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Hecker, Isaac Thomaslocked

(18 December 1819–22 December 1888)
  • Patrick W. Carey

Hecker, Isaac Thomas (18 December 1819–22 December 1888), Catholic priest and founder of the Society of Missionary Priests of St. Paul the Apostle (the Paulists), Catholic priest and founder of the Society of Missionary Priests of St. Paul the Apostle (the Paulists), was born in New York City, the son of John Hecker and Caroline Freund, owners of a brass foundry. Isaac was born at a time when his German immigrant parents and maternal grandparents were relatively prosperous in the foundry business, living in the comfortable and desirable Hester-Forsyth-Christie Street section of New York City. Isaac’s mother was the dominant influence in his early life. She provided him with a strong sense of personal dignity and security, which was reinforced by a warm Methodist piety to which she introduced him at an early age. Isaac’s father was absorbed in his business and was an unstable element in the family because of his alcoholism, or some unspecified “wicked passion” as Isaac called it, that contributed to the failure of his business in the early 1830s. After only six years of formal education, Isaac was forced to quit the New York public schools and to work in various jobs to help support the family. By the mid-1830s he joined his brothers, John and George, who had established a prosperous bakery, and in 1842, following the depression of 1837, the Hecker brothers built a flour mill that eventually made them a substantial fortune.

In the mid-1830s, the Hecker brothers were involved in the Locofoco movement in New York City and by 1841 were responsible in part for inviting the Bostonian Unitarian reformer Orestes A. Brownson to New York to address workers and small businessmen on Christianity and the reform of the American economic and political system. Isaac, sixteen years younger than Brownson, developed a friendship with him that was to last throughout their lives. Brownson introduced him to the intellectual movements of the day, and in 1842 Hecker went to the Transcendentalist stronghold in Massachusetts, living for about a year at Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and with the Henry Thoreau family.

In 1844, after some years of religious searching, Hecker became a Roman Catholic. In 1845 he joined the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists), going to the novitiate at St. Trond, Belgium, and to Witten, Holland, to receive his education for the priesthood. He was ordained in London in 1849. In 1851 he returned to the United States and served the next six years as a Redemptorist missionary, preaching to non-Catholics as well as Catholics along the East Coast and writing two books, Questions of the Soul (1855) and Aspirations of Nature (1857), which developed a new Catholic Romantic apologetic. Influenced by Romanticism and post-Kantian idealism, Hecker tried to demonstrate that the external ministries of the Catholic church, such as confession and absolution, were, in fact, the sacramentalizations of basic human and cultural aspirations.

In the midst of Know-Nothing attacks upon Catholicism, Hecker went to Rome in 1857 to get permission to open an American branch of the primarily German immigrant Redemptorist order. He believed an acculturized Redemptorist house would be able to attract vocations from young men who would exhibit American values and develop more successful missions to American Protestants. This proposal did not have the support of Hecker’s German Redemptorist superior, so when he went to Rome he was expelled from the order. Pope Pius IX released Hecker and four other Americans from their Redemptorist vows, but in 1858 he allowed them to found the Society of Missionary Priests of St. Paul the Apostle (the Paulists) in New York, an indigenous American religious order that was dedicated to the conversion of American Protestants. Hecker became the superior of the Paulists and remained in that post until his death. As a Paulist, Hecker established the Catholic World in April 1865, a monthly journal of religious thought and popular Catholic opinion, and the Catholic Publication Society in 1866, which eventually became Paulist Press. In 1869 he attended the First Vatican Council as the theologian of Baltimore’s archbishop Martin John Spalding. After the council, he became ill and never regained his health completely.

Hecker was primarily interested in demonstrating the compatibility of The Church and the Age (1887), the title of an anthology of his significant essays. Such an approach departed from the traditional Catholic arguments based upon the church’s authority, motives of credibility, or reason. After his death in New York, Hecker’s views became the subject of an ecclesiastical controversy, which ended when Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Testem Benevolentiae (1899) condemned Americanism as a complex of heretical ideas that some European Catholics had exaggeratedly identified with Hecker.

Although the Paulists never attracted a large membership, the order Hecker founded did produce several significant religious leaders in the United States during the twentieth century. Hecker’s legacy continued, too, in the order’s Paulist Press, which in the twentieth century became a leading publisher of materials on the liturgical revival, the ecumenical movement, biblical studies, and social justice. Although Hecker’s ideas on apologetics and spirituality had only a few followers immediately after his death, they received much scholarly attention after the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965).

Bibliography

Hecker’s letters, diary, and other unpublished papers are located in the archives of the Paulists, the Archdiocese of New York, the Redemptorists, and Propaganda Fide (Rome). His correspondence with Orestes A. Brownson has been published in Joseph F. Gower and Richard M. Leliaert, The Brownson-Hecker Correspondence (1979). A bibliography of his published works is available in John Farina, ed., Hecker Studies: Essays on the Thought of Isaac Hecker (1983). Important biographies include Walter Elliot, The Life of Father Hecker (1891); Vincent F. Holden, The Early Years of Isaac Thomas Hecker, 1819–1844 (1939) and The Yankee Paul: Isaac Thomas Hecker (1958); and David J. O’Brien, Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic (1992). Critical assessments of his life and thought are found in Charles Maignen, Études sur l’Americanisme: Le Père Hecker. Est-il un Saint? (1898); Le Père Hecker, Fondateur des “Paulistes” Américains, 1819–1888 … (1898), a French translation of Elliot’s biography with an important preface by Felix Klein; Joseph McSorley, Father Hecker and His Friends (1952); John Farina, An American Experience of God: The Spirituality of Isaac Hecker (1981); and William Portier, Isaac Hecker and the First Vatican Council (1985).