When one thinks of the Catholic Church in America, he might be forgiven for thinking that it is mostly an Irish affair with a recent influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants. But in truth, every nation in the world has contributed its contingent to the American Church as well as the State. Despite English’s status as the majority language in the United States, the largest single group among the general population is German and German-descended. This reflects continuous German immigration since colonial times. During the course of American history, large groups of German-speaking colonists have come over at various times: in colonial days the ancestors of to-day’s Pennsylvania “Dutch” (Deutsch) came over; the failed revolutions of 1848 sent the “Latin Farmers” to Texas.
A large proportion of these have been Catholic. Since Pennsylvania was one of the three (out of 13) colonies where Catholicism was legal before the Revolution, it was there together with their countrymen of Lutheran, Reformed, Mennonite, Amish, Schwenkfelder, and other faiths that the Catholic German pioneers settled. In Philadelphia, Lancaster, and other towns they established parishes in mid- to late-18th century. Among the most famous of the missionary priests was the Swabian Jesuit Ferdinand Steinmeyer (1720-1786), known to his flock as “Father Farmer.” After a short period at Lancaster, he was stationed at St. Joseph’s, Philadelphia. From there he rode through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York visiting Catholics and offering the Mass — illegally in the latter two places. He lived to see the ban lifted on the Faith in the areas he worked, and was virtual founder of the oldest Catholic Church in New York City, St. Peter’s — which was built at the expense of the King of Spain, and later saw St. Elizabeth Ann Seton received into the Church.
Shortly after American independence, the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Wars sent thousands of Europeans — many German — to safety in the New World. What is now the Midwest was then an opening frontier, and the Church struggled to keep up with the growth of her members. Many new German, Swiss, and Austrian Catholic settlers poured into Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri. To try to accommodate this tide, in 1833 Pope Gregory XVI appointed as Bishop of Detroit the first German-born prelate in the United States, Frederick Résé (1791-1871).
Born near Goslar, he had fought at Waterloo, before becoming a priest. Early on dedicated to the missions and joining the Propaganda Fide after ordination, he went to America in 1827. After spending time in Ohio surveying the growing Church, he went to Vienna the following year. There he convinced the Emperor, Franz I to sponsor a new organisation to support the Church in America — the Leopoldinenstiftung, named after Franz’s beloved daughter Maria Leopoldina, the recently deceased Empress of Brazil. Although many private individuals joined, the Imperial family and a couple of dioceses were the major donors. From 1830 until 1914, not only funds but countless church utensils, Mass paraphernalia, paintings, statuary — these often by different members of the House of Habsburg. Because of the society many priests and seminarians volunteered to go to America — first of whom being Ven. Frederic Baraga, afterwards Bishop of Marquette, St. John Neumann (afterwards Bishop of Philadelphia), and countless others. A decade later, Bishop Rese returned to Europe — this time he went to Munich, and convinced King Ludwig I of Bavaria to found a similar organisation, the Ludwigs-Missionsverein, which like its Austrian counterpart poured thousands of dollars and numerous gifts into the American Church until World War I. Ludwig further encouraged Dom Boniface Wimmer to go to America in 1846 to found what is now the Archabbey of St. Vincent in Pennsylvania, which foundation the King partly funded. It was the first Benedictine foundation in the United States, and many monasteries would be founded from it. The American Church owes both the Habsburgs and the Wittelsbachs a huge debt.
As the 19th century wore on, many German parishes and institutions were founded on American soil, as were those of other Catholic peoples. The hierarchy was heavily Irish, however, and often unsympathetic to the needs of non-English-speaking Catholics — Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul was a chief of what was called the “Americanist” party in the United States Catholic hierarchy — and was responsible for two enduring schisms from the Church, one Polish and the other Ruthenian. Thousands of Catholics were being lost to other religions because of a lack of priests and parishes of their own language. In 1871, Peter Paul Cahensly (1838-1923), a wealthy Catholic businessman from Hessen, founded the “St. Raphaels-Verein zum Schutze deutscher Auswanderer.” All sorts of assistance was channeled to the emigrants this way. National branches of the Society were founded to help French, Italians, Swiss, Slovaks, Poles, and others. In 1890, the heads of the national societies — including Cahensly — met in Lucerne Switzerland to discuss means of stemming the losses to the Church of an estimated 10 million. The solutions included both national parishes and ethnic bishops — the Church would help the nationalities retain their languages, culture, and Faith. These proposals were given Leo XIII the following year but were angrily rejected as “Cahenslyism” by many of the Irish-American bishops, especially John Ireland. The controversy was sharp and bitter and was subsumed into the doctrinal struggle over the heresy of “Americanism.”
In time, these differences were papered over. But German- (and Austrian-) American Catholicism remained significantly different from Irish. For one thing, it was more interested in Liturgy and Social issues than was the norm with the Irish. German parishes tended to encourage High Masses and Gregorian chant, as with German-American liturgists as Msgr. Martin Hellriegel (1891-1981) at Holy Cross church near St. Louis, and Msgr. Richard Schuler (1920 – 2007): his parish in St. Paul, Minnesota, St. Agnes, is a prime exemplar for Gregorian chant, and chorale and instrumental Masses. Similarly, Frederick Kenkel (1908-1952) of the German Roman Catholic Central Verein of North America advocated the Church’s Social teachings in a way that Irish-American Catholics had simply never thought to. Taken all in all, the Germans have left a huge legacy to the American Church — and one which cannot easily be repaid.