October 3, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Possible U.S. saints: Father Stephen Eckert

John F. Fink(Nineteenth in a series of columns)

Capuchin Father Stephen Eckert was known primarily for his service in the African-American community during the first part of the 20th century.

He was born John Eckert about 50 miles west of Toronto, son of emigrants from Bavaria, in 1869.

As he grew up, he was attracted to the Capuchin community and entered the novitiate at St. Bonaventure Friary in Detroit in 1891.

He was given the religious name Stephen. After a year there, he studied for four years at the major seminary at St. Francis Friary in Milwaukee before being ordained a priest on July 2, 1896.

For the next 17 years, he was given numerous short assignments in New York, Yonkers, Detroit, Fond-du-Lac and back to several parishes in New York.

During all his assignments, he was credited with bringing many fallen-away Catholics back to the Church through home visitations, distributing Catholic literature in public places, and preaching retreats, especially for men.

His first experience with African-Americans came when he was serving in St. John the Baptist Church in midtown Manhattan in 1896. In 1897, while in Yonkers, he traveled to Philadelphia to learn from the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the community that Mother Katharine Drexel (now St. Katharine) had founded in 1891 to work among Indians and African-Americans.

In 1905, Father Stephen expressed to his superiors an interest in starting an itinerant ministry among blacks in the South. His superiors investigated the possibility, but it was rejected by the superior general in Rome.

In 1907, back at St. John’s Church in New York, he worked among the black population in addition to his other duties.

In 1911, Archbishop Sebastian Messmer of Milwaukee established St. Benedict the Moor Mission for the Colored and entrusted it to the Capuchin Friars. This was the apostolate Father Eckert was looking for. In 1913, he was assigned to that mission.

In his book Saints of North America, Father Vincent O’Malley wrote, “Father Stephen continued in this mission what he had done in previous missions, but this time for the African-Americans for whom he felt a great affection and calling. He visited hundreds of families. The school enrollment grew by leaps and bounds. To attract students from a wider geographical base, Father Stephen conceived of, constructed and fund-raised for a boarding school. To ensure a future for all the graduates, the priest-founder instituted both academic and vocational tracks. Ahead of his time, he opened a day nursery for working mothers, and a residence and employment agency for young women. He begged locally and preached nationally to promote and provide for the school.”

He also experienced criticism among some of the laity for his affection for the black community and from some of his brother priests for what they considered financial folly in trying to fund a boarding school, a nursery school and a residence for women. But he continued, seemingly untiringly.

After 10 years at St. Benedict the Moor, he contracted pneumonia and died on Feb.16, 1923, at age 53.†

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