The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century – Servant of God Henry Thyssen

Servant of God Henry ThyssenThe Servant of God Henry Thyssen, whose process of beatification is in progress, was a member of the Order of Saint Francis. He was a son of the Rhineland and was born in the small town of Gangelt in the district of Geilenkirchen on 5 December 1755. His parents were of the common people, his father being sexton of the parish church. Henry was marked in his earliest years by his piety, shown particularly in his behavior at church. Seeing in this a sign that God called him to the priesthood, his parents determined to permit him to study.

Not far from Gangelt is the little Dutch town of Sittard, where a Latin school, conducted by the Dominicans, offered the youth of the country around a convenient opportunity for study. Young Thyssen lived with a family who were acquainted with his parents, going home for Sundays. It is said that he became one of the best in the school both for virtue and piety and for progress in studies. He was especially distinguished for his mastery of Latin. Among his schoolmates he was much beloved on account of his cheerful and sociable character.

After completing his classics in 1775, Thyssen asked admission into the Franciscan Order. He made his novitiate at Erkelenz. This was a period of the greatest happiness to him and the fervor with which he gave himself to prayer and to all kinds of mortification really needed restraint. Experience proved how solid was the foundation of his virtue.

The novitiate lasted a year and then Henry made his philosophical and theological studies at Louvain. While here he conceived a desire for the heathen missions. But Europe was to give him all the privations of heathen lands and to send him souls in plenty to be gained for Christ.

After ordination to the priesthood in 1780, Father Thyssen was at first employed in the monastery of Herenthals. Two years later the confidence of his superiors called him to lecture on theology at Antwerp. He also gave great assistance in the care of souls, for which a particular opportunity was given him in the arrival of German troops when Belgium revolted against the supremacy of Austria.

Soon the French Revolution triumphantly invaded Belgium. The first assault was aimed at the monasteries. In January 1797, the Franciscans of the monastery at Antwerp were dispersed by the French soldiers. Father Thyssen found a hiding-place in the house of a friendly family. The cellar was turned into a chapel and here many regularly gathered for the reception of the sacraments. The revolutionists made efforts to discover the servant of God, but the angel of God watched over him. Once, while Father Thyssen was bringing the Holy Viaticum in a large milk-can to a dying man he was stopped by the police and asked whether he knew where Father Thyssen was. He replied fearlessly, “Oh yes. I think you can see him at the end of the street,” and the servants of the law hurried on full of hope to find their victim.

Two years afterward priests could appear again in public at Antwerp. The house of the Franciscans had been destroyed, but a pious lady placed her house at their disposal and a few of the fathers at least could live here together. They distributed themselves among the various churches of the city to re-establish the kingdom of God. Father Thyssen labored with some of the old members of the suppressed Society of Jesus at the church of Saint Charles, which had formerly belonged to the Society. Here he remained till the end of his life. His heart’s desire to endure suffering and hardships for Christ was abundantly gratified.

His labors were crowned with the greatest success. His life reads like that of Saint Philip Neri. In his preaching and in the confessional he was a masterly director of souls. He went out into the city to find and arouse the negligent and to bring consolation and alms to the poor. He paid particular attention to prisoners and to soldiers and sailors. He might often be seen leading sailors from the docks to Saint Charles to hear their confessions. Again he would be surrounded by a crowd of children, whom he instructed in the truths of salvation. The fervor of his love of God showed on every occasion. Whenever God was spoken of his eyes filled with tears. “The father who weeps during the sermon” he was called throughout the city. At Holy Mass his emotion was so great that the sacred vestments were moistened with his tears, and when he arrived at the Canon he was obliged to force himself to proceed. After Mass he had to go out into the open air to cool his heart, and this was the case even in the winter. While meditating on heavenly things he was frequently so absorbed that he did not know what was going on about him. The miracles related of him are very numerous. When he died, on 31 March 1844, people immediately began to invoke him in all their necessities and his compassionate heart gave prompt answer to their prayers.

– this text is taken from The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century: Saintly Men and Women of Our Own Times, by Father Constantine Kempf, SJ; translated from the German by Father Francis Breymann, SJ; Impimatur by + Cardinal John Farley, Archbishop of New York, 25 September 1916