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The Century of Women

Author: Anna Damas, SSpS
Subject: Participation of Woman
Language: English, Spanish
Publisher: https://vivatdeus.org/
Year: 2022

Every generation experiences itself as living in a time of epochal changes. My grandmother survived two world wars. My mother lived through “only” one; she then experienced the post-war “German Economic Miracle” and ever since a rocket-like rise in her standard of living. I travelled to Berlin when it was still divided by the Wall, and spent my youth without Internet, computer and smartphone. At present, we are suffering an unprecedented pandemic and are struggling with the escalating climate emergency. As Catholic church, we are facing the waning influence of the church on people’s lives, and the erosion of credibility while the abuse scandal is unearthing “skeletons in the closet”.

The 19th century in the German-speaking countries was no different: it was a time of epochal upheavals in society and church. This article describes, sketchily, the historical events and how they shaped Catholic mentality. The focus is particularly on the lives of women. What were their hopes and aspirations? How did they engage with society and the Church? What role did religious life play in women’s life plans?

The founding figures of the Arnoldus Family, Arnold Janssen, Helena Stollenwerk and Hendrina Stenmanns, are placed in the context of their time.

Aachen in the whirlpool of new ideas – Enlightenment

The city of Aachen, in the year 1830. The house of Katharina Fey, widow of the cloth manufacturer Louis Fey, serves as a meeting place where people talk, literally, about God and the world. Every Sunday, priests and lay people, entrepreneurs, politicians, scholars and artists from the Catholic bourgeoisie frequent the debating circle. One of them is the well-known poet Luise Hensel, a convert to Catholicism and teacher at a Catholic girls’ high school in Aachen. The circle discusses timely social and political issues from a Catholic perspective. After all, these are turbulent times. Aachen and the surrounding areas (where Arnold Janssen would be born seven years later and Helena Stollenwerk 22 years later) had turbulent decades behind them. In 1794, Napoleon’s troops occupied Aachen and turned bourgeois life upside down. Aachen’s citizens were made to pay compulsory levies to feed and maintain the French army. Monasteries were seized and converted into barracks, horse stables and hospitals. In 1802, the French constitution came into force, making Aachen’s citizens legally French. (That is why the parents of Arnold Janssen, Helena Stollenwerk and Hendrina Stenmanns had French citizenship.) The already misappropriated monasteries were now officially abolished; church property was expropriated and secularised. All religious had to dissolve their communities, take off their religious habit and either return to their families or build a new life elsewhere. A relative of the Fey family was also affected by the secularisation. She had been a nun in a convent in Düren. After it was dissolved, she lived in Aachen and continued her monastic life alone in her flat, but went to visit the Fey family from time to time.

As is so often the case, however, the changes were not exclusively negative. Napoleon, who saw himself as successor of the Emperor Charlemagne, upgraded the old imperial city of Aachen, Charlemagne’s preferred residence. Napoleon reorganised the church administration and gave the city its own episcopal seat. Moreover, he had the city beautified and expanded. Napoleon’s first wife, Empress Josephine, enjoyed a two-month spa cure in Aachen’s healing thermal springs. Aachen’s mediaeval economy, based on guilds, was reformed and freedom of trade was introduced, leading to an economic upswing and new prosperity.

The defeat of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna brought profound changes to Aachen once more. Together with the lands on the left of the River Rhine, Aachen became part of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1815.  Those who had hoped for a political change were disappointed, however: the new Prussian rulers continued the anti-monastic policy, at least initially. The episcopal see of Aachen, established in 1802, was abolished again in 1825 and Aachen was placed under the archbishopric of Cologne. The Prussian government officials sent to the Rhineland did not only bring a new constitution with them but also a different culture. For, unlike the Catholic population of the Rhineland, they were Protestants. Like the French, the Prussians also brought Enlightenment thinking to traditional Aachen. The Enlightenment movement had changed the perception of the individual person and society. New ideas emerged: freedom, equality, and the right of participation – the new citizen was an autonomous subject in a secular state. However, the Enlightenment was a male-dominated endeavour. The new image of the person was really only a new image of men, and limited to upper- and middle-class men at that. Women, as well as men from lower social classes, continued to be regarded as uneducated, endowed with only inferior intelligence and therefore not capable to decide for themselves. In the second half of the 19th century, though, resistance to this image of female inferiority grew, not least among women themselves, and the political and feministic women’s movement began to take shape.

