The Paulist Fathers’ principal founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, CSP, is approaching his 200th birthday this Wednesday! Here is a brief biography of him. Please join the Paulists in giving thanks to God for his life and work.
The son of German immigrants, Isaac Thomas Hecker was born in New York City on December 18, 1819, the youngest of five children. Raised as a Methodist by his mother, Isaac never interested himself in the growing flour business begun by his prosperous brothers, embarking instead on a philosophic and religious quest. After an intense religious epiphany in 1842, he took the advice of a family friend, Jacksonian activist and Unitarian preacher Orestes Brownson, and entered the transcendentalist community of Brook Farm near Boston. Although he made friends of Emerson, Thoreau, Ripley, and many of the American literati, he remained spiritually lonely and intellectually curious and he left the Farm in under a year. In search of spiritual discipline, Hecker briefly considered the Episcopal priesthood. After reading John Henry Newman's Tracts for the Times in 1844, he and Brownson entered the Roman Catholic Church. One year later, after months of discussions with Bishop John McCloskey of New York and intense introspection, he joined the Redemptorist priesthood and sailed for Europe.
Hecker's novitiate and seminary years in Holland and Germany were academically rigorous and ascetically grim. Ordained in October 1849, he served briefly on missions outside London before returning to New York in 1851 as an assistant on the Redemptorists' newly organized American mission. Joined by Clarence Walworth and three other Americans - Augustine F. Hewit, George Deshon, and Francis Baker - Hecker and the Redemptorists began Catholic missions across the entire country. Satisfying his urge to convert America and "make Yankeedom the Rome of the modern world," he also wrote two books in the 1850's aimed at reaching educated, mystically-oriented Protestants: Questions of the Soul and Aspirations of Nature. Nationally known as a prominent spokesman of Roman Catholicism, Hecker and his mission band pushed for an English-speaking house in New York from which to base their operations. When the Redemptorist superiors denied the request, Hecker received the support of both Bishop John Hughes of New York and the Vatican in seceding from the Order in 1858 and founding a new community of American priests, the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle.
Wanting to share with his fellow Americans what he had found in the Catholic Church, Hecker took to the lecture circuit, and between 1867 and 1869 he addressed Protestants from secular lecture platforms, dressed in lay clothes, delivering over 56 lecture series from Boston to Missouri. In 1869-70 Hecker attended the First Vatican Council as a theological expert for Bishop James Gibbons of North Carolina. After his return to the U.S. Hecker’s health deteriorated. He spent the winter of 1873-74 aboard a boat on the Nile River in Egypt. He found it worthwhile and invigorating. Nevertheless, on returning to the U.S. his health deteriorated further. He died December 22, 1888 at the Paulist House on 59th Street in New York City.