Clement Mary Hofbauer was born Johannes (“Hansl”) Hofbauer on December 26, 1751, in what is now the Czech Republic. He was the ninth of twelve children born to Maria Steer and Paul Hofbauer. His father was a grazier and butcher.
His father died when he was six, leaving his mother poor. He wasn’t able to go to a seminary or school, so he began to study Latin with the local parish priest. That was the first step on Hofbauer’s long road to the priesthood. His studies ended then when he was 14, and the pastor died suddenly. The new pastor didn’t have time to help him with his studies.
Hofbauer had to learn a trade because he couldn’t afford to keep studying for the priesthood, He apprenticed in a bakery in Znojmo in 1767.
In 1770, he went to work in the bakery of the priory in the White Canons. At that time, war and famine were sending many homeless and hungry people to the priory for help. Hofbauer worked day and night to feed the poor people who came to the priory door. He worked as a servant at the priory until 1775 when he left to live as a hermit. He lived that life briefly until Emperor Joseph II abolished all hermitages in the Habsburg Empire. Hofbauer then went to Vienna, where he worked again as a baker.
In 1782, after a pilgrimage to Rome, Hofbauer found his way to Tivoli, Italy. He decided to become a hermit at the local shrine of Our Lady of Quintiliolo, under the patronage of the local bishop, Barnabas Chiaramonte (later Pope Pius VII), who clothed him in the religious habit of a hermit. He took the name Clement Mary. As a hermit, Hofbauer prayed for himself and for all the people in the world who forgot to pray. He worked at the shrine and assisted the pilgrims who came. Six months later, he n six months he left Quintiliolo. He realized the need to pray for people was a good work, but still not the priesthood that he wanted so badly.
Hofbauer returned to the priory to bake bread and study Latin again. When he was 29, two women he met while serving Mass at the cathedral sponsored him to enter the University of Vienna. Since Emperor Joseph’s government had closed all seminaries, students for the priesthood had to study at government-controlled universities. Hofbauer was frustrated by the theology courses that were full of Josephinism, rationalism, and other teachings he found questionable. He completed his studies in philosophy in 1784, but he couldn’t do anything more toward ordination. The Emperor had also forbidden religious communities to accept new candidates.
In 1784, on a pilgrimage made by walking, Hofbauer and his traveling companion, Thaddäus Hübl, decided to join a religious community. The two seminarians were accepted into the Redemptorist novitiate in Rome. On March 19, 1785, Hofbauer and Hübl became Redemptorists, professing to live the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Ten days later they were ordained to the priesthood at the Cathedral of Alatri.
A few months after their ordination they were called by their Superior General, Father de Paola. They were told to return to their homeland and establish the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer north of the Alps.
The political situation caused by the Emperor did not allow Hofbauer to remain in his own country. Emperor Joseph II, who had closed over 1,000 monasteries and convents, wasn’t going to allow a new religious institute to begin in his domain. Realizing this, they moved on to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.In February 1787 when they reached Warsaw, a city of 124,000 people. Although there were 160 churches plus 20 monasteries and convents in the city, there was still work to be done. The people were poor and uneducated. Houses needed to be repaired. Many had turned from Catholicism to Freemasonry. Hofbauer and his companions worked to help restore Catholic faith.
King Stanislaus II of Poland was a puppet to Catherine II of Russia. Fifteen years earlier, Poland was divided between Austria, Russia, and Prussia. Another division was supposed to happen in 1793 and for a third time in 1795. Napoleon marched through Europe adding to the political tension. During Hofbauer’s 21 years in Warsaw, there was hardly a peaceful moment.
On the way to Poland, Hofbauer and Hübl were joined by Peter Kunzmann, a fellow baker who had accompanied Hofbauer on a pilgrimage. He became the first Redemptorist lay brother from outside Italy. Together they arrived in Warsaw with no money. Hofbauer had given the last three silver coins to beggars along the way. They were put in charge of St. Benno’s Church to work with the German-speaking people of Warsaw.
When Hofbauer saw a homeless boy on the street, he brought him to the rectory, cleaned him up, fed him, and then taught him a trade and taught him Christianity. When the number of boys grew too large for the rectory, Hofbauer opened the Child Jesus Refuge for his homeless boys. To keep the boys fed and clothed, he had to beg constantly. He went into a bakery to buy a loaf of bread he came upon a master baker without an assistant. Hofbauer spent the day working at the dough trough and the oven, using all his old baking skills. He got bread for his boys that day and for many days to come.
