When a person enters a cloistered environment like a monastery, it can be hard for us lay folk to imagine how their seemingly privatized existence can make an impact on the larger world. We imagine that person spending time in prayer and contemplation, not fighting the tyranny of war. But when the Nazi party began taking over monasteries in Europe during the second World War, the Sisters of the Visitation at Mount de Chantal fought back in a surprising way.
They fought back with vitamins and string and sugar. They armed their fellow sisters in Europe with care packages to stave off starvation, malnutrition, and cold. And they did it, not just once, but dozens of times, for many monasteries throughout Europe from the mid 1930’s to the 1950’s.
So, we’ll begin our adventure into the MdeC archives by diving in to one very thick binder containing accounts of care packages sent to these monasteries. Much of what I’m about to share comes not from lists of what was sent, but in the form of thank you letters and updates from the monasteries who received the packages. In many cases, they were translated from their original German, French, or Italian, by someone at MdeC.
The following transcript came from the Monastery of Pielenhofen in Bavaria, Germany. In this letter the Sisters of the Visitation of Holy Mary give an update on the condition of their monastery and other surrounding Sister Houses. Much like the Mount herself, Pielenhofen Abbey was home to Visitandines (or Salesian Sisters) who established a girl’s school there in 1838. According to the monastery’s website, “In 1938 the building was confiscated by the National Socialists and used to house children from major cities at risk of air warfare, later also for refugees and as a hospital for bomb-damaged refugees. The sisters were allowed to stay in the monastery because they made themselves indispensable for the care of these people.”
In 2010, the final five nuns living at Pielenhofen moved to the community of the Visitandines at Zangberg which continues to serve under the same international order as the Mount’s remaining Sisters living at the Georgetown Visitation Monastery.
Please enjoy below a glimpse at their life during the war years as written to the Sisters of the Visitation at Mount de Chantal.
Very honored Mother and beloved Sisters,
Your charities are anxiously awaiting news from us. This we truly understand since we know that we are all legitimately united in our Visitandine love and affection. Hence, we are eager to know in what way the terrible events of the last phase of the war have reacted upon our dear Monasteries. Until the summer of 1944 we were rather well informed in regard to their situations. Our friends in the army got, as much as possible, in contact with our Houses; the names of the Rev. Brother Agathus, O.S.B. and of Rev. Father Wolfschlager, O.S.F.S shall never be forgotten in Paris and elsewhere. Dear Sisters, those among you who knew them will be pleased we feel sure to remember them in your prayers, giving them a pious memento. Brother Agathus has been lost in Russia; Father Wolfschlager was a prisoner in England and suffered from homesickness. We are very grateful to our Sisters of Amiens for trying to reach us; but their kind letter got to Beuerburg only in November; thence, it was sent to us after the Christmas holidays. We do not know when our answer containing the news you long to have will reach you.
Now, if you please, let us begin with the account of our own experiences. We may sing with our whole heart the mercies of the Lord. It is true that, during the nights of the 22nd to the 23rd of April, a thousand windows and many doors were broken when they blew up a bridge located very close to us, but any other loss or damage was spared us. Hence, we were always able to remain together. From the beginning of 1940, our boarding school was occupied by whole schools of children coming from the north, which was especially exposed to attacks from the air. They had their own staffs of teachers, who, moreover, lived on good terms with the Sisters placed at their disposal, not only for what concerned the cooking and other domestic labors, but also with those who helped them as bookkeepers and nurses. The number of young girls and sometimes boys, too, reached at times the number of 100 and even more… At present, we still have girls from Berlin; they may stay until Easter or even longer. But as the direction of the school has been placed in the hands of our Chaplain, since the month of May 1945, we also now have about 20 pupils who with God’s help will become the nucleus of our boarding school…
We are enjoying another favor and intimate happiness; we are giving hospitality to some Sisters from our poor monastery of Moseweiss, whose monastery and church were destroyed by the bombs and the fire December 23, 1944. Ten of their Sisters came here on January 3, 1945, having at their head the V.E. Mother Josephe Sturn, together with her V.H. Sr. Deposee Mechtilde Wurtz, her Assistant, Sr. Mary Agnes Ostermann. A second group of seven Sisters came during the night between the fifth and sixth of January. Three young Sisters who had faced all kinds of dangers came later, each one separately. Hence, we welcomed twenty Sisters in all, who immediately felt at home and are happy with us whom they greatly edify by their religious virtues. They are so humble and submissive, so cheerful, too, having but one heart and one soul with us, and simply sharing everything. However, last June, their kind Mother could no longer remain quiet. So she risked the journey, which took three days and two nights and which she made in an open wagon, during a heavy rain. She succeeded gradually in bringing together the Sisters she had been obliged to leave behind in the Rhineland; since they had been living together among the ruins. The valiant little troop is working from morning till night at the reconstruction of their monastery, which their Mother, in company with one of the Sisters who can speak French fluently, is taking steps to obtain permission to get the necessary materials for rebuilding. On Christmas Eve, they had the happiness to bring our dear Lord back under their humble roof. So all the difficulties and privations can be more easily borne, at present….