While the Protestant bourgeoisie more or less readily embraced Enlightenment thinking, the Catholic hierarchy as well as the majority of Catholics were opposed. They saw liberal ideas as a danger to the church and struggled to preserve the traditional views. The enlightened liberals, for their part, regarded the church with suspicion. Enlightenment thinking placed reason at the centre of human existence (Descartes: “I think, therefore I am”). Thus reason was made the guideline – and no longer, as in the Middle Ages, the authority of the church. Monasteries in particular were a thorn in the liberal side: they were seen as the epitome of backwardness, a relic of the dark Middle Ages. After all, it was in the monasteries that people were kept unfree and immature (symbolised by the vow of obedience). Thus, Napoleon’s transformation of monasteries into barracks and horse stables was not just a practical matter, rather it was a symbolic act. However, the so-called secularisation (abolition of the monasteries and confiscation of church property by the state) was not an act hostile to religion. It was not directed against the Catholic faith, but against the secular power of the church.

The social question and response by Catholic associations and women’s congregations
Design of the SSpS religious habit
Design of the SSpS religious habit

So, there was a lot to discuss in the Fey house. How to be Catholic in these times? Both the social and spiritual power and authority of the Catholic church appeared deeply shaken and publicly under attack. How to respond to this as a Catholic? The Sunday talks were also attended by the daughter of the house, 15-year-old Clara Fey, as well as her school friends Franziska Schervier and Pauline von Mallinckrodt. The three girls listened attentively to what the adults discussed. It was to be decisive for their lives. In 1830, no one had any idea yet that all three girls would each found a congregation of sisters. Clara’s and Franziska’s congregations were also to play a role in the founding of the “Servants of the Holy Spirit” (SSpS), for Arnold Janssen took their religious rules as a model for those of his own congregation of sisters.

In the Fey house, the current topic of the discussion circle was the uprising of the factory workers on 30 August 1830. Aachen’s main industry was cloth manufacturing. Clara’s late father had owned a cloth factory. As the competition from industrialising England grew, the Aachen factories were compelled to rationalise their production. Steam-driven machines were introduced and replaced human labour. A large number of the male workforce was laid off and partly replaced by lower-paid women and children. As a result, the factory workers became impoverished and destitute. In a revolt, they demanded higher wages, but the violent riots were bloodily put down by armed citizens.

The Catholics assembled at Fey’s discussed the social question with sympathy and concern. Christian charity obliges to help impoverished families. How should that best be done? One solution was the distribution of care packages. Moreover, the sick needed care, and the workers in general – better education, especially girls and women, so as to open up to them a way out of poverty. Some factory owners, among them Franziska’s father, set up evening schools for the children of their workforce. Those were certainly laudable initiatives, but they only benefited a small part of Aachen’s entire working class. It was only gradually that the social question was understood as a problem that required more than charity: it demanded social justice – fair wages, workers’ rights, etc.

