The son of a Jewish convert, Ignatius Lissner was born in the Alsace region of France. At age twenty-one, he joined the Society of African Missions, known as the “White Fathers” (for the habits they wore), a French missionary order founded in 1856. He was ordained a priest in Lyons in 1891. (Three of his siblings followed him into the religious life.)
After ten years in Africa, Father Lissner was sent to America to promote the missions and raise funds. There he became strongly interested in the situation of African-American Catholics. In 1906, Bishop Benjamin Keily of Savannah, a diocese then encompassing the entire state of Georgia, contacted the White Fathers about ministering to the diocese’s Black Catholics. Father Lissner was sent to Georgia to direct the Black apostolate. Over the next fifteen years, Lissner founded seven parishes and six parochial schools.
In 1916, he and Mother Theodore Williams (1868-1931) founded a religious community for African-American women, the Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary. These were not easy years, as prejudice both within the Church and outside it were major obstacles. On the outside they had to deal with the Ku Klux Klan. On the inside, they faced a less than subtle racism. In Savannah, white sisters made racist comments about the new nuns, and the local bishop made snide references to Father Lissner’s own ancestry.
In 1921, Father Lissner founded St. Anthony’s Mission House in New Jersey, the nation’s only racially integrated seminary. During its short life, several African-American priests were ordained. In the following years, Father Lissner founded several parishes and missions around the country. In 1941, he was named provincial of the American branch of his order. After his death in 1948, a confrere eulogized him:
Fr. Lissner’s vocation was to work among the Colored. A gifted builder, he erected many schools, knowing (as he often repeated) that through those schools he would be able to reach out to the children and through them to their parents. But such work called for many sacrifices. The segregation of White and Black was the law of the land in the South. His strong determination to continue this work found opposition from the Klu Klux Klan, some White leaders and local priests and sometimes even from bishops. But Fr. Lissner was a man of steel. He braced himself against all opposition and criticism. Silently he suffered all kinds of injustices and continued tenaciously to preach the Gospel to his people.