In Beuerberg they have given hospitality since the beginning of the war to the dear Community of Gleink… The Community of Beuerberg had to close their boarding school much sooner than we did. In one of their buildings outside of the enclosure they had, then, opened a boarding house for the ladies. But they were obliged to send away these boarders to take in the poor Tyrolese, men and women, all in the most wretched condition, sick and lacking everything. Our kind Sisters became their real Providence. Many of these poor people took their final flight to Heaven from the Convent. The others after some time had to their great regret to give up their place to an ophthalmic clinic which was transferred from Munich to Beuerberg. The monastery itself was transformed into a hospital for 200 soldiers. Changes of all kinds had to be made; besides there were endless labors, cares and anxieties to endure. In spite of all the community showed an exemplary spirit. They gave to Heaven souls that left their exile here in the odor of sanctity…
Beuerberg had still their hospital, when, at a late hour on June 26, two large American automobiles stopped in front of their door. And who should come out of the cars but 17 Sisters from Chotieschau with their V.H. Mother Mary Leona Igl. How can we express in words all they had been obliged to suffer from fright and anxiety, from artillery fire, from pillage and expulsion?
Speaking of Beuerberg, our thoughts also revert to Polgardi, formerly Erd, in Hungary. We hear that it is destroyed and that the Sisters have become fugitives. It would even seem as if some had been killed. The last news we had of them was rather uncertain. We were told that a Hungarian Sister had become the Superioress and that they are going to reconstruct the monastery. We have no news from the V.H. Mother Anne Marguerite Hartz nor of the other German Sisters. Perhaps they will soon appear with another wave of fugitives, which is due to arrive in Bavaria.
Obermarchtal has enjoyed a very special protection. For a long time, the Sisters were only obliged to sew for the military service; later, they were obliged to open an infirmary, but their monastic life did not suffer from it. For almost a year, they have in their midst two young Sisters from Uedem, whose monastery was almost entirely destroyed during the attacks from February 13th to 25th, 1945. Their Chaplain and one of the Sisters were killed; several were wounded, and the whole community was dispersed. The Sisters remained for a long time without getting any news whatever, the one from the other. But God and Christian charity are still alive. Some kind Hospital Sisters welcomed them in the House they had still in their care.
Dietramszell passed through a period of great fright and anxiety during the last combats in April. During the war, it enjoyed much peace, for the only service required of them was to keep safe under their roof a great number for future use of arts and to give shelter to some religious women who had been evacuated from Aix-la-Chapelle. At present, the Sisters are caring for some orphans and fugitive children. The V.H. Mother Mary Ignatia Stemmer is sharing the lot of our V.H. Mother and some others of our venerated Mothers, who are all bearing the yoke of superiority since 1937. There was nothing that could be done about it because the order received was an absolute one.
The poor V.H. Mother M. Therese Dosch of Zangberg has suffered very much during the whole time. Her large and beautiful monastery was the first to be seized, 250 men occupied it. The Sisters had to withdraw to their farm and to a little house close by; the cellar became their refectory and assembly room, and the garrets their cells… a great number of them had to work in service of their guests; for although they owned the property, they were not the mistresses of it! Later on, machines of the heaviest caliber were installed on their property. Finally, a few hundred Poles were lodged with them, who, before their departure, destroyed whatever their predecessors had not already demolished. Then, after the hardest and most indefatigable labor, the Sisters thought they could again take possession of their cells; but, no, the Americans came and claimed their property again. However, these were very considerate and did not stay for long. You can imagine the happiness of the poor Community now that they are all gathered together once more in their monastery. Little by little the damage will be repaired, and their pupils will certainly return. Our country longs for a Christian education.
We have no recent news from our poor monasteries in Poland. The last letter we have from Cracow is dated June 14, 1942. In it the V.H. Mother Mary Stanislaus Wadizinska thanks us for the little sum of money we had sent them. Her few words betray great distress, sickness and misery raging in her own monastery. They also speak of the sad lot of our poor Sisters of Vibna. The Community there has been dispersed, and the Sisters are painfully earning their bread, working as servants in the city or in the country.
May this lengthy account which is, nevertheless, quite insufficient, reach you, our dear holy Source and many other monasteries! We thank you in advance for sending this information to them.
God alone knows what these years have meant for us and what were His adorable designs in our regard as well as for the whole world. May His Divine Will be accomplished for the salvation of all! The Visitation, at least, is sure of attaining its principal aim, by total abandonment of ourselves into the arms of our heavenly Father, whatever may be the way pointed out to each of us by circumstances or events which necessarily cause one to practice the most heroic virtues, especially charity and the spirit of sacrifice. We dare hope that our holy Father and our holy Mother will be satisfied with their daughters and their courage…
The very humble and unworthy sisters and servants in Our Lord,
The Sisters of the Visitation of Holy Mary, D.S.B.
This entry (and all others) has been used with the expressed written permission of the Mount de Chantal Collection, Office of Archives & Records, Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.