The Leopoldine Society (Die Leopoldinenstiftung) existed between 1829 and 1914. The society began in Austria-Hungary with the express aim to promote Catholicism in North America through raising donations and supporting missionary work. The society was named for the former imperial archduchess, Empress Marie Leopoldine of Brazil.
The society initially sought to convert Native Americans to Catholicism but quickly saw the need to convert the increasing number of 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 Archdiocese of Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Louisville, and St. Louis among others.
The Leopoldine Society led to the construction of more than 400 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 with its funds. It facilitated the missionary work of hundreds (at least 300) missionaries from the Austro-Hungarian lands. It supported the pastoral care of dozens of Native American groups at a time when these nations were marginalized within American society and faced eviction from sovereign lands by the US government.
Many of the parishes and projects still run to this day. The American mission of the LS only ended following the abruptness of the First World War. However, it was not without controversy. Many Americans—especially those associated with the revival of the Protestantism and the Second Awakening (think Mormons)—in the United States were horrified about the ‘imperialist’ interference by Austria-Hungary. Samuel Morse (the inventor of Morse code) wrote several pamphlets and a book against the activates of the Leopoldine Society, decrying as “an imminent danger to the free institutions of the United States.”
Altogether the Leopoldine Society raised 4,250,000 Gulden (over $1,000,000) for Catholic projects in the United States during the eighty years of its existence. This money came from across all Austrian-Hungarian lands but the largest sums were raised from the Austrian archdioceses.
An unknown number of missionaries left the Austria-Hungary to work for the Leopoldine Society in the United States. These missionaries were sponsored by Leopoldine Society money raised from donations. They were housed in the American archdioceses where many of them congregated with fellow colleagues from their home provinces. Many of these missionaries died in the early years but a number of them also returned to their home regions. They often retired within their communities and further promoted the activities of the Leopoldine Society.