William Feiner

Article

July 5, 2022

William Feiner SJ (December 27, 1792 – June 9, 1829, Washington, D.C.) was a German Catholic priest and Jesuit who was a missionary to the United States and ultimately the president of Georgetown University. Born in Münster, he taught at Jesuit schools in the Russian Empire and Polish Galicia as a young member of the Society of Jesus. He then emigrated to the United States several years after the Society's restoration, taking up pastoral work and teaching theology in Conewago, Pennsylvania, before becoming a full-time professor at Georgetown University. There, he also became the Georgetown Library's second dedicated librarian. Finally, Feiner became president of the university in 1826. While president, he taught theology at Georgetown and ministered to the congregation at Holy Trinity Church. Despite being the leader of an American university, he never mastered the English language. Long plagued by ill health from tuberculosis, his short presidency came to an end after three years, just weeks before his death.

Youth

Wilhelm Feiner was born on December 27, 1792, in the city of Münster, in the principality-bishopric of Münster (in present-day Germany). He entered the Society of Jesus on July 12, 1808, in White Russia (ie Belarus), officially becoming a member on August 7 of that year. Before emigrating to the United States, he taught in Jesuit schools in Polish Galicia and the Russian Empire, where Jesuits were allowed to operate despite being repressed by the pope and expelled from Western Europe. For this reason, he was sometimes mistakenly identified as a Pole and not a German.

Missionary in America

Feiner was sent to the United States in 1822 to help American Jesuits re-establish their work after the worldwide restoration of the Society of Jesus in 1814. After his move, he anglicized his name to William Feiner. From 1823 to 1826 he was appointed assistant to Matthew Lekue at the Basilica of Conewago in the town of Conewago, Adams County, Pennsylvania, where there was a large German-speaking community. In addition to his pastoral work, Feiner taught theology at Conewago in 1824. Peter Kenney, the Jesuit visitor from the United States, returned to Europe and appointed Feiner to the post in his place; by this time Feiner was in very poor health, suffering from tuberculosis. Feiner was a study manager at Georgetown University in the District of Columbia from 1825 to 1826, during which time he also served as professor of theology and German. James A. Neill took over as manager at the end of his term. In 1825, Feiner became the second official librarian of the Georgetown University Library when Thomas C. Levins, who had held the position since 1824, was dismissed from the Society of Jesus and left for New York City. When Feiner left office in 1826, James Van de Velde succeeded him.

President of Georgetown University

When Georgetown University President Stephen Larigaudelle Dubuisson was allowed to resign, he eagerly traveled to Europe. Thus, Feiner was appointed president on May 4, 1826 by the provincial superior of the Jesuits, Francis Dzierozynski. He took office on July 8, 1826, despite suffering from advanced tuberculosis and being unable to speak even basic English; in fact, he never mastered the English language. When he learned of the provincial's order, he would have entered Dubuisson's room sobbing and declaring that he was neither competent nor desirous of holding the post. While president, Feiner ministered to the congregation at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown. He also worked as a professor of moral theology in 1828 and of dogmatic theology in 1829.