Paulist Fathers mark bicentennial of founder Fr. Isaac Hecker

Immaculate Conception, St. John XXIII schedule events to celebrate as cause for sainthood moves forward                 

By Bill Brewer

The Paulist Fathers at Immaculate Conception and St. John XXIII parishes are marking the bicentennial of founder Father Isaac Hecker’s birth with a number of events as the Paulist priest’s cause for sainthood advances.

Father Ronald Franco, CSP, pastor of Immaculate Conception in Knoxville, said the year of celebration to honor Servant of God Hecker will include an April 28 concert at Immaculate Conception featuring 19th-century music of the genre he would have heard.

Paulist priests serving the Diocese of Knoxville are shown at Immaculate Conception Church following a Dec. 18 Mass launching the bicentennial of Paulist Fathers founder Father Isaac Hecker’s birth. Father Ronald Franco, CSP, left center, is joined by Father Jim Haley, CSP, left, Father Tim Sullivan, CSP, second from right, and Father Donald Andrie, CSP, right, as they stand under a quilted banner for Father Hecker created by the Immaculate Conception women’s quilting group. Not pictured is Father Bob O’Donnell, CSP.

Also planned for the downtown Knoxville parish are a “What Father Hecker Ate” dinner, featuring dishes popular during the priest’s life from 1819-1888, and a spiritual retreat on Father Hecker’s vision.

Similar celebrations will be held at Paulist parishes and facilities elsewhere in the United States and at the American parish in Rome.

Father Franco, who is the local religious superior for Paulist priests in the Diocese of Knoxville, explained that Father Hecker was a convert to Catholicism who grew up in a German-Dutch family in New York City, and while he was interested in religion at an early age, he was of no particular religious denomination.

The Servant of God’s older brothers had a bakery business and could support their younger brother’s search for religious identity. On Aug. 1, 1844, Isaac Hecker joined the Catholic Church and became affiliated with the Redemptorists religious congregation a year later.

He was ordained a priest on Oct. 23, 1849, in London, and he served as a parish priest and chaplain in England. Two years later the Redemptorists returned him to the United States, where he worked as a missionary from 1851-1857.

Father Franco described Father Hecker as someone who was very interested in evangelizing the United States and, with several Redemptorists colleagues, set out to convert natives of the United States.

After Father Hecker and the Redemptorists clashed over his evangelization vision, he was expelled from the religious order. However, Pope Pius IX recognized Father Hecker’s valuable role in evangelizing in the United States and gave permission in March 1858 to him and three others to form the Paulist Fathers order in New York within the Church of St. Paul the Apostle.

On Dec. 22, 1857, Father Hecker told Pope Pius IX the Catholic faith would overcome divisions in American society, in which the split between Catholics and Protestants was pervasive, and the impending Civil War, which split the country down the middle.

Father Franco also described Father Hecker as a priest and parish pastor who traveled the country giving talks about Catholicism and its role in unifying the country and who started Paulist Press and authored three books, “Questions of the Soul,” “Aspirations of Nature,” and “The Church and the Age,” which expressed his philosophy on Catholicism.

“The Paulist Fathers have grown since then, staffing parishes and university centers, Paulist Press, Paulist Productions, and Busted Halo,” Father Franco said, crediting Father Hecker’s vision of evangelization in the United States.

“He felt strongly that the Catholic Church was the vehicle to help Catholics become effective disciples,” Father Franco added. “What he says is very 19th century, but it’s very relevant today for the faithful. Hecker had great confidence in the ability of the Catholic faith to speak to American people.”

The Paulist Fathers have been in Knoxville since 1973, when the Diocese of Nashville asked them to staff Immaculate Conception and the John XXIII University Parish and Catholic Center on the University of Tennessee campus.

Former St. John XXIII pastor Father Eric Andrews, CSP, is now president of the Paulist Fathers and a former president of Paulist Productions.

As the Paulists celebrate the 200th anniversary of Father Hecker’s birth, Father Franco wants to show parishioners how his teachings are just as important today as they were in the 1800s.

“I would like to meditate on Hecker’s faith and belief in Catholicism and reflect on how his vision of Catholic faith as ‘oil on troubled waters’ is relevant today to unify a fragmented and polarized society,” Father Franco said. “He had experience of religious and social fragmentation in the United States. He felt strongly that the Catholic Church was the vehicle to help Catholics become effective disciples.”

Father Franco said Father Hecker’s cause for sainthood has been introduced and is in the early stages of the Vatican review process.

“We hope this bicentennial will cause more people to be interested in his thoughts and pray for his intercession,” the Paulist priest said.

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