In 1956, when a few young women were invited to teach at a Catholic boarding school in Alaska, it’s unlikely that anyone envisioned that invitation’s eventual by-product: five decades of service and consciousness-raising for more than 12,000 (mostly) young people through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC).
For those who have been involved with JVC, the story is as familiar as a fairy tale: In the 1950s, Jesuit priests, the Sisters of St. Ann, and Ursuline Sisters worked at the well-respected Copper Valley and St. Mary’s rural boarding schools in Alaska, teaching Native Alaskan children. In need of more instructors, a couple of the Catholic sisters asked recent college graduates from Regis College and Anna Maria College in Massachusetts to join them in exchange for room, board, and a chance for adventure. It was the beginning of what would be a wide-ranging religious volunteer program.
There were only a few predecessors. The Mennonite Voluntary Service started in 1944, pre-dating JVC by more than a decade. The Catholic diocese of Los Angeles also sponsored a volunteer program that preceded JVC, as did a handful of much smaller programs supported by other Catholic religious orders.
Originally a nameless, loosely organized group, JVC was given its title and a more formal shape in the early 1960s by Jack Morris, SJ, a Jesuit priest who taught at Copper Valley when the first volunteers arrived. Morris left the school in 1959 to study and to finalize his religious vows; when he returned in 1964, the program had swollen. “Friends invited friends [to come to Alaska],” said Mary Medved, SNJM, now executive director of Jesuit Volunteers International, part of the JVC network. Volunteers were doing jobs beyond teaching and were working not only at Copper Valley and St. Mary’s but also in Fairbanks and other communities. But it was rudderless, unorganized.