conference in 1949, he was denied re-entry by the Communist Party. He was eventually hired by the Portuguese government in Macau to set up an observatory there.
Father Gherzi arrived in the United States in 1954 to join the faculty at Saint Louis University in Missouri. As of 1956, he was dividing his time between Loyola University in New Orleans and the Observatoire de géophysique du Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf in Montreal, where he was hired as director of research in 1955. He focused on the study of seismology and radio-meteorology, and his research was published in the Bulletin de géophysique. Father Gherzi was a member of many international scientific associations, including the Academy of Pontifical Sciences (1936), the Lisbon Academy of Sciences (1952), and the New York Academy of Sciences (1973). He authored many publications, including The Meteorology of China (1951).