St. Arnold Janssen – Founder of the Society of the Divine Word

On October 5, 2003, at the Vatican before some 30,000 people, Pope John Paul II declared Arnold Janssen a Saint of the Church. What was so special about this man that he would be so honored? One might say he was really a very ordinary man, a simple priest, but one who followed his vocation in a totally committed and extraordinary way.

St. Arnold Janssen - Founder of the Society of the Divine WordArnold Janssen was the second son born to Gerhard and Anna Katharina Janssen. He grew up in a devoted Catholic family of seven children, five brothers and two sisters. His father was a freight hauler, a man of deep faith who educated his children to think beyond their own limited world-view and be aware of the missionary needs of the Church around the world. Their family prayer included a nightly rosary which was followed by the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

As a young man, Arnold developed an early interest in the natural sciences. He went on to study in this field and qualified to be a high school teacher. Having completed these studies, he went on to study theology and was ordained a diocesan priest for the Diocese of Muenster on August 15, 1861. His first assignment was to teach in a secondary school in Bocholt.

After twelve years at his post, he became restless and wanted to devote himself more toward issues of the Universal Church. He first did this through the printed word with his Little Messenger of the Sacred Heart with its focus on news of the missions and what Germans might do to promote mission activities. This quickly became a popular monthly magazine amongst Catholics. Arnold became more acutely aware that there was no German mission-sending religious society and wanted to see that need filled. This is where his deep faith in Divine Providence showed itself. He was determined to found a German mission-sending society at a time when anti-Catholic laws in Germany forbade such religious schools. At one point, Arnold went with some Ursuline nuns to visit J. A. Paredis, Bishop of Roermond, to discuss his plans. The Bishop’s comment after the visit was, “He wants to build a mission house and he is penniless. He’s either a fool or a saint.”

On Sept. 8, 1875, with only three candidates, little money, and a run-down inn which he was able to purchase just across the German border in Steyl, Holland, Arnold founded his mission seminary and a religious order, to be named “The Society of the Divine Word,” honoring that special devotion he had developed in his childhood with those evening recitations of St. John’s Prologue with his family. The beginning was difficult, with his first few candidates leaving, but eventually, more and more candidates came, joined and stayed. He steadily guided this new Society for 34 years and quickly expanded it to include religious brothers. Arnold also helped co-found the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters (SSpS) and the Holy Spirit Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (SSpSAP).

Arnold’s dream proceeded with a speed that probably surprised even him. At his death in 1909, the missionary societies that he had founded had over 1,500 priests, brothers, Missionary and Adoration Sisters working in the missions in China, Italy, Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Papua New Guinea, U.S., Chile, Japan and the Philippines. Today those societies number over ten-thousand members in nearly 70 countries. The dream of a determined ordinary priest has been realized.

  • November 5, 1837 – Arnold Janssen is born in Goch, Germany.
  • 1849 to 1861 – A time of studies at the minor seminary at Gaesdonck, mathematics and natural sciences at Bonn University, theological studies at Münster.
  • August 15, 1861 – Ordained a priest for the Münster Diocese.
  • 1861 to 1873 – High school teacher of mathematics and natural sciences (Bocholt).
  • 1869 – Director of the Apostleship of Prayer in Münster.
  • 1873 to 1875 – Chaplain for the Ursulin sisters in Kempen.
  • January 1874 – Begins publishing the magazine, Little Messenger of the Sacred Heart.
  • September 8, 1875 – Opens the Mission seminary in Steyl, Netherlands.
  • 1877 – Opens the Mission House for retreats, thus promoting the lay retreat movement.
  • March 2, 1879 – Sends the first two SVD missionaries to China, Fr. John B. Anzer, SVD, and Fr. Joseph Freinademetz, SVD.
  • December 8, 1889 – Co-founds the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Spirit.
  • December 1896 – Co-founds the cloistered sisters, Missionary Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit of Perpetual Adoration.
  • 1889 to 1909 – Period of expansion of missionary work to Argentina (1889); Togo (1892); Brazil (1895); New Guinea (1896); Chile (1900); U.S.A. (1900); Japan (1906); Paraguay (1908); Philippines (1909).
  • January 15, 1909 – Arnold Janssen dies at Steyl, Netherlands.
  • October 19, 1975 – Arnold Janssen is beatified in Rome by Pope Paul VI.
  • October 5, 2003 – Arnold Janssen is canonized by Pope John Paul II.