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Religious Leaders of America's Past-Isaak Hecker founder of the Paulist Fathers
Varsity Theater in Dinkeytown
Isaac Thomas Hecker, who lived from 1819 to 1888, was an American Roman Catholic priest. He came from a Methodist background, was interested in the transcendentalist movement and stayed with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Orestes Brownson. For a short time he was involved with the Brooks Farm movement. Not finding satisfaction in these things he joined the Catholic Church and the Redemptorists order of priests.
After being ordained he worked with the immigrant Catholics in the United States. He had some conflict with the Redemptorists and was expelled. He was relieved of his vows and he was able to found a new order, that of the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, known as the Paulist Fathers. It now has the Newman Ministry for the University Students.
In the late forties I attended St. Lawrence grade school in Minneapolis. It is located a block or so from “Dinkeytown” which has always been a popular shopping area for University of Minnesota students as it is just outside the Universities East Bank
It was a small parish school with a total student enrolment in eight grades of a few hundred. The parish was run by the Paulist order of priests. The Sisters of St. Joseph taught classes, as they did in most of the Catholic schools in Minneapolis. “Diocene” priests run most Catholic parishes. That means priests are subject or work for the diocese and not by a religious order such as Benedictines, Jesuits or Paulist.
The Paulists are a Missionary order and have the distinction of being an American one. What makes the Paulists unique is that they are they only order of Catholic priests whose purpose is to be missionaries within their country. Like all missionaries their purpose is to convert others to the Catholic faith. Since the order was founded in 1857 it was a time when there were many Catholic immigrants and a certain amount of tension between Catholics and others.
The order was started in New York and joining Hecker were other former Redemptorists who were all Americans and all converts. They were powerful preachers and writers. The Paulist have a publishing house now known as the Paulist Press. Father Hecker started the “Catholic World Magazine,” which was the only Catholic monthly at the time in this country.
One of the things that interested me about Hecker is his belief that the Catholic faith and American culture are not incompatible. The Catholic Church which centers its authority in Rome (Vatican City) always seems to have a suspicion of America and, at that time, Americans seemed to have a suspicion of Catholics since the culture was predominantly Protestant.
His Early Life
Hecker was born in New York City of German immigrant parents. He started working at the age of twelve pushing a bakers cart for his older brothers who owned a bakery. He studied when he could and was taken with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and took part in political/social movements to improve things for the workingman.
He met Orestes Brownson who also came from a Protestant background and was sympathetic to what we would probably call “liberal causes” today similar to Hecker. He explored the more liberal churches like the Universalists and eventually became Catholic. Both men were concerned about the “working man” at a time when some reforms were probably in demand. He was also interested in the ideas of Locke, Jefferson, Kant and Blackstone. Both men were probably considered liberals in their day but may be conservatives by today’s standards.
Hecker joined the Brooks Farm movement and spent six moths there. It was after this period he joined the Catholic religion. Hecker had the mind of an American and saw that the church would never appeal to America unless it adopted the methods suited to the country and the times. To some extent that meant publishing.
At the age of 55 he got chronic leukemia. He tried to find cures and then struggled in his last years with despair. He finally accepted it as God’s will for him and found new peace and serenity. He died December 22, 1888 at the Paulist House in Manhattan..
There is a movement to in the Archdiocese of New York to have Father Hecker canonized, that is, to be officially recognized by the church as a saint.
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Aparently due to a French translation of the life of Isaac Hecker there was a controversy over what is called “Americanism” which might be called liberalism now. Much of the controversy seems to be how active the lay people should be in church affairs. Since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s much has changed along these lines. There is a great deal of conflict between Conservative Catholics and Liberal Catholics. I think Hecker would be considered rather conservative by today’s standards but his followers are not.
From a biography I remember reading while at St. Lawrence the church in Rome was a bit taken aback by Hecker. Like so many Americans, he did not understand all the prodigal of the old world. For example, when he went to Rome, the biography said, he simple went hoping to get an audience whereas proper prodigal would have required notifying the Vatican that he wished to come and then waiting to get permission.
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Heckeer was raised as a Methodist, was attracted to the speculative philosophical ideas of the mid-nineteenth cntury, such as Transcendentalism. He participated in some of the experiments, such as Brook farm. Eventually he joined the Catholic Church and became the founder of a religious order known as the Paulist Fathers.
Copyright 2011 Don Hoglund
© 2010 Don A. Hoglund