St. Joseph, the largest Jesuit church in Ljubljana

The St Ignatius Retreat House belongs to the St Ignatius Institute (Zavod svetega Ignacija), which is run by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The House is a part of a complex of buildings that includes St Joseph neo-Romanesque Church and a neo-Gothic residence. The Jesuit College in Ljubljana is also located at the residence as well as a community of Jesuit priests.

Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) embraced the spiritual life because of a wounded leg on the battlefield. Abandoning his dreams of being a soldier and a knight, St Ignatius rediscovered all things new in Christ and wrote The Spiritual Exercises. Then he studied theology in Spain and Paris. With a group of companions he founded the Society of Jesus, promising to serve the universal needs of the Catholic Church. In 1540, the Pope approved of the Jesuit order, entrusting them with the foundation of colleges and universities in Europe and missions around the world (Latin America, South Asia, China). Today, there are about 15,000 Jesuits worldwide. Pope Francis is the first Pope in history with a Jesuit background.

Ljubljana in the 16th century: the bell towers of St James’ Church and the old Jesuit College

In 1597, the Jesuits founded the Jesuit College in Ljubljana. This College was the first “semi-universitarian” institution on the territory of present-day Slovenia. Its building was destroyed in a fire in the 18th century, however, the old baroque St James church, built in 1612, located next to the College, prevailed until today.

When the Society of Jesus was suppressed in 1773, the Jesuits remained inactive for about a century. In 1896, they finally built their current residence, which is now also a home to the new Jesuit College, restored in 2017.

The neo-Romanesque St Joseph’s Church was built between 1912 and 1914. It was designed by Austrian architect Anselm Werner. In 1923 the Catholic Movement of Ljubljana proposed to open a house of spirituality to the Jesuits. The Jesuits did so, entrusting the architectural work to Jože Plečnik, the finest Slovenian architect of the time who was also famous in Vienna and Prague.

The House of Spirituality from its beginnings to the 1960s

The building (today the St Ignatius Retreat House) was blessed by the Bishop of Ljubljana in 1925, on July 31 – the day dedicated to St Ignatius of Loyola. In the next fifteen years, more than 600 people a year made their weekly spiritual retreats. Until 1948, overnight stays were limited to men: priests, high school, and university students. The House also offered weekly retreats for women, but they had to return home after an evening prayer in St Mary’s chapel. In 1927, Bishop Angelo Roncalli, then Apostolic Nuncio to Bulgaria, later known as Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) also did his spiritual exercises here. From 1934 to 1937, some of the rooms were occupied by seminarians from Šibenik (Dalmatia), and from 1940 to 1947 seminarians from Maribor, who were attending the Faculty of Theology in Ljubljana, lived in the House. In 1947, the government placed workers and former soldiers in some rooms.

In 1948-49 the communist Yugoslav government began the persecution of the Jesuits and arrested six members of the community. In April 1949, a week after Easter, the government confiscated all buildings, including the church. The Jesuits were expelled and forced to move to the ruins of Bogenšperg Castle, isolated in the hills, 35 km away from Ljubljana. From 1949 to 1996 (partially until 2003) the residence was used by the national film company (Triglav film, later renamed Viba film) for film production. The interior of St. Joseph’s Church was completely stripped of its sacred objects and symbols and turned into a film studio. The House of Spirituality, on the other hand, became the city’s pediatric hospital until 1987. It was also a gynaecological hospital and abortion clinic. In the years 1987-2009, the former House of Spirituality, i.e. the hospital, became a building of administrative offices of various pharmaceutical companies, construction companies, etc.

The St Ignatius Retreat House today

In 1992, with the support of the Catholic dioceses in Ljubljana, the Jesuits submitted a request to the government of the independent Republic of Slovenia (Slovenia gained independence and democracy in 1991). They asked for the return of their property, which had been confiscated for 43 years. The government only returned the church in 1996. In the following years, the restitution proceeded gradually. Renovation work was carried out between 2000 and 2009. In 2005, the Slovenian Province of the Society of Jesus founded the present Institute of St. Ignatius. Between 2008 and 2009, many benefactors and volunteers contributed to the renovation of the House. Two new chapels were built, one in the very room where abortions were previously performed. The tabernacle was created the Jesuit mosaicist Fr Marko Rupnik. Architect Robert Dolinar’s design for the third-floor chapel has won several awards both in Slovenia and the United States (Faith and Form Magazine). The St Ignatius House of Spirituality was officially inaugurated on 26 September 2009 and blessed on the same day by the Apostolic Nuncio of the Holy See, Mons. Santos Abril y Castello.