The History of SVD

Founded in 1875 by St. Arnold Janssen, the Society of the Divine Word is the largest international missionary congregation in the Catholic Church. Today, our steady growth and our unique multicultural emphasis embody the vision and charism of the young German diocesan priest who planted the seed of our mission over a hundred and twenty-five years ago.

Take a few moments to read these highlights of our society’s history and learn more about us.

A high school teacher of math and science, Fr. Arnold also had a keen interest in prayer, the printed word and the missions. These things combined to promote interest in and the establishment of a German mission-sending society – one that would prepare young men to serve the Church globally in areas where the Gospel had yet to be preached.

From a humble beginning on September 8, 1875, in Steyl, Holland, our Society of the Divine Word grew quickly. In less than four years, Fr. Arnold sent the first two SVD missionaries to China: Fr. Joseph Freinademetz (now St. Joseph Freinademetz) and Fr. John Baptist Anzer, who later became a bishop in China. Our society accepted its first Brother candidates in 1877; within six years they also went to China as missionaries.

In 1889, realizing the need for missionary Sisters, Fr. Arnold co-founded the Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit (SSpS), together with Mother Maria Helena Stollenwerk and Mother Josefa Hendrina Stenmanns. Later, in 1896, they also founded a cloistered congregation, the Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit of Perpetual Adoration (SSpSAP). Mother Maria Helena Stollenwerk was later declared “Blessed” by Pope John Paul II. Both of these religious orders contribute greatly to the mission of the Society of the Divine Word.

In 1895, Br. Wendelin Meyer, SVD, came to the United States, and was soon joined by others in the society’s mission endeavors. By 1897 they had settled on a farm north of Chicago, in Illinois, which came to be known as Techny. In 1909, the first Society of the Divine Word Seminary in the United States was established there for the purpose of training candidates for the priesthood and Brotherhood to serve in overseas missions. In 1923, the first seminary in the United States for African-American men studying for the priesthood was established at Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, by the Society of the Divine Word.

From 1888 to 1913, our society experienced rapid expansion, with new European mission centers established in Rome, Austria and Germany. During the years from 1889 through 1936, SVD missionaries arrived in Argentina, Africa, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and India to spread the Word of God. 1946 marked the consecration of the first Chinese Cardinal, Thomas Cardinal Tien Ken-sin, SVD, Archbishop of Beijing. And in 1966, Bishop Harold Perry, SVD, became the first African-American Bishop in the United States. Fr. Joseph Tri Vu, SVD, was the first Vietnamese priest to be ordained as an SVD, in 1985.

In addition, the first SVD house was established in Russia in 2003. That same year, on October 5, Frs. Arnold Janssen and Joseph Freinademetz were canonized by Pope John Paul II.

The year 2008 marked another first when Fr. Urey Mark, SVD, became the first Liberian to be ordained as a Divine Word Missionary.