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Paulist History


Over the telegraph. On the Web.

The Paulist Fathers began in July of 1858 when four former Redemptorist missionaries formed a new religious movement around the vision of Father Isaac Thomas Hecker. The four Redemptorists Isaac Hecker, Augustine Hewit, George Deshon and Francis Baker were all converts. Hecker had come to believe that Protestant America, if approached in the right manner would become Roman Catholic. The four had over the last seven years engaged in the preaching of parish missions, a form of Catholic revival preaching that reconciled lapsed Catholics and encouraged practicing Catholics to deepen their faith. Protestants often attended these events as the spouses or friends of Catholics or just of curiosity, as these preachers were Protestants become Catholics.

Isaac Hecker began to take a special interest in the presence of Protestant participants and it served to deepen his belief that America could become Catholic. What had happened to Hecker could happen to every Protestant American if he or she were introduced to the Catholic faith, free from bias and polemic. Hecker came to believe in the perfect compatibility of America and Catholicism and that a future Catholic America would renew the world with energy and hope.

Hecker wanted his Paulists to be free to reach out to Protestant America and free from the religious rules that he had found oppressive as a young priest, replacing it with a simple promise of members to bind themselves to each other and live out poverty, chastity and obedience. Hecker while a visionary was also an American pragmatist. The American bishops would not support a new order of priests that wanted to work primarily with Protestants, especially when there was all of this need to take care of immigrant Catholics. Hecker wanted the Paulists to begin in New York, America’s busiest and most dynamic city. This would be a problem as Archbishop John Hughes did not particularly like Protestants and would not want to devote valuable priests and pastoral resources towards their conversion. So Hecker agreed to take a parish as a base in New York, the parish of Saint Paul the Apostle on the west side of what would become Central Park. Hecker also continued the original work of preaching missions to Catholics, as a way of financially supporting his work among Protestants.

Conversion from one form of Christianity to another was quite common in the nineteenth century America. During the first twenty five years of their existence as a community, the majority of Paulists were Protestant converts. There were a few exceptions among recruits to the order but the Paulists were increasingly recognized by late century as a society of convert priests whose principal work was conversion. By 1890 membership within the Paulists was changing from converts to second generation Irish Americans.

During the years 1860 -1960 the Paulist expertise was to operate on the boundaries that separated Catholics and Protestants in America. Using every form of modern media of their time, they explained the church to the larger Protestant culture with the clear goal of conversion. Wherever Catholics met Protestants, the Paulists tried to be present. Paulists came to state university campuses; created trailer missions into the rural American South, the very heartland of Protestant America; built Catholic Information Centers in American cities where Protestants worked and shopped. Wherever Catholics met Protestants, the Paulists were present to make Catholics proud of their heritage, to renew their faith and reconcile them to the church and always to instruct if not convert Protestants.

The Paulists entered campus ministry in 1907-1908 in two locations, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Texas at Austin. They did so to safeguard the faith of young Catholics who enrolled in these institutions. Because the Paulists were specialists in dealing with Protestants, they were perfectly suited to serve as chaplains to state universities. And the Paulists initially sent their most scholarly members, Following the Second World War when the G.I. Bill allowed veterans to afford a college education, state university campuses multiplied and Paulist presence on the American campus increased.

The 1940s also produced the downtown Catholic Information Center. Like the state university campus, the inner city was a venue for Paulist missionaries. The 1940s and especially the 1950s, saw a tremendous interest in religion which led to a significant increase in church attendance. There were a large number of inquirers. Here in the center city Paulists could create a model based on the Christian Science Reading Room, complete with a storefront library, classroom and offices. This provided a non-threatening environment for a Protestant inquirer to drop in, take home literature, have questions answered, and perhaps sign up for a class before they left.

Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) for the promotion of Christian unity and the reform and renewal of the Catholic Church. The Council cast a powerful influence, changing the way Catholics understood themselves and it had a profound impact on the Paulist Fathers. The renewal of the church in the Holy Spirit was the bright future that Paulist founder Isaac Hecker had longed for, though it arrived by means of a different process and took a different form than he had envisioned. But, as Hecker had hoped would one day be the case, American Catholicism was now a vital element of American life. The Paulists had from their founding preached renewal. Originally, it was directed to lapsed Catholics who came out to their parish missions. Now, the entire American church was being called to renewal.

Today the Paulists are committed to evangelization of the unchurched, reconciliation of alienated Catholics, and ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. These Paulist mission directions are consistent with the vision of Father Isaac Hecker and flow from the call of the Second Vatican Council. Paulists preach the call to come and explore Catholicism as did the first Paulists. They seek to invite, reconcile and renew alienated Catholics and communicate the Gospel through the means of their age. We invite you to explore some of our Paulist history and to visit other sections of our website to learn what ministries contemporary Paulists are presently involved in. Whether past or present, the spirit and vision of Father Hecker is very much alive today.


Archivist:Father John E. Lynch, CSP
Historian:Father Paul. G. Robichaud, CSP
Office for History and Archives
North American Paulist Center
3015 Fourth Street, NE
Washington, DC 20017-1102