The history of the Spiritans over three centuries is the story of thousands of Fathers and Brothers and lay persons who have forgone society's aspirations to power, prestige, and wealth. Rather, they made -- and continue to make -- profound sacrifices to minister to the poor and disadvantaged. They have crossed economic, social, cultural, and racial and ethnic boundaries as they proclaim the Good News in diverse parts of the world. The Spiritans remain at the forefront of international missionary orders.
The Congregation began in France in 1703 and eventually expanded throughout the world, with special focus on the African continent. Their North American presence spans the entire country, with special focus on African-American and Hispanic parishes. Duquesne University, a nationally recognized Catholic university located in Pittsburgh, was founded by Spiritans for children of the immigrant poor, and today attracts students from around the world.
Founder and Founding of the Order
Spiritan founder, Claude Francis Poullart des Places was born in Rennes, Britanny. The son of an affluent businessman and lawyer, Poullart at the age of 21 finished his schooling at the Sorbonne in Paris and planned to follow in his father's footsteps in Parliament and upper-class French life. His life changed direction when he developed relationships with and began assisting the homeless and poor chimney sweeps of Paris.
Stemming from this experience, Poullart discerned a priestly vocation and at the age of 24, while still a seminary student, he founded the Congregation to respond to both the material and spiritual needs of his fellow students, many of whom were impoverished. The Seminary of the Holy Ghost was founded, to financially assist its students so they in turn might aid the poor in rural France and overseas missions.
Less than two years after his ordination, Poullart died in 1709. His foundational work of priestly formation, evangelization, and uplifting the poor and disadvantaged spread to parishes, hospitals, and schools in rural France.
1732: First Spiritan Missionaries in North America and the U.S.
Incarnating the Congregation's zeal for overseas missions, Spiritan priests began their international work among the Micmac Indians and Acadians in the Canadian French colonies.
Toward the end of the 18th century, beginning with the French Revolution of 1792, the Congregation weathered political persecution at home. Still, Spiritans remained faithful in their overseas missionary work, and their first missionaries landed in the United States in Baltimore, MD in 1794.
Five years later missionary priests arrived in Africa, the first of what became a presence in virtually all of Sub-Saharan Africa.
1802: Libermann's birth and life
Francis Mary Paul (Jacob) Libermann, the Congregation's second founder, was born into a rabbinical Jewish family. While studying to become a rabbi himself, Libermann was drawn to Catholicism and converted at the age of 24. Although the onset of epilepsy initially excluded him from the priesthood, he continued his studies with the Sulpician Fathers. Libermann also became assistant to the novice master of a small community of Eudists.
Libermann founded the Congregation of the Holy Heart of Mary in 1841. With Papal encouragement, he was quietly ordained a priest explicitly for work in missions to Blacks, slaves, and former slaves in French colonies of the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and Africa.
1848: Merging of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost Fathers and the Congregation of the Holy Heart of Mary
1848 marked a dynamic apostolic merger. Because of their similar purpose, charism, and works, the Church merged the original Spiritan community and the Congregation of the Holy Heart of Mary. Libermann was elected the first Superior General of the newly merged Congregation and became the 11th Superior General of the Spiritans.
1878: Duquesne University
In the spirit of Poullart before them, the young American Spiritans founded Duquesne to give poor immigrants opportunities for higher education.
A few years later, in 1889, the first African-American mission was established in Pittsburgh, and in Philadelphia with the support of St. Katherine Drexel, initiating the Congregation's longstanding work in African-American communities throughout the U.S. and an enduring collaboration with St. Katherine Drexel's Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
1964: The USA Province of the Spiritans becomes the US East and West Provinces
As the Spiritan presence in the United States expanded (witnessing the founding of Duquesne University and a program of a nationwide parish and mission-based evangelism), a growing desire to divide the USA Province steadily emerged. Such a division had been actively pursued since the late 1800s without, however, attaining the necessary agreement of all interested parties.
It was taken up again after World War II at the request of Fr. Francis Griffin -- the future superior general -- after his trip to the States as an official visitor. For the next 15 years the division was intensely debated within the Order.
Finally, in 1963 the Generalate and the USA Province agreed upon a division into two provinces in the United States, with all the territory west of the Mississippi and all of Louisiana becoming the U.S. West Province. The remainder to the east of the Mississippi became the U.S. East Province.