Walter Elliott (1842-1928): Paulist Evangelizer

Today marks the birth of Father Walter Elliott (1842-1928), a Paulist priest who was one of the leading preachers and writers of his day. Born in Detroit to Irish immigrant parents, he attended Notre Dame and studied law before the Civil War. During the war he was a sergeant in the Fifth Ohio Infantry. After the war he returned to law, but he soon decided to pursue the priesthood. The impetus was a sermon by Father Isaac Hecker, who founded the Paulists in 1858 to evangelize America. Ordained a Paulist in 1872, Elliott spent much of his career preaching missions to non-Catholics. In 1891, he wrote a biography of Hecker that sparked an international controversy when it was translated into French, right in the middle of a growing rift between that country’s liberal and conservative Catholics. It was Father Felix Klein’s preface to the book (as opposed to the book itself) that outraged conservatives, who complained to Rome that Hecker and his partisans (known as Americanists) wanted the Church to accommodate itself to modernity. Pope Leo XIII responded in January 1899 with Testem Benevolentiae, an apostolic letter condemning the notion that “the Church ought to adapt herself somewhat to our advanced civilization, and relaxing her ancient rigor, show some indulgence to modern popular theories and methods.” Elliott was stunned and a little hurt, but nonetheless he kept working to preserve Hecker’s message and spirit. In 1902, he helped found the Apostolic Mission House, an evangelization training center for diocesan priests, in Washington, D.C. After Elliott’s death, a confrere described him as “the medium by which the personality of the Founder… was stamped upon the second and third generation of Paulists.”

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