Like many of their Christian contemporaries, the three young women Clara Fey, Franziska Schervier and Pauline von Mallinckrodt were deeply moved by the plight of the working classes, especially women and children. They visited the sick, made clothes for the poor and distributed food. These initiatives, mostly by women, were the beginnings of numerous associations dedicated to the care of the poor. The associations often specialised in one area: care of the sick, or education and training, or feeding the poor, etc. In 1837, inspired by the Sunday talks, Clara founded a school for impoverished and neglected girls. Like-minded women joined Clara and ran this school together with her. In 1844, they decided to join together as a religious community in order to be able to devote themselves entirely to their work and at the same time lead a life of prayer. In 1848, this community was officially established as the Congregation of the Sisters of the Poor Child Jesus. In 1840 Pauline started an institution for the care of children of sick workers and took care of blind children. It eventually led to her founding the Sisters of Christian Charity in 1849. Similarly, Franziska dedicated herself to the care of the sick, especially the victims of the cholera and smallpox epidemics, in a convent-like community of four women. In 1851, that gave rise to the Congregation of the Poor Sisters of St. Francis.

Clara, Franziska and Pauline are just three examples of the numerous foundations of women’s congregations by women in the German-speaking countries in the 19th century. A pressing need of their time – the sick, the impoverished, the uneducated – moved them to organised action. Inspired by their faith, they joined forces with like-minded women, moved together and eventually established a religious congregation.

The social context of the foundresses

A few women’s congregations were founded by women of the working class, but these are rather the exception. The vast majority of foundresses were well educated women from the middle classes. In the founding process, they were often assisted by family capital and influential family members who supported them in the legal negotiations with the Prussian State and Church officials. Clara’s father owned a cloth factory, Franziska’s father owned a needle factory and Pauline came from the aristocracy. Clara’s brother was a priest, Pauline’s brothers were politicians, and Franziska’s godfather was none other than Emperor Franz I of Austria. In addition to their good school education, the foundresses often possessed a certain cosmopolitanism. Businessmen and scholars, clerics and artists frequented their homes, and these contacts provided them with the knowledge, self-confidence and social skills that are necessary for founding a congregation. In some cases, they had the opportunity to gain administrative skills in their father’s business. Several of the foundresses even travelled abroad to Belgium and France, where the new type of women’s congregations had already begun in the late 18th and early 19th century.

In the case of Franziska, Clara and Pauline, the foundation was clearly their initiative; the founding process remained in their hands. The recognition of their foundation by the church hierarchy required mediation by clerics at some points, but this did not diminish the women’s own responsibility for their foundation. The leadership was and remained with them. In the case of some other congregations, clerics, who had initially only been spiritual advisors, increasingly took over the leadership of the emerging congregation. Finally, a third type of women’s congregations were started by a cleric, as in the case of the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters.

Like Arnold Janssen, Helena Stollenwerk and Hendrina Stenmanns also came from the social class of small entrepreneurs and farmers, i.e. situated between the urban middle class and the working class. In addition to a farm, the Stollenwerk family ran an inn and a small transport business. Hendrina Stenmanns worked as a silk weaver. Unlike in Aachen, the weavers in her home village Issum were not yet affected by the social hardships in the wake of industrialisation. Firstly, industrialisation had not yet taken root in rural areas; and secondly, there were no machines yet for silk weaving. People in Issum therefore continued to weave at home and sold their products to a factory in a nearby city. The so-called social question, i.e. the problem of industrialisation and the impoverishment of the working classes, was initially an urban problem.

Arnold Janssen attained a comparatively high level of education by enjoying a seminary education and university studies. At German universities, women were admitted no earlier than 1900. In principle, women from the middle classes had access to high-school-education. In rural areas, though, this was more difficult because high schools were generally not located there. Besides, girls and women were often expected to assist the mother and help out in the family’s business. Helena Stollenwerk and Hendrina Stenmanns were, therefore, not given the opportunity for further education.

Religious Life and Female Individuality

The social context of the SSpS co-foundresses was thus clearly different from that of the three foundresses of Aachen. Although Helena Stollenwerk and Hendrina Stenmanns did not come from poor families, they did come from the lower middle classes. Their education did not go beyond primary school. They had no opportunity to converse with highly educated people or artists. They had not travelled widely and did not associate with influential personalities. In all likelihood it would not have occurred to them to undertake the founding of a congregation since they lacked the intellectual and financial means to do so.

