Giovanni [John] Nobili was born in Rome on April 8, 1812. After entering the Jesuits in 1828 at the age of 16, he began his preliminary studies at the Roman College where he was reported to be an excellent student. As a scholastic, he taught at the colleges of Loretto and Fermo and published several works in physics and mathematics. He began his theological studies in 1840 and was ordained in 1843. A year later he accompanied Father Peter De Smet to the Indian missions of Oregon. After a year of strenuous ministry near Port Vancouver, Nobili, at age thirty-three, was assigned to a new mission in New Caledonia in Western Canada, what is today British Columbia. There he stayed for three difficult years, ministering to the traders and trappers of the Hudson's Bay Company and to the Indian tribes inhabiting the wilderness surrounding the mission.
Enduring terrible living conditions and often forced to work alone or travel as far north as the Alaskan frontier, the small priest's health soon deteriorated. He nevertheless remained firmly committed to his missionary work and in 1848, reluctantly returned to the Jesuit headquarters in Oregon. Upon seeing his condition, Father Joseph Joset withdrew him from further work in New Caledonia. Instead, Nobili accompanied Father Michael Accolti to California in 1849 where he hoped to find a good doctor in San Francisco and recuperate in the temperate climate. After several months, his health improved and he busied himself with pastoral work while Accolti canvassed the state seeking support for an educational institution near San Jose.
ln July, 1850, Accolti returned to Oregon to assume duties as superior of the Oregon missions while Nobili remained behind as assistant pastor at the parish church in San Jose. He spent all of 1850 and much of 1851 aiding victims of a cholera epidemic. Despite Nobili's initial lack of enthusiasm for the school project Accolti had begun, he soon inherited the sole responsibility for such an undertaking when the mission at Santa Clara was offered to the Jesuits with the agreement that they begin an educational institution. In March 1851 Nobili took possession of the property from the Franciscans and "with an optimism that one can only qualify as audacious," a later historian wrote, committed himself and his order to educational work in California. It was this work that would distinguish Nobili as the founder of the first permanent school in American California.
During the next five years, Nobili encountered innumerable problems in his effort to establish the college. Under his resourceful guidance from 1851-1856, the fledgling school expanded, upgraded its academic instruction, and achieved a reputation "for scholarship both literary and scientific" that was, claimed one historian, unequalled in California. By 1855, the college boasted a faculty of eighteen priests and laymen. Confident of the school's future, Nobili petitioned the state that same year for a charter of incorporation. This was readily granted.
In February, 1856, as Nobili inspected the construction of the college's first new building, a brick chapel, he stepped on a nail and contracted tetanus. After suffering from lockjaw for two days, he died on March 1. His premature death at the age of 44 was mourned throughout the state, for his hard-working dedication to the college had earned him many admirers. As his successor declared, "All that we have and all that we shall have, we owe to Father Nobili. He was the soul and sinew of all our labors."
* The quotations cited in this introduction are taken from Fr. Gerald McKevitt's book, The University of Santa Clara: A History, pp. 24, 47, and 49 respectively.From the finding aid for Inventory of Presidents' Papers, Papers of John Nobili, S.J., 1851-1856 (Santa Clara University Archives)