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Detailed biography of Fr. Lissner

The Life of Fr. Ignatius Lissner

SMA First Provincial Superior of the American Province




Early Years

Early year of Fr. Ignatius Lissner

Early year of Fr. Ignatius Lissner

Ignatius Lissner (Ignace is the French form of his name) was born in Wolxheim in the Alsace region of France, on April 6, 1867. Though some points of his biography are unclear, it appears he was the youngest of nine children born to Nicholas and Anna Marie (nee Spehner). Four of the siblings became priests or religious and three of them went on to serve their country as soldiers. Nicholas was a convert from Judaism and of Polish heritage.

For his primary education, young Ignatius attended the minor diocesan seminary of Zillisheim, in Alsace. He completed secondary education (1888-1891) at SMA’s apostolic school at Clermont-Ferrande and was promoted to the SMA major seminary, at Cours Gambetta in Lyon, where he studied philosophy and theology. Ignatius was received as a member of the Society on December 21, 1888 and was ordained a priest in the seminary chapel at Lyons on July 25, 1891.


First Mission Assignment | Top

After ordination, he went to West Africa, to the town of Whydah, in the colony of Dahomey. Some months after his arrival a war erupted between France and Dahomey. Though some of the other priests and nuns in the area escaped to a safer place, Fr. Lissner remained in Whydah where, according to some sources, he was taken hostage by King Behanzin for five months. Eventually, he escaped only to re-enter the town as a chaplain with the French army on December 8, 1892. Little is known for certain about his remaining time in Dahomey except that he built a church at Grand-Popo, which he dedicated to St. Joseph.


First Encounter with the Church in the United States | Top

In March 1897, Fr. Lissner was assigned to raise funds among American and Canadian Catholics for SMA missions in West Africa. He traveled widely in the USA, lecturing in principal cities, and also visited Quebec. From 1899 to 1901, he was assigned to SMA missions in Egypt, but at the end of that term, he returned to North America to create awarness of and raise funds for SMA missions.

For the next five years he gained first-hand knowledge of the Church in the United States which was still considered ‘mission territory’ for Catholicism. Most of the Catholics were poor, illiterate, foreign-born peasants, poorly-instructed in their religion and still adjusting to a new culture. Fr. Lissner became particularly aware of the plight of African-American Catholics.

They were few in numbers and blighted by poverty, racism, religious prejudice and pastoral neglect. Lissner’s arrival in America coincided with a growing concern on the part of Church leaders both in America and Rome about the absence of pastoral care for African-Americans and the fading opportunity for large-scale envangelization in the wake of the Civil War.

Since the 1870’s, efforts had been made to recruit European specialist missionary agencies for what was referred to as the Colored Apostolate, but progress was painfully slow. It was against this background that Bishop Benjamin Kiely of Savannah-Atlanta was informed by Rome that pastoral provision for blacks in his diocese was wholly inadequate and that he should recruit the Society of African Missions to take on the task. Thus it was that on December 17, 1906, Fr. Lissner received a letter from Bishop Kiely offering the exclusive pastoral charge of the diocese’s African-American population to the SMA.


Missioning in America | Top

In January of the following year, two SMA priests – Gustave Obrecht and Joseph Dahlent – under Fr. Lissner’s direction, took leadership of the Church of St. Benedict the Moor in Savannah. Then, Fr. Lissner himself went to Rome where he proposed his plans for establishing missions to serve the black population in the principal cities of Georgia. Receiving the blessing of Pope Pius X, Fr. Lissner returned to America and, along with Alsatian SMAs who came to America to help him, during the next six years, established six churches and seven parochial schools in Georgia:

St Benedict the Moor’s Church, Savannah (1907); Church and School of Immaculate Conception, Augusta (1908); Hatches Station School (1909); Church and School of St. Anthony, Savannah (1909); St. Mary’s School Savannah (1910); Church and School of Our Lady of Lourdes, Atlanta (1912); Church, School and Convent of St. Peter Claver, Macon (1913). Later, in 1926, he founded St. Odilia’s Mission in Los Angeles, while his last foundation, Blessed Martin Porres Mission in Tuscon, Arizona, was established in 1940. None of this was easily accomplished. Apart from the coolness of local clergy and threats from the Klu Klux Klan, there was a chronic shortage of financial resources and personnel to staff the new foundations. Fr. Lissner showed remarkable courage and resilience in the face of all difficulties.


Training Local Nuns and Clergy | Top

In 1916, Fr. Lissner was instrumental, with Mother Theodore Williams, in founding a religious congregation for African-American women, the Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary. Though established in Savannah, this order found it difficult to survive in the South and transferred to New York in the early 1920’s. Fr. Lissner also sought to train black men for the priesthood. He was directly responsible for the education of six African-Americans who became priests, two of whom trained in an inter-racial seminary which he founded at Tenafly, New Jersey in 1921. All six found it extremely difficult to achieve acceptance in America, even in the SMA parishes, and almost all of them were eventually compelled to work in other countries.


A Saintly Friend | Top

During his time in the United States, Fr. Lissner had become acquainted with Mother Katherine Drexel (who was canonized St. Katherine Drexel in 2000), the Philadelphia heiress-turned-nun. They shared a vision in their work and formed a mutually supportive friendship. Like Fr. Lissner, Mother Drexel had a commitment to serving black people and founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, using her substantial family fortune to do good.

