The pilgrimage saint

How Jan Dvořák became Clement Hofbauer and a Catholic saint is a complex story. He was born in 1751 in the small town of Tasovice in what was then Moravia, and is today the Czech Republic, almost 200 kilometres from Prague.

How Jan Dvořák became Clement Hofbauer and a Catholic saint is a complex story. He was born in 1751 in the small town of Tasovice in what was then Moravia, and is today the Czech Republic, almost 200 kilometres from Prague.

His father Pavel Dvořák, a butcher, changed the Slavic form of the family name to its German equivalent, Hofbauer. Both names mean the same, ‘farmer,’ but in Clement’s homeland, German and the local Slav dialect were used interchangeably. Switching from one language to another was to be normal for Jan/Clement.

The ninth of 12 children, his father died when he was six, and although Jan felt the desire to become a priest from childhood, his family’s poverty meant he had to go to work from an early age. After finishing his apprenticeship as a baker, he was employed by the Premonstratensian canons of Brück (Catholic Order founded in 1120). He remained there until he was 24, when he tried becoming a hermit. His days as a hermit, however, did not last long, after the government abolished all hermitages in the Habsburg Empire.

Jan also had a passion for long-distance pilgrimages. He walked the 1,000 kilometres each way to Rome and back four times in his life. On the third occasion, he tried the hermit’s life again near Tivoli, about fifty kilometres from Rome, changing his name to Clement Mary in memory of the pope of that name.

He stayed only six months, for his desire for priesthood had not waned, and he would be Clement for ever. He returned home and began studies at the University of Vienna. When he had finished his philosophy course, disappointment struck again, for the Emperor forbade religious orders to accept new candidates.

Once again, Clement took the road to Rome, accompanied this time by his friend, Thaddäus Hübl, who shared many of the same ambitions. They wandered into a small church run by an unknown religious community called the Redemptorists, founded in the South of Italy some fifty years earlier. They applied to join and were professed in 1785. They immediately began studying for the priesthood. Within a few months of ordination, they were on the road again, with instructions to plant the new order north of the Alps.

In February 1787, they reached Warsaw, and were given charge of St Benno’s Church to work with the German-speaking congregation – another mix of languages, German in the church and Polish outside. By 1800, the community had grown to 21 priests, seven brothers, five novices and four students for the priesthood. In addition to the church work from early morning until late at night, they ran an orphanage, a school for boys while a group of women ran a school for girls.

The Napoleonic Wars brought new difficulties for Clement and his brethren. The faithful Hübl died in 1806, and in June 1808, St Benno’s was closed and the 40 Redemptorists jailed. After a short imprisonment of four weeks, they were ordered to return to their homelands. Clement gave Fr Joseph Passerat charge of the young men, and for the next 12 years, a homeless band of Redemptorists wandered through Bavaria and Switzerland looking for a permanent home.

With one companion, Clement went to Vienna, where, as chaplain to community of nuns, he gained a reputation as a powerful preacher and compassionate confessor. He became a favourite especially with young intellectuals and artists. They came to his small apartment to talk, share a meal, or get advice. Several of them later became Redemptorists, including one, Frederick von Held, who travelled to Ireland.

All the time, Clement was struggling to gain recognition for his congregation. He was threatened several times with expulsion, but providence took a hand. In the course of a visit to Rome, the Emperor Francis II was informed by Pope Pius VII how much the work of Fr Hofbauer was appreciated.

The Emperor agreed to give him a church in Vienna and signed the decree of approval of the congregation. It was too late for Clement, but it was laid on his coffin. The Redemptorists were given charge of one of the oldest churches in the city, Maria am Gestade. Clement’s remains were transferred there in 1862. He was canonised in 1909, and three years later, was acclaimed as patron of Vienna.

St Clement’s feast is March 15.