If God is For Us: Reflections on Monsignor Joseph Jessing

Pure happenstance brought us to Munster, a university town in rolling German farmland near the Dutch border. Friends that Alice and I were visiting described it as “a very Catholic place.”  We found it a city awash in beer booths celebrating its the annual “Euro Fest.”  To escape the crowds we eventually drifted into a neighborhood of narrow streets and small houses where we came across a bronze plaque indicating that here, at No. 4 Kleiboltengasse, Joseph Jessing was born.

Detail from the plaque in Munster, Germany, marking the birthplace of Monsignor Joseph Jessing.
Detail from the plaque in Munster, Germany, marking the birthplace of Monsignor Joseph Jessing.

As strange as it may seem, I knew of Joseph Jessing.  In the late 1960s I had spent two years studying for the priesthood near Columbus, Ohio, in a seminary once known as “Father Jessing’s place.” During more than 100 years of existence, his Pontifical College Josephinum has provided the Church with more than fifteen hundred Catholic priests. In this “Year of the Priest, “ the story of how a German immigrant came to found one of America‘s best-known seminaries deserves telling.

Joseph Jessing was born the son of a cobbler in Munster, Westphalia, in the year1836. At an early age he was apprenticed as a printer and began studies for the priesthood and also did military service in the Prussian army, where helped by his prodigious size and strong personality, Jessing achieved the rank of lieutenant in the artillery. After several years of interspersing military service with seminary training, he was called up for combat duty during the Prussian/Danish war of 1864 and received several military citations.  Shortly thereafter, with very little resources, Joseph Jessing immigrated to the United States where he concluded his theological studies, although the Cincinnati Archbishop sought to defer his ordination until Jennings paid his seminary debts.  Fortunately he was able to obtain the support of Bishop Sylvester Rosecrans of nearby Columbus, Ohio, and was ordained to the priesthood in the summer of 1870.

For the next several years, Fr. Jessing worked at parish ministry in the river town of Pomeroy, Ohio, where with the help of some Franciscan brothers, he established an orphanage intended “to give a small number of homeless boys a Catholic education.”

Similar Catholic institutions at this time ended their support for orphans at the age of 12 or 13, sending them out to fend for themselves often at the cost of their faith. Jessing, by contrast, insisted on keeping his students until their later teens and provided them with job skills. In 1877, the orphanage was relocated to the state capital at Columbus and expanded to include an industrial school that taught printing, woodcarving, tailoring, shoemaking and farming.

Early on, the resourceful priest distinguished by his extraordinary size and seemingly limitless energy, also founded a German language bi-weekly newspaper, eventually known as the Ohio Waisenfreund (“Ohio Orphans’ Friend) In time his publication, providing him a steady flow of donations, became the most-read German Catholic newspaper in America.

One project led to another. Conscious of the lack of German speaking clergy, Jessing announced in 1888 that he would sponsor two candidates for the priesthood, and was looking for “boys with the desire, talent and intention of studying for priesthood.”  Jessing was inundated with nearly 40 applications. He accepted 23 seminarians and provided for their education at no charge. In the early years, to improve their language skills his seminarians were required to speak only German during a two-week period each month.  Four years later, his growing seminary was accepted by Rome as a papal university, the first institution of its kind to be accredited by the Vatican outside of Italy.   The Pontifical College Josephinum remains the only institution of its kind in the United States.

In appreciation for his labors, Pope Leo XIII elevated Fr. Jessing to the rank of Papal Chamberlain, a role conferring the title of Monsignor. Always proud of his military service, Jessing added to the effect of his red buttons and biretta, by wearing his military medals on his cassock on special occasion. Throughout his ministry, Jessing was animated by his personal motto taken from the writings of St Paul:  “If God is for us, who can be against us.”

A monument to Monsignor Joseph Jessing faces the main entrance of the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio.
A monument to Monsignor Joseph Jessing faces the main entrance of the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio.

Monsignor Jessing was present for the ordination of the first group of priests from his seminary in June 1899, five months before he died.  His obituary published in the New York Times on November 3 of that year indicated that his “school for the industrial education of orphans” was  “one of the largest institutions of the kind in the world.”

During the 2009-2010 Columbian Year we open our meetings by praying to Christ “that your priests may inspire us to strive for holiness by the power of their example.”  In the life and person of Monsignor Joseph Jessing, we find such witness exemplified in a remarkable way.

Larry Mullaly

January 31, 2009