Fr. Leo John Dehon, founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, was born on March 14, 1843. The date is celebrated as “Founder’s Day” by SCJ communities throughout the world.
Born into a French aristocratic family, Fr. Dehon earned degrees in science and law before entering the French seminary in Rome. There, he earned three more degrees (philosophy, theology and canon law) and served as a stenographer at the First Vatican Council after ordination in 1868.
His first priestly assignment was as an associate pastor in the blue-collar industrial town of Saint Quentin, France. Most of the town’s 35,000 people worked long hours in the local factories for minimal pay. They were Catholic, but generally in name only, preferring not to go to a church that seemed out of touch with their lives.
It was there that Fr. Dehon realized that it wasn’t enough for the Church to simply offer Mass and administer the sacraments. Priests needed to get out of the sacristy and go to the people.
And so he did. Fr. Dehon founded Christian social and educational organizations, a Catholic youth club and a daily newspaper. He brought factory owners, workers and public officials together to jointly create a positive change for the working class. He developed a diocesan bureau of social service ministers, a forerunner of today’s Catholic Charities.
In addition to all of these activities, any one of which could have claimed his full attention, Fr. Dehon carried on the normal activities of his parish ministry. Somewhere, he also found time to serve as chaplain to a sisters community.
But he still desired more. He wanted to become a member of a religious community. Yet he also felt a commitment to the many projects he had begun. His bishop offered him a proposal. He would support Fr. Dehon in the founding of a religious community if the community would open a Catholic high school.
In 1878 Fr. Dehon established the Priests of the Sacred Heart. The community’s first apostolate was that high school that the bishop requested. But Fr. Dehon’s dream was to have a religious community devoted to spreading the love of the Sacred Heart, and through that love, reaching out to the most desperate and needy. That was the goal to which he devoted his life.
In the first ten years there were 60 professed members in the community. After 20 there were 130 and on the 50th anniversary of its founding the congregation had almost 1,000 members. The community now has ministries in over 40 countries and continues to grow.
Looking back over his life, Fr. Dehon wrote, “I have been led by Divine Providence to plow many furrows but two in particular will leave an indelible mark: Christian social action and the life of love and reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”