Theodore Van Den Broek is one of the members of a group of three clergymen, who were the leaders of a large scale immigration movement from the Netherlands to the United States in the 1840’s. Each of the three men separately led a large group of Dutch emigrants from their native land, the Netherlands, to the United States within a two year time period, from 1847 to 1848. The impetus or trigger for the emigration is widely attributed to lack of religious freedom in the Netherlands, but the real impetus for the immigration movement was probably the very poor economic situation in the Netherlands at that time. The country was in a severe economic depression then, and the resultant extreme poverty was rampant, especially in rural areas. The other two clergymen were Albertus Van Raalte, who led a group of protestant Dutch to western Michigan, and Hendrik Scholte, who also led a group of protestant Dutch to western Iowa. Van Den Broek, on the other hand, was a catholic priest, and he led a group of largely catholic Dutch to the state of Wisconsin.
Van Den Broek was born in Alkmaar or Amsterdam, the Netherlands on November 5, 1783. Little is known about his early years. He did, however, receive a good education, and he mastered the Greek, Latin, German, French, Dutch and English languages. He apparently went to a seminary and became a Roman Catholic priest in 1809. He was received into the Dominican Order in 1817, and apparently lived in an abbey near Alkmaar, his birthplace. In 1832, he was sent to the United States as a missionary with seven other missionaries. He was assigned to the Convent of Saint Rose in Kentucky. He stayed there for a brief period, and was then assigned to a parish in Somerset, Ohio.
Being sent out as a missionary, and not doing missionary work, apparently was not of father Van Den Broek’s liking. While in Ohio, he heard of the miserable conditions of the Indians in Wisconsin, and he asked Bishop Purcell of Cincinnati, Ohio to transfer him to Wisconsin, so he could minister to the Indians. His wish was granted, and he arrived in Green Bay, Wisconsin in July, 1834. He found only 12 catholic families there, but he was determined to do missionary work among the local citizens, as well as among the local Indians. Shortly after his arrival, there was a serious epidemic of cholera and with the help of two catholic nuns he was able to provide considerable relief to the suffering.
In 1836, he was asked to go to Little Chute, Wisconsin to serve the Indians there, not only in terms of religious services, but also in terms of education. He taught the Indians how to read and write, and while doing so he also built up a parish. Within two years of his arrival, he built a log cabin church, for church services as well as for educational purposes. Following his departure from Green Bay, the Green Bay parish had no pastor to provide the church services. So, once a week, Van Den Broek would walk the 22 miles from Little Chute to Green Bay, Wisconsin, to say mass for the Green Bay parish members.
Father Van Den Broek continued his missionary services in Wisconsin, establishing mission posts at several communities, including Fort Winnebago, Fond du Lac, Prairie Du Chien, and Calumet among others. Between 1836 and 1844, he converted and baptized over 800 Indians.
During the late 1840’s, conditions in his native country had worsened. The economic depression was taking its toll. So he managed to find a priest to temporarily replace him in the Wisconsin region where he had been ministering. In August 1847, he traveled to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and advertised for people willing to immigrate to Wisconsin under his leadership. He was quickly successful and in 1848, he returned to Wisconsin with three shiploads of Dutch immigrants, who all settled in the areas around the communities of Little Chute, Holland Town, and Green Bay and other locales. Their descendants still live in the north eastern Wisconsin area to this day.
Father Van Den Broek clearly was a leader in more ways than just as a religious missionary. He provided guidance and initiative to the American Indians, in terms of education and training in the area where he ministered. Later he provided the same type of assistance, as he had provided to the Indians, to his native Hollanders, who needed his religious and economic help as much as his Indian protégés.
Father Van Den Broek was already 61 years old when he brought over his native Hollanders. He had had a difficult life, especially during the time he was ministering to the Indians. He only lived for three years to see his native Hollanders get settled in their new land. Theodore Van Den Broek passed away in November 1851 at the rather young age of 68. He was interred at the burial site of the present stone church in Little Chute, Wisconsin.
Father Theodore Van Den Broek, http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/wlhba/searchresults.asp?adv=yes&in=Van+den+Broek&fn=Theodore&q=Father
Theodore Van Den Broek, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15269a.htm
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