On another time he was said to beg at a local pub. When Hofbauer asked for a donation, one of the patrons scornfully spat beer into Hofbauer’s face. Wiping off the beer, he responded, “That was for me. Now, what do you have for my boys?” The men in the bar were so astounded by the response that they gave Hofbauer more than 100 silver coins.
When the Redemptorists first opened their church they preached to empty benches. The people found it hard to trust foreign priests. It took several years for the Redemptorists to gain the trust of the people, but in time St. Benno’s became the thriving center of the Catholic Church in Warsaw.
In 1791, four years after their arrival, the Redemptorists enlarged the children’s refuge into a school. A boarding school had been opened for young girls. The number of orphan boys continued to grow steadily. Money to finance the school came from some regular benefactors and many other people who were willing to help in different ways, but Hofbauer still had to beg from door to door seeking help for his many orphans.
In the church, Hofbauer and the community of five Redemptorist priests and three lay brothers began what they called the Perpetual Mission. Instead of celebrating only a morning Mass in the church on a weekday, they conducted a full-scale mission every day of the year. One could attend St. Benno’s every day and be able to hear five sermons both in German and Polish. There were three High Masses, the office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, public visits to the Blessed Sacrament, the Way of the Cross, vespers, prayer services, and litanies. Priests were available for confessions at all hours of the day and night. In 1793, Hofbauer was made vicar-general of the Congregation north of the Alps. He began new establishments of the Congregation in Germany and in Switzerland.
By the year 1800, the growth could be seen both in the work at the church and in the Redemptorist community. Reception of the sacraments jumped from 2,000, in 1787, to over 100,000. The number of men serving at St. Benno’s had grown to 21 Redemptorist priests and seven lay brothers. There were also five novices and four Polish seminarians.
All this work was done under political distress. The three divisions of Poland brought about great fighting. The battles reached Warsaw during Holy Week of 1794. The Redemptorists, and all residents of Warsaw, found their lives to be in constant danger. Three bombs crashed through the roof of the church but did not explode. Throughout the battles, Hofbauer and his companions preached peace. This made people protest against the Redemptorists. They were labeled as traitors. In 1806, a law was passed that forbade local pastors to invite the Redemptorists to preach missions in their parishes. This was followed by an even more restrictive law that stopped the Redemptorists from preaching and hearing confessions in their own church of St. Benno’s.
Hofbauer appealed these actions directly to the King, Frederick Augustus I of Saxony, who ruled Poland. While the king knew the good that the Redemptorists were doing, he couldn’t stop those who wanted the Redemptorists out of Poland. The decree of expulsion was signed on June 9, 1808. Eleven days later, the Church of St. Benno’s was closed. The 40 Redemptorists serving there were sent to prison. After four weeks in prison, they were ordered to return to their own countries.
In September 1808, after being exiled from Poland, Hofbauer reached Vienna. He remained there until his death almost 13 years later. In 1809, when Napoleon attacked Vienna, Hofbauer worked as a hospital chaplain caring for the many wounded soldiers. The archbishop, seeing Hofbauer’s work, asked him to care for a little Italian church in the city of Vienna. He remained there for four years until he was appointed chaplain to the Ursuline Sisters in July 1813. He attended the spiritual welfare of the Sisters and the laypeople who came to their chapel, Hofbauer gained a reputation as a powerful preacher and gentle confessor.
In the early days of the 19th century, Vienna was a major European cultural center. Hofbauer enjoyed spending time with the students and the intellectuals. Students came alone and in groups, to talk, share a meal, or get advice. Many of them later became Redemptorists.
Later in Vienna, Hofbauer again found himself under attack, and for a short time was prohibited from preaching. Then he was threatened with expulsion because he had been communicating with his Redemptorist Superior General in Rome. Before the expulsion could become official, Emperor Franz of Austria would have to sign it. At the time, the Emperor was on a pilgrimage to Rome, where he visited Pope Pius VII and learned how greatly the work of Hofbauer was appreciated. He also learned that he could reward Hofbauer for his years of dedicated service by allowing him to start a Redemptorist foundation in Austria.
Instead of a writ of expulsion, Hofbauer got an audience with Emperor Franz. A church was selected and refurbished to become the first Redemptorist foundation in Austria. It was to be started without Hofbauer, however. He became ill in early March and died on March 15, 1820.