Rev. Walter Elliott, author of the “Life of Father Hecker,” which was the cause of the Pope’s letter to Cardinal Gibbons regarding certain ideas expressed in the book, had a most adventurous and interesting career before he joined the Paulist order. Like Ignatius Loyola, he was a soldier and fought bravely and gallantly throughout the Civil War. He was not a soldier, however, by profession, but simply for love of his country. He always has been an intense American and is a leader among those who favor what is known as the new American Catholicism.
Father Elliott was born in 1842, three months after the death of his father, Judge Robert Thomas Elliott of Detroit. The father was born in 1796, in the Golden Vale, near the Rock of Cashel, Tipperary, Ireland. Walter Elliott was sent to Notre Dame when he was twelve years old. He was graduated from there and returned to Detroit to become a partner with his brother in the firm of Eagle & Elliott. He was a strapping youth, of great stature and breadth of frame. He stood 6 feet 3 inches high.
He was of an adventurous disposition and became discontented with a business life. Seized with the gold fever, he went to Pike’s Peak and roughed it for some time among the miners. Then he went to Cincinnati, where one of his brothers had located, entered the law school and continued his law studies in the office of Judge Warner M. Bateman. He was admitted to the bar a few months prior to the attack on Fort Sumter.
On the call for volunteers, he enlisted in the Fifth Ohio, afterward known as the “Fighting Fifth.” He refused a commission, saying that he preferred to light with the men and not for the glory and honor of an officer’s position. Three of the Elliott boys went to the war about the same time, leaving one son at home to look after the mother and sisters. He distinguished himself for bravery at the battle of Port Republic. June 9. 1862. The rebels had captured some Northern cannon, and Elliott, with a band of daring
men from the “Fighting Fifth,” undertook to recapture them. The attempt failed, and Elliott was made a prisoner and sent to Libby Prison. He was exchanged after three months and returned to his regiment. Later in the war he was also compelled to spend a few months in Andersonville Prison.
His brother, Captain William R. Elliott, was with Lieutenant-Colonel Stagg when that gallant officer saved, by timely action, Fairfax Court House station and all its valuable stores from Stuart’s raiders. Captain Elliott joined in a charge with Colonel Stagg at the battle of Gettysburg, and when the colonel fell from his horse the captain took the command, and was mortally wounded. He died the following day. Another brother. Major Robert T. Elliott, was mortally wounded while in command of ‘the Sixteenth Michigan Infantry at Tollopotomy Creek. Virginia, May 13. 1864, and died of his wounds.
The death of the two sons aftected Mrs. Elliott so deeply that at her earnest solicitation, and after having served six months over his time of enlistment, Waller Elliott left the army, June 20, 1864. His discharge papers show that he was in the following battles: Blue Gap, January 7, 1862; Bloomery Furnace, February, 1862; Winchester, No. 1. March 23, 1862; Fort Republic. June 9, 1862; Chancellorsville, May, 1863; Gettysburg, July, 1863; Lookout Mountain, November 25, 1863; Rocky Faced Ridge, May 8. 1864; Resaca, May 15, 1864; Altoona, May 25, 1864; and Dallas, May 28, 1864.
He was offered a commission as an inducement to stay in the army, but this he refused, as he was too democratic in his ideas to wish for promotion because of his service to the country. He visited his family at Detroit, and then took up the law again in Cincinnati. It was at a banquet given by the bar of Detroit to Father Hecker, who was then on a lecture tour, that he first met the founder of the Paulist community. He immediately determined to enter the order. He was the first Roman Catholic, born in the faith, to join the community, as his fellow Paulists were all converts.
Father Elliott became the devoted friend and coworker of Father Hecker, entering into the spirit of his ideas and spreading them forth with the force and vigor characteristic of his nature. He alwavs maintained that Father Hecker was a saint. For twenty years he traveled on the missions to non-Catholics all over the country. He was reluctantly withdrawn from his work, in which he had become a wonderful power and force, in order to remain at the side of Father Hecker during the latter’s closing days.
After the death of the great Paulist, Father Elliott again turned to the missions and is now engaged in the work of converting non-Catholics. He wrote the “Life of Father Hecker’ and every line of the book shows his thorough insight into the character of the famous Paulist. The French translation was to blame for the mild condemnation of the Pope. Many of the ideas were misconstrued or misunderstood, for there is no American priest more devoted to the Roman Catholic Church than is Father Elliott.
William Henry Condon, Life of Major-General James Shields, Hero of Three Wars and Senator From Three States (Chicago: Blakely Printing Co., 1900), 233-236.
In 1858, Isaac Hecker founded the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, better known as the Paulists, to work for the evangelization of America. Like Hecker, the original members were all converts to Catholicism. Condon is incorrect in saying that Elliott was the first cradle Catholic to join, which he did in 1868. The first was Adrian L. Rosecrans, son of Civil War General William S. Rosecrans.
With regard to the controversy mentioned above, during the 1890’s, there had been disputes between liberal and conservative bishops over how the Church should relate to American culture and life. Liberals (known as Americanists) argued for a positive dialogue, while conservatives espoused a more separatist approach. Elliott unwittingly got caught in the middle of it when he published his biography of Hecker in 1891. A French translation of the book carried a preface by Father Felix Klein, who argued that Hecker (a friend of the Americanists) was espousing a new way of Catholicism: less emphasis on authority and more on individual action and intitiative.
This wasn’t what Hecker, or Elliott, said, but Klein outraged French conservatives and the book was reported to Rome. In January 1899, Pope XIII issued the encyclical Testem Benevolentiae, who warned the Church in America against adapting too much to the larger culture. Neither Hecker nor Elliott were specifically condemned, but the encyclical did cast a shadow over the Paulists’ ministry for many years. In the years since, Hecker and the Paulist ministry have been exonerated of any such accusations.