The Leopoldine Society in America 1829-1914

For over eighty years, the Leopoldine Society (Die Leopoldinenstiftung) promoted Catholicism in North American through raising donations and supporting missionary work. Named for the late Empress Marie Leopoldine of Brazil and the patron saint of Austria, the Society exerted a considerable influence over frontier communities in the American Midwest. Altogether the Leopoldine Society raised 4,250,000 Gulden (roughly €26,000,000 in today’s terms) for Catholic projects in the United States. Funds poured in from across the Austrian-Hungarian lands but the largest sums were raised from the Austrian archdioceses in the Tyrolean Alps and along the Danubian basin. Over three hundred clergymen left Austria-Hungary to missionise for the Leopoldine Society in the United States. The only male American saint numbered among them.

The Leopoldine Society led to the construction of more than four hundred Catholic churches in the United States. In fact, within the first twenty-five years of the Leopoldine Society, churches in twenty-five American cities had been erected using Society funding. Rapid growth, monetary income, and pastoral determination supported the religious devotion of several Native American nations at a time when these nations were marginalized within American society and faced eviction from sovereign lands by the US government. 

Title page from the Berichte der Leopoldinen-Stiftung, one of eighty-five total volumes.

Ostensibly focused on converting Native Americans to Catholicism, society members quickly recognised the need to support the increasing number of Catholic German-speaking immigrants instead. German-speaking migrants to the United States were largely concentrated in the Midwestern states and away from major conurbations. The Leopoldine Society therefore stretched deep into American territory by the end of the nineteenth century, but primarily supported Catholic activity in the Archdioceses of Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Louisville, and St. Louis among others. 

Many of the Catholic parishes and communities first established by the Leopoldine Society still survive to this day, although a diminishing awareness of this central European legacy combined within falling religiousity contributes towards the wholesale deriliction of many of these sites along with a dissolving documentary heritage of Society missions.

We may have largely forgotten the moment when Austria-Hungary helped to shape and define the character of the quinessential American Midwest, but at the time these missionary activities caused much consternation and unrest. Many individuals—especially those associated with the revival of the Protestantism and the Second Awakening—in the United States were horrified about the ‘imperialist’ interference by Austria-Hungary. Samuel Morse, the renowned inventor (of Morse code) and author, published several polemics railing against the activities of the Leopoldine Society, decrying Austria-Hungary as “an imminent danger to the free institutions of the United States.”

Unfortunately for people like Morse, the Leopoldine Society continued to exert its influence over American society until the eve of the First World War when European tensions abruptly shattered this transatlantic exchange.

In February 2022 together with Katharine Ziegler (Salzburg), I officially began a research project aiming to recover the legacies of the Leopoldine Society in North America thanks to generous funding from the Tiroler Wissenschaftsförderung (TWF). As part of an investigation into role of Tyrolean missionaries and parish contributions, this project will unearth new archival and documentary evidence as a first step towards recognising this important and extensive connection between the nineteenth-century Habsburg lands and the United States of America.

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