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Religious Leaders of America's Past-Isaak Hecker founder of the Paulist Fathers

Updated on June 22, 2015

Varsity Theater in Dinkeytown

Isaac Hecker

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.

Brook Farm


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.


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.


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


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    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Father Hecker was interesting and in some ways probably a pain to the established church.The Paulist fathers would be considered liberal. The Paulist Press is a pretty active publishing house of books, videos etc. As far as our school was concerned it was taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph.More than likely you priest would have been a Diocese priest which was the case in most of the Catholic parishes. St.Lawrence was somewhat unique in being a missionary parish.Thanks for commenting.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Very interesting hub regarding Isaak Hecker and the Paulist Fathers. I had never heard of this order. When I was in parochial school in Okauchee, Wisconsin we were taught by Franciscan nuns. Not sure what order our priest was but he was much beloved by the towns people whether Catholic or not.

    • profile image

      followerofhecker 7 years ago

      Hecker would not have been considered conservative by today's standards, as it is still considered liberal in the church to want lay involvement and Americanism is still a heresy by roman and conservative standards.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for commenting. It's a small part of Catholic History but uniquely American.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      Very interesting, I never knew much about this area of the Catholic Church's history I am enjoyed reading your article.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for the positive comments. The Paulists were somewhat unique in the 19th Century.

    • billyaustindillon profile image

      billyaustindillon 7 years ago

      Very interesting I am unfamiliar with his history and CAtholic missionaries in the US - thanks for writing the history so fluently.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for the input. I tried to get the essential information about him.

    • Tom Whitworth profile image

      Tom Whitworth 7 years ago from Moundsville, WV


      Good synopsis on the life of Hecker, I found it interesting. Good Hub.