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NOBILI, JOHN (baptized Giovanni Pietro Antonio), Roman Catholic priest, Jesuit, and missionary; b. 28 April 1812 in Rome, son of Domenico Nobili, lawyer, and Rosa Eutizi; d. 1 March 1856 in Santa Clara, Calif.

John Nobili entered the Society of Jesus in Rome in November 1828 and took his first vows in 1835. As a Jesuit scholastic, he taught humanities at several Jesuit colleges in Italy. After his ordination in 1843, Nobili volunteered for the Jesuit missions and in September of that year left Rome to join a group of missionaries being prepared for the northwest coast of North America by Father Pierre-Jean De Smet*. With De Smet, four other Jesuit priests (including Michael Accolti), one brother, and six sisters of Notre-Dame de Namur, Nobili sailed from Antwerp, Belgium, aboard the Infatigable on 9 Jan. 1844 and arrived at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.) on 5 August, several days having been spent in crossing the dangerous bar of the Columbia River. During the voyage Nobili had begun to show evidence of pericarditis.

Nobili spent the next ten months in the area of the fort, ministering to the many French Canadian employees of the HBC, learning Indian dialects, and beginning his missionary career to the local Indians. In late June 1845 he left for New Caledonia, and while at Walla Walla (Wash.) in August he received instructions from De Smet to proceed north into the interior to visit as many Indian tribes as possible. No Catholic missionary, it seems, had ventured into this territory since the initiative taken by Father Modeste Demers* in 1841–43. The expedition came close to meeting a swift and tragic end when the HBC guide deserted Nobili and his companion, the novice brother Baptist (Battiste), taking with him their tent and provisions. This desertion appears to have been an isolated incident, for Nobili seems to have had excellent relations with the company. The missionaries were saved from death by two Cascades (Watlala) Indians.

Nobili none the less continued north, stopping to visit Fort Okanagan (Wash.) and Indians from the Siouxwaps (Shuswaps) and Thompson tribes. He arrived on 25 August at Fort Alexandria (Alexandria, B.C.) on the Fraser River, where he found the frame church built in the fall of 1842 during the Demers mission. By early September he was at Fort George (Prince George, B.C.), presumably among the Carrier Indians, and by the end of that month was at Stuart Lake. During the 11 days he spent at Stuart Lake he was pleased to have abolished “the custom of burning the dead and physically tormenting the widows or widowers.” The hall where some of the medical (to him superstitious) practices had been taking place was turned into a church and solemnly blessed. He worked among the Chilcotins as well and wintered at Alexandria with the HBC trader Alexander Caulfield Anderson*. During this first of his missionary voyages he performed some 629 baptisms, most of Indians, including some chiefs; he estimated the total Indian population of the areas he visited at between 4,100 and 4,800.

Nobili reported to De Smet at Fort Colvile (near Colville, Wash.) in May 1846 and was instructed to continue his mission to the Indians of New Caledonia. His second trip, during which he had for a time the company of an HBC employee as well as a servant, began in July and took him as far as Fort Kilmars (near Babine, B.C.), close to the frontier with Russian Alaska. Turning south, he was at Fort George in mid December and by early March 1847 at Fort Alexandria. Speaking of these years in a letter dated 12 March 1852, Nobili stated: “I was there alone among 8 or 9 thousand Indians of different languages and manners. In all, I think I baptized and gave the other sacraments to nearly one thousand three or four hundred Indians, many of whom had the happiness to die soon after, including about five hundred children carried off by the measles.” In May 1847 he selected a site for a residence, St Joseph’s, among the Okanagans. Unfortunately, the location of this establishment, apparently the first permanent Jesuit mission in present-day British Columbia, is unknown. It seems most likely to have been on a creek near the head of Okanagan Lake, near the present-day O’Keefe railway station, on land apparently given to the missionary by Okanagan chief Nicola [Hwistesmetxö ´qEn]. A primitive house was built and, as was customary, a cross was raised.

The Jesuits decided at this time to leave New Caledonia to the diocesan clergy and concentrate on areas to the south, especially gold-rush California. Nobili was sent in the spring of 1848 to the Willamette valley (Oreg.) but his already frail health deteriorated and, much to his regret, he was ordered to California. After his final profession on 13 May 1849, he accompanied Father Accolti to San Francisco. In 1850 he served as assistant pastor in San Jose and the next year founded Santa Clara College (now the University of Santa Clara), the first Catholic college in California, in an abandoned Franciscan mission. While supervising construction in February 1856 he stepped on a nail and, having contracted tetanus, he died on 1 March. He was buried two days later in the mission church (now the chapel of the university).

Charlotte S. M. Girard

Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu (Rome), Nobili, Giovanni, 13, 14 Nov. 1828, 29 Aug. 1835; Missio M. Sax., 1001, IV, 27. Oreg. Prov. Arch. of the Soc. of Jesus (Spokane, Wash.), Corr. of John Nobili. PAM, HBCA, D.5/16: f.468. Catholic Church records of Pacific northwest (Munnick). P.-J. De Smet, Cinquante nouvelles lettres du R. P. De Smet, de la Compagnie de Jésus et missionnaire en Amérique, Édouard Terwecoren, édit. (Paris, 1858); Life, letters and travels of Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, S.J., 1801–1873 . . . , ed. H. M. Chittenden and A. T. Richardson (4v., New York, 1905); Oregon missions and travels over the Rocky Mountains, in 1845–46 (New York, 1847); Western missions and missionaries: a series of letters (New York, 1863). W. N. Bischoff, The Jesuits of old Oregon, 1840–1940 (Caldwell, Idaho, 1945). Gerald McKevitt, The University of Santa Clara: a history, 1851–1977 (Stanford, Calif., 1979). Émilien Lamirande, “L’implantation de l’Église catholique en Colombie-Britannique (1838–1848),” Rev. de l’univ. d’Ottawa, 28 (1958): 460–66, 486. J. B. McGloin, “John Nobili, S.J., founder of California’s Santa Clara College: the New Caledonia years, 1845–1848,” BCHQ, 17 (1953): 215–22. Gerald McKevitt, “The beginning of Santa Clara University, 1851–1856,” San Jose Studies (San Jose, Calif.), 3 (1977): 95–107; “The Jesuit arrival in California and the founding of Santa Clara College,” American Catholic Hist. Soc., Records (Philadelphia), 85 (1974): 185–97.

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Cite This Article

Charlotte S. M. Girard, “NOBILI, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 31, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/nobili_john_8E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/nobili_john_8E.html
Author of Article: Charlotte S. M. Girard
Title of Article: NOBILI, JOHN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1985
Year of revision: 1985
Access Date: October 31, 2014