Catholic Central Union of America

Catholic Central Union of America

David A. Lossos, updated February 9, 2000

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In February of 2000 I visited the CCUA (Catholic Central Union of America). At the time of it's founding, in 1855, it was referred to as the Central Verein. The CCUA is housed in an old three story building (former home) very near the St. Louis University campus. It's been there since 1908 in St. Louis. The address is 3835 Westminster Place, St. Louis, MO 63108. The phone is (314) 371-1653. I spoke with the Director, Rev. John H. Miller, C.S.C. The Librarian, Mr. Robert Smith, was kind enough to take my wife and I on a tour of the stacks of holdings that they have onsite. They have an entire section that is devoted to "antique" books, dating back to the 1600s. In the basement is housed a large collection of microfilm, along with a microfilm reader for patron use. I was very impressed with the friendliness of the entire staff.

The library holdings are predominately devoted to sociology, history, economics, philosophy, and theology. But there is a huge collection that is mostly Catholic-Americana with German-American history. Fr. Miller mentioned that their records are most complete for the time period of the 1930-40s during which there were many displaced St. Louisians of German descent.

Here's what their brochure states:

THE CATHOLIC CENTRAL UNION (Verein) of America was the first nationwide association of Catholic men's societies in the United States. Primarily through the efforts of the benevolent societies affiliated with German-American parishes in Rochester and Buffalo, after receiving the cordial endorsement and approval of the Most Reverend John Timon, Bishop of Buffalo, a general meeting was called in Baltimore on April 15, 1855. This first national convention was attended by the delegates of 17 benevolent societies from various states of the Union.

The letter of invitation dispatched by the Buffalo societies to the other societies stated that the new association was to be formed "for the promotion of Catholic interests, temporal and spiritual, and the zealous practice in common of Christian virtue and works of charity." More specifically, these pioneers sought to spread the knowledge and the love of God, to promote self-help among the German-Catholic new-comers to this country, to champion the rights of the oppressed, and to help effect a Christian reconstruction of society. Furthermore, they aimed to unite and federate the benevolent societies established in the German-American parishes, to help German immigrants withstand the then rampant fierce attacks of their radical countrymen, to safeguard the Faith and the rights of Catholics, especially against the attacks of the insidious Know-Nothing Movement, and to combat racial and religious prejudice.

The outbreak of the Civil War and the trials of the subsequent Era of Reconstruction to some extent hindered the growth of the Central Union, but a report issued twenty years after the founding of the association indicates that during this period over five million dollars were distributed in sick and death benefits to the members of affiliated societies.

From its very inception, the CCUA ardently championed the cause of the parochial school, and in fact expressly stipulated that every member was required to send his children to a Catholic school, if available. Affiliated societies actually founded schools in some localities before a parish had been organized or a church built.

Among its other activities, it was instrumental in establishing societies to erect and support orphanages and homes for the aged; founding German language newspapers and magazines (scarcely one was established without the assistance of the Central Union or its members); assisting in the care of German immigrants; opposing racial or religious prejudice in any form; sponsoring pilgrimages to Rome and to various shrines in Europe, and inaugurating discussions and studies of the Social

Question in the light of the pronouncements of the Roman Pontiffs. The latter activity was undertaken, at a time, at the turn of the century, when the existence of the Social Question was denied by most Americans, Catholics included.

In 1908, heedful of the call of Pope St. Pius X "to restore all things in Christ," the Central Union established in St. Louis, the Central Bureau, to coordinate and to foster the works of Catholic Action and to help build a Christian Social Order. The CCUA Committee on Social Action was established at this time to care for the Central Bureau.

As a tribute to the ideals and principles of the Central Union, it received the mandate for Catholic Action from the American Bishops in 1936.

In the early 1890s, it was decided that in the interest of better organization and of greater prestige, it would be more advantageous to form State Branches, which it did.

To summarize, the Catholic Central Union of America is:

1. The oldest association of Catholic men's societies in the United States; founded in 1855.

2. The first organization to receive the mandate for Catholic Action from the American Hierarchy; received in 1936.

3. The first Catholic organization in the United States to make one of its primary objectives the study of the Papal Encyclicals and their practical application to the affairs of men.

