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Isaac Thomas Hecker

Isaac Thomas Hecker

Isaac Thomas Hecker (1819-1888), American Catholic churchman, was the founder of the Congregation of Missionary Priests of St. Paul the Apostle, known as the Paulist Fathers.

Isaac Thomas Hecker was born on Dec. 18, 1819, in New York to German Protestant immigrants. After 6 years of schooling he went to work. The family was close, and Isaac's mother was an admirable woman who greatly influenced him. Hecker's thoughts increasingly turned to religion and theology, and in his quest he sojourned at two utopian colonies, Brook Farm and Fruit-lands. His mentor was Orestes A. Brownson, a Catholic convert and social reformer.

In 1844 Hecker converted to Roman Catholicism. He soon became a priest in the Redemptorist order, which worked with German immigrants. Frustrated by the crippling regulations of this order and finally expelled from it, he founded a new order in 1858 with St. Paul as patron. Hecker served as superior general of the Paulists until his death in 1888. Although plagued by ill health, he displayed prodigious energy—planning, directing, writing, speaking, traveling—all in the hope that the Roman Catholic Church might find itself at home in America and that increasing numbers of Americans might find their spiritual home in Catholicism.

Though the Paulists remained small in number, their influence was great. Hecker was not a rebel, but he held that a rigid authoritarianism would blight the development of Christian perfection. The Paulists demanded no vows of its members, shifting emphasis from rules to conscience and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Hecker was convinced that the Church would prosper in the free environment of the United States and that the way to make Catholicism attractive to Protestants was by infusing it with the "American" spirit. He won converts by emphasizing partial agreement and inviting Protestants to inspect the virtues of the True Church, and by not denouncing all Protestants as heretics. A confirmed humanitarian, Hecker understood that the Church must serve man's needs and that Catholicism would spread to the degree that the Church's deeds matched its creeds.

Hecker was angrily denounced by conservative churchmen both in America and abroad. After his death the controversy over what some termed the heresy of "Americanism" (sparked in part by the French translation of an 1891 biography of Hecker) resulted in the condemnatory papal letter Testem benevolentiae (1899).

Further Reading

Biographical accounts of Hecker are Vincent F. Holden, The Early Years of Isaac Thomas Hecker (1819-1844) (1939), and Joseph McSorley, Father Hecker and His Friends (1952). For information on Hecker's order see James M. Gillis, The Paulists (1932). Robert D. Cross, The Emergence of Liberal Catholicism in America (1958), is an excellent examination of the "Americanism" question.

Additional Sources

The Brownson-Hecker correspondence, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979.

Elliott, Walter, The life of Father Hecker, New York, Arno Press, 1972.

Farina, John, An American experience of God: the spirituality of Isaac Hecker, New York: Paulist Press, 1981.

Hecker, Isaac Thomas, Isaac T. Hecker, the diary: romantic religion in ante-bellum America, New York: Paulist Press, 1988.

Hecker, Isaac Thomas, Questions of the soul, New York: Arno Press, 1978.

Hecker studies: essays on the thought of Isaac Hecker, New York: Paulist Press, 1983.

Holden, Vincent F., The early years of Isaac Thomas Hecker (1819-1844), New York, AMS Press, 1974.

Kirk, Martin J., The spirituality of Isaac Thomas Hecker: reconciling the American character and the Catholic faith, New York: Garland, 1988.

O'Brien, David J., Isaac Hecker: an American Catholic, New York: Paulist Press, 1992.

Portier, William L., Isaac Hecker and the First Vatican Council, Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1985. □

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Hecker, Isaac Thomas

Isaac Thomas Hecker, 1819–88, American Roman Catholic priest, founder of the Paulist Fathers; son of Prussian immigrants. Feeling the general discontent of his day in the dying Puritanism of New England, he associated with the transcendentalists, stayed for a short time at Brook Farm, and was a friend of Thoreau, Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Orestes Brownson. Still dissatisfied, he entered (1844) the Roman Catholic Church, joined the Redemptorist order, and was ordained a priest (1849). Returning (1851) from abroad, he worked with immigrant Catholics in the United States. He was a successful missionary, but his intense zeal, doubts of his own worthiness, ill health, and his fixed purpose caused a somewhat stormy career. Difficulties with his order caused him to be expelled, but the pope dispensed him and his colleagues of their vows and allowed them in 1858 to found the Missionary Priests of St. Paul the Apostle (the Paulist Fathers)—an order that achieved prominence in the United States. Father Hecker, who was the superior until his death, founded the Paulist magazine Catholic World. Although ideas allegedly based on those of Hecker were later condemned as the heresy of "Americanism," the whole controversy was settled by an encyclical (1899) of Pope Leo XIII, without Father Hecker or any other American priest ever being specifically charged with holding the heretical views.

See biographies by W. Elliott (1891, repr. 1972) and V. F. Holden (1939, repr. 1974).

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