In Europe, from medieval times on, those who made their living as craftsmen were not trained in craft schools but taken on as pupils by experts in the particular skill. After they had-served for a term as learners (apprentices) and passed the required tests, they went forth as “journeymen” to work as employees of others of the craft. Finally, when they had served this internship and demonstrated their skill, they were advanced to the rank of “masters.” Then they normally established their own workshops and businesses.
This craft system had arisen in a rural and largely agricultural society. The arrival of the industrial revolution in the last century did not result in the abandonment of the European craft tradition as it did in America through the factory system, but it did pose increasing social, economic, and religious problems for the aspiring young tradesmen. Particularly was this true in the German-speaking countries.
Father Adolf Kolping detected this need of working youth, and sought to answer it by establishing Catholic societies for the protection and training of young craftsmen.
Kolping, born near Cologne, Germany, was the son of poor parents. Although by nature inclined to a studious life, he had to learn the craft of shoemaking to support himself. But even though cobblers had a 12-hour workday, Adolf made time to complete his secondary studies and pass on to the universities of Munich and Bonn. More than that, he studied for the priesthood, to which he had experienced an attraction.
Ordained a diocesan priest in 1845 at age 32, Kolping was assigned as a curate in the poor industrial city of Elberfeld. There he saw at firsthand what he, as a craftsman, was especially able to appreciate: the economic, cultural and spiritual needs of novice tradesmen. He met many of them in an Elberfeld youth organization, and discovered that youth societies of the sort could provide a good solution for many problems faced by struggling young skilled laborers.
In 1849, Father Kolping was transferred to the staff of the Cologne Cathedral. It was in Cologne that he developed his plan of multiplying “friendship” societies for junior workingmen. His purpose was to raise the intellectual, social, and spiritual status of working youth, to prepare them to become leading citizens themselves, and thus gradually to raise the quality of the whole working class. Political discussions and religious polemics were forbidden to the members in the local groups; prayer, study and self-improvement were the staples.
As the idea proved to work, Kolping established branch societies in many other German cities, and in Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. Many local societies had their own residences or “Kolping Houses,” where a loving home atmosphere was maintained. There the working residents and journeymen en route knew they would find a ready welcome. In the nineteenth century, the organization was carried abroad from Cologne to Australia, South Africa, and the Americas.
In the USA the first Kolping societies were organized in 1859. The organizers were usually German immigrants. The “Kolping Family” membership has three sections: married men, a ladies’ auxiliary, and the young-adult group. Each unit is governed by a priest director, subject to the central director in Cologne. The American Kolping Families continue to be largely German in orientation. Worldwide, the societies now number 3500, in 38 countries, with an international membership of 370,000. About 20 of these Families are in the United States. (A leader in the Rochester branch was the late Leo Saeum of St. Thomas the Apostle parish.)
Fr. Adolf Kolping, devout and hard-working, is reminiscent of St. Vincent de Paul, in that he brought forth a pragmatic spiritual response to perceived social needs. The young German workers of his day needed encouragement and spiritual guidance. Convinced that “religion and work are the golden foundation of the people,” he provided that foundation, and his institute helped countless workers to become conscientious, well-educated, and responsible citizens.
Since Fr. Kolping’s death, his tomb in Cologne’s Minoriten (Franciscan) Church has been a center of pilgrimage, and his devotees have appropriately prayed for his canonization. Their prayer was partly granted on October 27, 1991, when Pope John Paul II beatified Fr. Adolf as Blessed Adolf Kolping. Rochester’s Kolping Family was represented at the ceremony.
Since 1991, the devotees of this great social leader have been working for his canonization.
–Father Robert F. McNamara