Born in New York City in 1819, Isaac Hecker grew up in a German-Methodist household. He would stick with this religion only until his teenage years, when he started to distance himself from the Christian denomination.
At the time Hecker was more interested in work and politics, though he still considered himself a Christian. Together with his two brothers, Hecker devoted all of his time to a political campaign during 1837. However, the campaign failed and left Hecker with a sour taste for politics.
He continued to struggle with God’s plan for his life, and tried to search for his place in the world. At first he turned to philosophy and studied such figures as Hegel and Kant. Then in 1842 Hecker started to have mystical visions. He wrote about one such heavenly vision that changed his approach to the world.
I saw (I cannot say I dreamt for it was quite different from dreaming since I was seated on the side of my bed) a beautiful angelic, pure being and myself standing alongside of her, feeling a most heavenly pure joy. And it was if our bodies were luminous and they gave forth a moon-like light, which I felt sprang from the joy that we experienced.
The vision only made him more restless and he turned to a popular Christian preacher and philosopher at the time named Orestes Brownson. Brownson mentored Hecker for several years, but then started to question his own religion and began investigating the Catholic Church.
Influenced by Brownson’s change of direction, Hecker also researched the Catholic Church and felt drawn to it. Through a series of events and encounters, Hecker felt God calling him to be a Catholic priest.
In the meantime Brownson converted to the Catholic faith, marking the final straw in Hecker’s search for God. Hecker met with a local bishop who helped him make the final leap of faith.
After a few weeks of religious instruction Hecker was baptized in the Catholic Church in 1844. He wrote afterwards, “The Catholic Church is my star, which will lead me to my life, my destiny, my purpose.”
Hecker eventually joined the Redemptorists and was ordained a priest in 1849. After spending several years abroad, Hecker returned to New York City and gave parish missions across the nation. He was an excellent preacher, attracting thousands of people wherever he went.
A few years later Hecker felt called to establish a new Redemptorist house in America. His request was denied and his apparent “disobedience” resulted in an expulsion from the order. At first he fought the expulsion in Rome, but then discussed with the Holy Father the founding of a new order that would work for the conversion of America.
Upon his return to the United States in 1858 Hecker gathered his friends and established the Missionary Priests of St. Paul the Apostle, more commonly known as the Paulists. It was a new congregation devoted to preaching missions and featured an apostolate to non-Catholics.
For the rest of his life Hecker devoted himself to preaching and spreading the Gospel through the modern means of technology. He died on December 22, 1888, in Manhattan.
Hecker’s extraordinary life inspired many after his death, and his cause for canonization was officially opened on January 25, 2008.
See more in our series on the Saints of the United States.