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Emerson, Thoreau, and the Walk for Hunger

In 1837, an economic bust hit New York, impoverishing many. A family of hard-working bakers responded by giving their bread away to the hungry. They were the Hecker brothers, and the youngest of them, 18-year-old Isaac, was changed forever by the experience. His story, beginning with that gift of bread, continues this coming Sunday as 40,000 people embark on the 31st annual Walk for Hunger in Boston. Few of those walkers will have heard of Hecker, but they should know of the links joining their act of generosity to that family's and to Isaac Hecker's lifelong pursuit of what he called ''the greatest, noblest, bravest dream of New England.'' More than a century and a half ago, that dream brought him to Boston, into the brightest circle of this city, and ultimately it led to the founding of the Walk for Hunger, this city's finest public moment.

The dream to which Hecker referred was the Transcendentalist experiment at Brook Farm, the utopian community in West Roxbury that embodied the ideals of Orestes Brownson, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Hecker was 24 by the time he arrived at Brook Farm in 1843, seeking a way of life that was at once spiritually attuned and socially responsible. Hecker put his skills as a baker at the service of the commune, which numbered almost 100 people. Dubbed ''Earnest the Seeker'' by his confreres, Hecker's quest took him to Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands in the town of Harvard and then to a room in Thoreau's house in Concord. In 1844, Hecker became a Roman Catholic, a decision that, according to his biographer David J. O'Brien, ''puzzled'' Emerson and ''amused'' Thoreau.

To mark his life's turning point, Hecker resolved to walk across Europe, and he asked Thoreau to join him, saying: '''Tis impossible, Sir. Therefore we do it.'' O'Brien records that Thoreau declined because he was only recently back from what he called his ''pedestrian excursion'' through the Catskill and Berkshire mountains. Hecker never took his walk through Europe, but soon he was studying in Belgium for the Catholic priesthood. Eventually he returned to his beloved America and founded its first order of Catholic priests. His twofold idea was to bring to America an open Catholicism that would shatter the bigotry of America's anti-Catholic Nativists and bring to the Catholic Church an American regard for the individual. Hecker was a new kind of Catholic and a new kind of American, and the order he founded embodied his spirit. They are the Paulists.

A bit more than a century later, a young Boston College graduate named Patrick Hughes joined the Paulists, falling completely under the spell of Isaac Hecker. I was a Paulist classmate of Pat's, and when we were ordained, we came to Boston together, to the Paulist Center on Park Street in the very heart of the Boston that Emerson and his circle so loved. Few realized how deeply into the treasured culture of this city the Paulist roots were sunk, but before long Pat would powerfully and publicly embody the spirit of Isaac Hecker - that concern for the hungry, that wish to combine the spiritual and the socially responsible, that unapologetically American way of being Catholic.

In 1969, Pat organized the first Walk for Hunger. Two thousand people responded to raise $26,000, which was divided between two antihunger efforts. Since then the Paulist Center has served as the nerve center of the walk, although its organization has long been institutionalized as Project Bread, a nonprofit founded in 1974. Over the years, more than $40 million has been raised. This Sunday, an anticipated 40,000 walkers are expected to raise $3 million more, and nearly 350 soup kitchens and food pantries will benefit.

A young Isaac Hecker was shocked in 1837 that people around him were going hungry. With his brothers, he did something about it. That experience gave shape to his life. Pursuing a path that took him through the heart of American idealism as enshrined in Boston, he set something in motion that continues to this day. There are the Paulist esprit, which still joins the American dream to Catholic genius, and the Paulist Center, which worthily occupies a precious spot on the Freedom Trail. There is the memory of Patrick Hughes, an earnest seeker who inspired everyone he met. And there is the ultimate ''pedestrian excursion'' of the Walk for Hunger. If Emerson and Thoreau were alive this week to see it cross their city, they would be neither puzzled nor amused, although wouldn't they be shocked that hunger still stalks this nation? That one in five children, even in Massachusetts, according to a 1999 federal study, is hungry or at risk of hunger?

''What in these desponding days,'' Emerson asked in his Divinity School address, ''can be done by us?'' And he answered, ''Wherever a man comes, there comes revolution.... Man is the wonderworker.'' To those who, with despairing fatalism, doubt that a mere act of walking can change this outrageous social order, Emerson and Thoreau would surely say, finally, with Isaac Hecker, Pat Hughes, and Project Bread: '''Tis impossible, Sir. Therefore we do it.''

© 2021 Boston Globe
James Carroll

James Carroll

James Carroll a former Boston Globe columnist, is the author of 20 books, including the new novel "The Cloister" (Doubleday). Among other works are:  "Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age." His memoir, "An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us," won the National Book Award. His 2021 book is "The Truth at the Heart of the Lie: How the Catholic Church Lost Its Soul." He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He lives in Boston with his wife, the writer Alexandra Marshall.

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