Hecker, Isaac Thomas

Hecker, Isaac Thomas, 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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