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Established at Vienna for the purpose of aiding the Catholic missions in North America. When the Society for the Propagation of Faith was founded at Lyons, in 1822, it did not spread beyond the French borders for a considerable time. Other nations were not unwilling to cooperate, but were deliberating whether to start a similar society of their own or to join the one already in existence. At this time, in 1827, Bishop Fenwick of Cincinnati, Ohio, sent his vicar-general, Father Rese, to Europe to recruit German priests and to obtain assistance for his diocese. Father Rese reached Vienna in the latter part of 1828. He was received everywhere most cordially and inspired those with whom he came in contact with a great interest in the American missions. His graphic descriptions of the New World, the great possibilities for the Church, the scarcity of priests, and the prevailing poverty of the missions awoke a general public interest in the welfare of the American missions. To strengthen this feeling and encourage the formation of a society similar to the French society he published a description of the Diocese of Cincinnati ("Abriss der Geschichte des Bisthums Cincinnati in Nord-America", Vienna, 1829), an excerpt from Father Theodore Badin's work. The Archbishop of Vienna, Leopold Maximilian Graf von Firmian, was so well disposed towards the noble undertaking that he brought it to the notice of the imperial family, Father Rese was granted an audience with the emperor, whose brother, Archduke Rudolph, Cardinal Archbishop of Olmutz, assumed the protectorate of the missionary work.
The sanction of the Church was next obtained. Leo XII in the Bull "Quamquam plura sint", dated 30 Jan., 1829, approved of the nascent society. Meanwhile the founders were busying themselves with the internal workings of the society. A public meeting was held on 13 March, 1829, at the archiepiscopal palace. Canon Joseph Pletz, of the Metropolitan Church of St. Stephen, spoke on the propagation of the Gospel and its civilizing influences upon the nations of the world. A month later, 15 April, 1829, the statutes were adopted. These were drawn up much after the pattern of the French society. The only divergent points which need be mentioned were that the society was to be known as the Leopoldine Society — Leopoldinen Stiftung — to perpetuate the memory of the Empress of Brazil, Leopoldina, a favourite daughter of Francis I and wife of Pedro I; and that the society should exist only in Austria-Hungary. On 13 May, 1829, the first executive session was held. A pamphlet was designed and in it incorporated the oration of Canon Pletz together with the statutes and the corresponding regulations. The brochure was translated into all the languages spoken in the monarchy. The head office was established in the Dominican monastery and Herr Anton Carl Lichtenberg became its first actuary and Dr. Caspar Wagner its treasurer.
The seed was sown. Five kreutzers a week — about two cents — was a small contribution; however, little by little the fund commenced to swell so that from July to October, 1830, the collection amounted to $19,930. On 30 April, 1830, a first draft of $10,256.04 was sent to Bishop Fenwick and four months later a second one of $5200, "to afford ample help and not to deal out the money in small bits and give relief practically to nobody" (Berichte der Leopoldinen Stiftung, I). The general interest awakened by the society for the American missions not only brought out funds but donations of church utensils, Mass paraphernalia, paintings, statuary, etc. These objects were often donated by members of the imperial house. Directly due to the society were many vocations to the missions from among the priesthood. First amongst these was the Rev. Frederic Baraga, afterwards Bishop of Marquette. His example was followed by [St. John] Neumann (afterwards Bishop of Philadelphia), Hatscher, Sanderl, Viszoczky, Belleis, Pisbach, Hammer, Kundeck, Cvitkovich, Schuh, Levic, Pirec, Skolla, Godec, Krutil, Veranek, Burg, Buchmayr, Bayer, Hasslinger, Count Coudenhove, Mrak (afterwards Bishop of Marquette), Skopec, Etschmann, and many others — all of whom entered the missions before 1850.
The beneficiaries of the society are principally the dioceses in the United States. Among the older ones Cincinnati has been most bountifully considered, but St. Louis, Bardstown, Charleston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Mobile, Boston, Detroit, New York, New Orleans, Nashville, Dubuque, Natchez, Vincennes, Richmond, Pittsburg, Chicago, St. Paul, Hartford, Milwaukee, Marquette, Galveston, Little Rock, received generous support. Then, besides the travelling expenses of the different missionaries and personal aid to them, religious communities were enabled with the society's assistance to send workers to the New World. The society's fund built numerous schools and churches and enabled many a zealous priest to devote his life to the missions, kindling and keeping the light of faith in the hearts of men who otherwise must have lived and died without it. The Leopoldine Society expended upon the American Catholic missions, from 1830 to 1910, the sum of 3,402,211 kronen (about 680,500 dollars). The society still exists and although its collections are small it continues its mission. The contributions chiefly come from the Austrian emperor, the Dioceses of Vienna, Sankt Pölten, Brun, Seckau, Prague, Königgrätz. Eighty-one official reports, "Berichte der Leopoldinen Stiftung", have appeared. These are replete with the struggles and glories of the American missions and missionaries and invaluable for data in the American church history.
Fondazione Leopoldina (Vienna, 1829); Berichte der Leopoldinen Stiftung (Vienna, 1831-1910).
Antoine Ivan Rezek.