She donated money to Fr. Lissner first for his work in Africa and later to help fund the many black mission parishes and schools he established in Georgia. She approved of his goal to open a seminary that would train black priests to serve their own people. In 1921, Mother Drexel provided more than half the money needed to purchase the property in Tenafly where SMA opened its first seminary in America.

St. Anthony’s Mission was the only racially integrated seminary in the country at the time. Fr. Lissner and Mother Drexel remained friends until his death in 1948. In one of her letters to him, she warmly asks for a union between SMA and Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament:


“I have been thinking how good it would be if there could be a union of prayer between your Society and ours, that God will carry on the work of your Fathers and the work of our Sisters by making of each and all of them members according to his own apostolic Heart by the faithful observance of their own Constitutions…” (May 8, 1942).


Seeking New Priests | Top

Fr. Lissner had envisioned the seminary, in part, as a means of staffing the SMA missions in Georgia. When this failed – the seminary closed in 1927 – he realized it would be necessary to rely on the larger SMA for a longer period of time, at least until attitudes had changed and an African-American clergy was permitted to develop.

With the growing responsibilities of SMA in Africa, Fr. Lissner was aware that the American missions could not depend indefinitely on a steady supply of priests from Europe. Though the early years of SMA in the United States saw an influx of priests from Ireland, Fr. Peter Harrington, an Irish SMA priest who had established missions in the diocese of Belleville, Illinois in the early 1920’s, came to similar conclusions regarding the supply of priests.


The Beginning of a New Province | Top

At this time, SMA leaders in Europe favored upgrading the status of SMA in America to the designation of province.America had long been regarded as an important source of finance and, as a province, would have the capacity to recruit and train students for its own missions, both in Africa and at home.

During much of the 1930’s, Fr. Lissner focused on this project. In 1939, a Pro-Province (a Province in everything but name) was established with its own novitiate and major seminary at Silver Spring, Maryland (1938), its own Pro-Provincial (Fr. Lissner) and its administrative Council. The progress of this foundation was satisfactory and within a few years SMA decided to elevate it to full provincial status.


Fr. Lissner Becomes Provincial Superior at Age 74 | Top

On March 7, 1941, the American Province of SMA was officially established. Fr. Lissner, at the age of 74 and with fifty years of priesthood behind him, was appointed the first Provincial. His term of office roughly coincided with American involvement in World War II, and wartime constraints were a constant challenge during these years. Because of the military draft, it was difficult to recruit candidates for SMA.

The logistics of introducing priests from Europe to maintain staffing levels in the seminary and mission-parishes proved equally challenging. Moreover, travel restrictions with the USA made it difficult for the Provincial Council to convene on a regular basis. Nonetheless, Fr. Lissner succeeded in maintaining the existing missions in Georgia, Illinois and Los Angeles, and he also managed to weld the Irish and Alsatian SMA members – so different in culture and background – into a working unit.

He also attracted support for the Province from clergy and laity who had seen and admired his work over decades. Perhaps the most important accomplishment of Lissner’s administration was creating an infrastructure from which a post-War expansion of the Province might proceed. He overcame numerous difficulties, including the destruction of the original Silver Springs seminary by fire in March 1943. His administration not only re-established the seminary but developed a preparatory College and House of Philosophy in Boston. Fr. Lissner served as provincial until April 1946, when ill-health and weariness led him to resign.


Fr. Lissner’s Death and Legacy to the Province | Top

Fr. Lissner spent most of his remaining years in Tenafly where his niece, Eugenie, was near at hand to help him with correspondence and to tend to his infirmities. He died peacefully in Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, New Jersey on August 7, 1948 after a short illness. He was 81 years old. Fr. Lissner was buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery in Tenafly, NJ.

One of his fellow Alsatian SMA’s, Fr.Adolphe J. Gall, summed up Lissner’s life in the eloquent tribute, written almost two decades after Lissners’death.

“Fr. Lissner’s vocation was to work among the Coloured (sic). A gifted builder, he erected many schools, knowing (as he often repeated) that through those schools he would be able to reach out to the children and through them to their parents. But such work called for many sacrifices. The segregation of White and Black was the law of the land in the South. His strong determination to continue this work found opposition from the Klu Klux Klan, some White leaders and local priests and sometimes even from bishops. But Fr. Lissner was a man of steel. He braced himself against all opposition and criticism. Silently he suffered all kinds of injustices and continued tenaciously to preach the Gospel to his people. As superior of the society, his suggestions and orders were straight-forward and often misunderstood or rejected. But time would prove the soundness and fairness of his judgement.”
– Fr. Adolphe J. Gall

The title Apostle of the Negro was conferred on Fr. Lissner in obituary notices and tributes. His leadership of the Society’s American branch was to earn him another title, this time from his colleagues, that of ‘Founder of the Province’.

From the earliest years he had always maintained that the creation of a province was the key to effectively tackling the apostolic mission entrusted to his Society by the Holy See. Fr. Lissner may not always have suffered silently , but he was certainly a man of steel. And it was this quality which made him one of the outstanding figures in the Church’s modern ministry to African-Americans.

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