4. The first Catholic organization in the United States to acknowledge the existence of the Social Question and a pioneer in its study and the promotion of Catholic Social Action.

5. The first Catholic organization to take part in the struggle for Catholic private schools.


Further insight into this organization and it's collection of information comes from The Catholic Ancestry of Saint Louis (pages 36-38):

"The German Catholic community grew rapidly in the last half of the nineteenth century, thanks in part to the heavy immigration caused by Prussian Chancellor Bismarck's restrictions on the freedom of Catholics in the newly-formed German Empire.

Many outstanding priests of German-American background served the city during the ensuing years. Three deserve recognition here: Monsignor John J. Tannrath, who was named Vice-Chancellor of the Archdiocese by Archbishop Kain and Chancellor by Archbishop Glennon; Father John E. Rothensteiner, archivist of the Catholic Historical Society of Saint Louis, author of numerous articles and of a two-volume history of the archdiocese; and Monsignor Frederick G. Holweck, historian, scholar, liturgist, canon lawyer, and writer of books and articles, who was pastor of Saint Francis de Sales Church at the time when it was the pivotal parish of South Saint Louis, and who later was named Vicar General.

The "emerging laymen" of the twentieth century have outstanding exemplars in nineteenth century Saint Louisans of Germanic background. The conversion of Doctor Edward Pruess played a great part in the intellectual advancement of the Catholic community locally and nationally. He had been a prominent Lutheran theologian. He had written vigorously and intelligently against certain trends in the contemporary Catholic Church. On becoming a Catholic, he edited Amerika, a German language daily paper, for many years. Edward Pruess had three sons who became priests, and a fourth, Arthur, who gained prominence as a lay theologian. Arthur Pruess succeeded his father as editor of Amerika, edited the Fortnightly Review for many years, and translated and published theological works.

Frederick P. Kenkel succeeded Arthur Pruess as editor-in-chief of the German-language daily paper, Amerika, early in this century. Like his predecessor, he was of Protestant ancestry. He spent his spare time, without salary or compensation, as director of the Central Verein from 1908 to 1921. This "hobby" included editing the Central-Blatt-Social ]ustice Review. During the forty-two years of his editorship, he gradually changed it from a German language to an English language magazine of exceptional social and historical content.

The Central Verein had always been a federation of men's societies. Yet for many years it had a loose affiliation with the Christian Mothers' Union. Further, the wives of members attended and participated in local and national conventions. With women's suffrage growing in Western states, it is not surprising that in 1914 the farseeing Kenkel recommended the establishment of a women's branch affiliated with the Central Verein. The ladies enthusiastically endorsed his recommendation and began the National Catholic Women's Union in 1916. Kenkel also started a young people's section.

Shortly after the General Convention in San Antonio in September, 1920, Kenkel yielded to the pleading of the Leaders of the Central Verein and the committee for social action to devote his full time to the efforts of that organization.

Steeped in the social teaching of the Church as taught by Pope Leo XIII, Kenkel guided the Central Verein into paths of social action at a time when most Catholic Americans had not yet developed a social consciousness. Although he considered himself a "conservative Catholic," his criticism of capitalism sounds radical even at this late day. He saw the twin shipwrecks of Extreme Socialism and Rugged Individualism long before Pope Pius XI wrote Quadragesimo Anno. As part of the social action program, a widespread successful drive for the promotion of parish credit unions began under the direction of Henry Jacobsmeyer. This was unquestionably one of the Central Verein's most significant social achievements.

Historian Colman Barry, O.S.B., writing in Books on Trial stated: "The Central Verein has been in the forefront in defining and applying social principles in the United States. Its effect on German Catholics . . . and their achievements has been outstanding." (Books on Trial, Vol. 13, No. I, Ma), 1955, p. 350). A great share of the credit belongs to Saint Louisan, Frederick P. Kenkel.

Some German parishes of Saint Louis were to become centers of a significant development in the liturgical apostolate. Likewise, several took significant steps in development of church architecture.

Despite misunderstanding and stress, the German Catholics of Saint Louis have had an amazing record of achievement, not only in their own archdiocese, but throughout the nation. They justify the theory that a gradual assimilation works well. No one can deny the strength of Catholicism in the Archdiocese of Saint Louis. Catholics of German-American background form a significant element in that strength.