Born 200 years ago, Adolph Kolping was a German priest who created a support network for young tradesmen. His legacy lives on today, in the form of a successful international organization.
On 8 December 1813, Adolph Kolping was born in the town of Kerpen in western Germany, the son of a poor shepherd. Today, his name is carried by an organization represented in 60 countries worldwide, with over 400,000 members. This is a testament to his main achievement: setting up a network of Journeymen's Associations to provide professional and social support to young traveling craftsmen. These still exist today in the form of the Kolping International organization, which continues to grow.
Kolping was very familiar with the social problems of his time. He became an apprentice shoemaker at the age of 13 and a so-called journeyman at 16, traveling all over the country in search of work. During this time he personally experienced all the unpleasant aspects of a tradesman's life: no permanent home, no family, no prospects, and meager wages.
Finding a greater purpose
However, the young Kolping eventually decided that he wanted to make more of his life. At the age of 24 he went back to school, working at the same time to earn money for his tuition fees, and completed his secondary education four years later. He then studied theology, and became a priest in 1845.
Kolping was first assigned to a parish in the town of Wuppertal, a major textile production center of the day. There he came across the local Catholic association that looked after the interests of young, unmarried traveling tradesmen. Impressed by the concept, Kolping made it his life's work to reproduce it elsewhere: first in Cologne, then throughout Germany, and eventually all across Europe.
The resulting "Journeymen's Associations" are dedicated to the religious, moral, and professional education of young workers, as well as establishing bodies to provide health insurance and financial support. They also offer accommodation via a network of so-called Kolping Houses.
Tradespeople are no longer the only target group, but the organization's basic support structure has remained the same. "Helping people at a local level is still important for us today," Markus Demele, head of Kolping International, told DW. "The individual Kolping branches around the world decide their own priorities."
In India, there are Kolping institutions that offer microcredits. In African countries the focus is on agricultural cooperation, while in Vietnam the Kolping groups are "very spiritual, in response to political repression." The strategic and financial support comes from local Kolping International teams. "We seek financial sources centrally, but there is also a lot of solidarity within the organization," added Demele. "This means that many German Kolping associations have partnerships around the world that we are not aware of."
The Kolping organization sees itself as a lay Catholic organization. "Although we maintain close contacts with bishops and church communities and receive spiritual support from priests, we function outside of church structures," explained Demele. The organization's largest branches outside Germany are in India, Vietnam, Tanzania and Uganda.
"We've experienced rapid growth in recent years," said Demele. "Now we want to concentrate on maintaining the existing Kolping network."
He sees the high degree of self-reliance among the organization's sub-groups as its main strength in helping individuals to help themselves. "Our members see themselves as Kolping Brothers and Kolping Sisters," said Demele. "This strengthens their trust and feeling of mutual responsibility, which is a major spur for further progress."