In my speech on the American Argument to the Green Aberdeen Chautauqua last weekend, I mentioned how proud Aberdonians can be to live in the birthplace of statewide direct democracy, thanks to the efforts of Father Robert W. Haire. I mention the good Father Haire fondly and frequently in the context of my advocacy for initiative and referendum, which the Catholic priest got the people of South Dakota to write into our constitution in 1898.
Father Haire achieved much else for the Hub City during his 36 years busy years here. He invited the Presentation Sisters to move here from Fargo and establish their permanent base of operations in Aberdeen 1886. Father Haire was the Sisters’ father confessor and chaplain at St. Luke’s, the hospital they established, for the last fourteen years of his life. During his years on the Board of Regents, Father Haire persuaded the Legislature and his hesitant friend, Governor Andrew Lee, to establish Northern here in 1901. Father Haire thus established not only a statewide democratic tradition but three of the defining and sustaining institutions of this community.
Father Haire was also a diehard socialist. A small memorial tome published by the Socialist Party in Sisseton after the priest’s death in 1916 and archived in the state archives in Pierre honors Father Haire as the “Founder of Socialism in the Dakotahs.” The booklet includes eulogies from many public figures, including American Socialist Party leader and three-time (at that point; his fourth bid would happen in 1920) Presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, who said Father Haire’s socialism truly expressed Christianity:
Word comes to us that the good Father Haire of Aberdeen, South Dakota, has passed away. Father Haire was a pioneer Socialist of that section and many a Socialist who traveled in that direction was given food and shelter, a hearty hand-clasp and a word of cheer by the good priest who has just been laid to rest.
Almost twenty-five years ago I first met Father Haire. I had heard of him even before that as the priest who was loved by the poor and unfortunate and as being the lone Socialist in that section of the country.
Father Haire was a true follower of the Judean Carpenter. He gave all he had, and best of all, HE GAVE HIMSELF, to the poor. He reminded me of the good bishop in ‘Les Miserables.’ He sought out the sorrowing and suffering, spent all his time in ministering to them, and loved them with all his great heart.
But he not only sympathized with the poor, he told them WHY they were poor and how they might put an end to their poverty by uniting in their might against the capitalist system and abolishing that system and establishing in its stead the Socialist Cooperative Commonwealth.
Father Haire was an active Socialist to the end of his life. He was to have addressed the Socialists of Aberdeen a day or two after death suddenly claimed him.
Father Haire was a true follower of Jesus Christ, a real Socialist and love of his fellowmen, and as noble a soul as ever dwelt in tenement of clay.
Peace to his dust and love to his memory! [Eugene V. Debs, in E. Francis Atwood, A Memoir of the Life of Father Robert W. Haire, The Socialist Party, Sisseton, South Dakota, 1916]
Father Haire was an elector for Debs in the 1900 Presidential election.
What Would Jesus Do? Through his life’s work, Father Robert Haire answers, “Democracy and socialism.”