Priest who founded German Catholic societies for young men; b. 1813, d. 1865
Gesellenvereine, German Catholic societies for the religious, moral, and professional improvement of young men. They owe their origin and present condition to Adolph Kolping, surnamed the Journey-men’s Father (Gesellenvater). He was born December 8, 1813, of poor parents, and, though he gave early evidence of inclination to study, he was obliged to learn the trade of a shoemaker. As a poor young workman, he became acquainted with the disadvantages suffered by men of his class on their journeys, in factories, and in city lodging-houses. At the age of twenty-three Kolping felt drawn to the priesthood, but reached that goal only in 1845, after years of patient study amidst troubles, privations, and sickness. He was first sent as chaplain to Elberfeld, where a number of journey-men carpenters had founded a choral society with the aid of a teacher and the local clergy. It grew rapidly into a Young Workmen’s Society with the acknowledged object of fostering the religious life by means of a closer union among its members, and at the same time of improving their mechanical skill. Kolping frequently addressed the members on subjects of interest to mechanics. He was elected president in 1847, and soon gave to the association the features that have since been distinctive of the Gesellenverein, or Society of Young Journeymen. Hitherto little attention had been paid to this class of workmen. Kolping recognized that, to uplift them morally and socially, it was advisable to establish a widespread organization of similar societies. Its first fruits could not fail to be a respectable body of master-workmen. He resolved to make Cologne, one of the great industrial centers of Germany, the seat of his life-work in this direction. In 1849 he was appointed assistant-priest at the cathedral of that city. With a few zealous friends, ecclesiastics and laymen, he founded at once a Gesellenverein, and began to instruct its members gratuitously on various subjects. The Cologne society soon acquired its own home, and opened therein a refuge, or hospice, for young traveling journeymen. In his efforts to develop the work Kolping was energetic and undaunted. He was eloquent both as speaker and writer. Filled with the zeal of an apostle, he visited frequently the great industrial centers of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Hungary. His propaganda bore good fruit, and in a short time societies of young Catholic journeymen were formed in many Rhenish towns, in Westphalia, and finally throughout the German-speaking world. When Kolping died (December 4, 1865), the Gesellenverein numbered about 400 branch unions. In 1901 they had reached the number of 1086, with a membership of 80,000 journeymen and 120,000 master-workmen. There are at present more than 1170 unions affiliated to the Central Union at Cologne. Of these there are in Prussia and Northern Germany 505, in Bavaria 222, in the rest of Germany 134. There are 263 in Austria and Hungary, 34 in Switzerland, 8 in Holland, 2 in Luxemburg, 2 in Brussels, 2 at Paris, 1 each in London, Stockholm, Rustchuk (Bulgaria), and Rome. About 360 unions own their own houses—over 220 in Germany, and 90 in Austria-Hungary. There are a general burial fund (established 1904), about 195 local sick funds, besides the general fund, and a general fund to aid traveling journeymen.
These societies or unions aim, in general, at the moral, mental, and professional improvement of young German Catholic journeymen, apprentices, etc. (Gesellen). They develop and cultivate in them strong religious principles and civic virtue. The result is a large and united body of self-respecting and respected master-workmen, distributed over all parts of Germany and throughout the lands bordering on the German Empire. Persuaded that the middle classes can thrive only when they repose on a basis of religion and practical faith, the Gesellenverein cultivates assiduously the religious and moral sense of its members. The entire organization exists primarily for this purpose. There is a quarterly general Communion, and the Easter Communion is preceded by a retreat, or brief spiritual preparation. On Sundays and great holidays special Mass is said for the members of the society. Lectures are given on Sunday evenings by clergymen and laymen; the subjects treated are quite varied, ranging from religious topics to the purely instructive or entertaining. Non-religious festivities, such as excursions, theatricals, evening entertainments, and the like, are allowed, but in moderation, lest they should develop in the members that excessive love of amusement which characterizes modern youth. Since 1890 much attention has been paid to the instruction of members in technical, industrial, and mercantile subjects (538 unions in 1908). Besides providing for Christian doctrine, the societies conduct classes in book-keeping, arithmetic, drawing, literary composition, music, natural sciences, etc. In the larger cities there are free classes in several crafts, e.g., for bakers, tailors, carpenters, workers in metal, painters, shoemakers. This instruction is designed especially for those workmen who aim at establishing a business of their own. Frequently, in the large cities, these classes are attached to local technical and industrial schools, municipal or governmental.
In its organization the Verein contains patriarchal, monarchical, and ecclesiastical elements. In accordance with the “general statute” which Kolping framed and which, with various modifications, is still in force, each Verein conducts its own affairs as local circumstances require, yet always with a regard for the general principles of the organization. At the head of each is a Catholic priest, whose control is supreme. He is nominated by the diocesan “Praeses” (president) after consultation with the local authorities, and is appointed by the bishop. He is assisted by a board of managers composed partly of citizens actively interested in the work and partly of members chosen by the Verein. The diocesan president acts as intermediary between the bishop and the Vereins, organizes meetings, holds conferences, etc. In Bavaria, Saxony, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, there is, besides the diocesan president, a “central” president, and in Hungary a “federation” president. All these associations are united in the “Catholic Gesellenverein” under the headship of a president general, who, according to Kolping’s enactment, is always the president of the local Verein in Cologne. On account of the importance of this position, the presidents of Vimna, Munich, Breslau, and Munster take part in the election. As a rule, only unmarried Catholic journeymen between the ages of 17 and 25 are admitted after three months’ probation—to regular membership. Those who are married or have completed their apprenticeship are retained on the list of honorary or extraordinary members. No member is allowed to join any association whose aims are opposed to those of the Verein. Each member of a local Verein is at the same time member of all the federated societies; hence the importance of the federation as a whole.
The discussion of political matters and every kind of religious polemic are forbidden in the local Verein. Ample provision is made for the material welfare of the members. Each Verein must secure suitable quarters where its members can assemble at evening, especially on Sundays and festivals, for instruction and social enjoyment. The hospices (over 400 in number) provide board and lodging for resident work-men at an exceedingly moderate cost, and for journey-men gratuitously until they find work. In places where there is no regular hospice, the local Verein secures proper accommodation for journeymen in houses under its control. Excellent service has also been rendered in the way of providing employment, establishing funds for the care of the sick, and opening accounts for savings. The principal publication is the “Kolpingsblatt”, which appears weekly at Cologne in an edition of 45,000 copies.
The objects for which Kolping strove have been realized to a remarkable degree, as is evident from the wide development of the work he founded. “The Gesellenverein”, says Schaffer, “has extended over hundreds of thousands its protective influence, teaching the ignorant, arousing the lukewarm, filling the timid with earnestness and self-respect, strengthening the weak and saving them from the perils to which so many workmen, especially through the efforts of social democracy, are everywhere exposed”. These societies are among the few institutions of Catholic origin which have been appreciated, commended, and even imitated by Protestants. The latter, however, have enrolled but a small number of workmen.
Owing to special conditions the Gesellenverein has so far shown but little signs of development in the United States. The almost total absence of the old trades’ organization (apprentice, journeyman, master) in the country, the reluctance of the young artisans to travel from place to place, and the phenomenal development of the factory system have prevented the growth of these societies. To this may be added the fact that efforts to create the Gesellenverein have been made by the German Catholics only. Branches of the Gesellenverein exist in Dayton, O., Paterson, N. J., Chicago, Ill., St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minn., and in New York. The membership varies from 40 (Paterson) to 450 (Dayton). The Dayton branch has a library of 3500 books. All these branches are affiliated to the society at New York, in close relation with the central authority in Germany.