And yet, in some respects, these women were closely connected to women from the nobility and upper middle classes: they actively sought their very own place in the world and in the church; a place where they could give meaning to their lives – a meaning of their own choice and design.

The Enlightenment had given rise to a surge of individualisation. People discovered themselves as individual persons, as autonomous, as someone who thinks, acts and decides freely. This new perception first gained a foothold among intellectuals, and from there gradually found its way into the broader society. It also had repercussions in the religious sphere. Reconnecting with the mediaeval mystical tradition, spirituality acquired introspective traits and focused on one’s interior life, emotions, thoughts and experiences. In this framework, religious life became an individual choice. Women of the 19th century no longer simply decided to enter a convent. Rather, they looked for a very specific religious community that corresponded to their particular ideas about how they wanted to live, what profession to practise, etc. They were no longer content to choose cloistered seclusion but were looking for a setting in which they could be active in church and society according to their ideas and ideals. For them, a “spiritual vocation” no longer meant simply a vocation to convent life, but a vocation that included a certain professional activity in church and society.  Religious vocation became vocational.

Helena Stollenwerk’s vocation story is a telling example of this. While Clara, Pauline and Franziska founded a congregation with exactly the ministry they wanted, Helena searched restlessly until she found at Steyl a religious community where she could hope to realise her missionary dream. Already as girl she had felt the desire to go to China to take care of the abandoned orphan girls. She had heard about China through the Association of the Holy Childhood. This clear vision was the guiding star of her long and difficult search for a suitable place where she could live out this vocation. She consistently ruled out joining the Franciscan Sisters and the Sacré Coeur Sisters, which clergymen recommended to her, because these were not missionary congregations. Helena’s actual goal – and this is important – was to be a missionary in China; joining a congregation was merely the way to get there. She wrote in her vocation history: “Around the year 1871 […] I was going to reveal my desire to my confessor […] Now I also realised that in order to be used for the poor heathen children, I would have to enter a religious order; earlier I had not thought about it and knew nothing or very little about it.”

Around the same time, Therese von Wüllenweber (*1833) was also looking for her path in life. “I loved to study in the Holy Gospel how in Jesus’ time the apostles and pious virgins worked together for Christ, and I demanded to go to such a convent with missionary purposes. I could not find this anywhere – searched and searched. I was advised to wait.” In other words, she looked for a joint male-female mission congregation, which did not exist. She tried various religious orders, but it never felt right for her. Eventually, she was encouraged by her parish priest, Dr. Ludwig von Essen, and Mgr. Raimondi, apostolic prefect of Hong Kong and co-founder of the Milan Mission Seminary: If what she was looking for was not available, Therese should found it herself. Both men were also in touch with Arnold Janssen. In 1879 Therese visited the Mission House at Steyl, but it did not come to collaboration with Arnold Janssen. He had his hands full with building up his young institute and therefore had no concrete plans yet to open a women’s branch. In 1882 (the year that Helena Stollenwerk joined the Mission House as maid), Therese finally found a suitable partner in Johann Baptist Jordan, became a member of his apostolic teaching society and together with him founded the Salvatorian Sisters.

Several things become clear from these sketchy vocation stories. Clara Fey, Franziska Schervier, Pauline von Mallinckrodt, Helena Stollenwerk and Therese von Wüllenweber did not choose religious life simply for its own sake, but in order to pursue a certain ministry in that way of life. What is more, the ministry was not merely a profession but was their life’s dream. The ministry (girls’ education, healthcare, missionary work, etc.) led them out well beyond the convent walls, the parish setting or even the church sphere; they arrived on the stage of society where they soon earned respect even from secular groups, including the state. These women were prepared to wait and search for years until they found a suitable congregation. If that did not exist, they did not shy away from the effort of founding their own.

Generally, the lives of bourgeois women in the 19th century were tied to their role as housewife and mother in the private sphere of their own home. For women, the word “society” referred to the guests gathered in their home; for men, by contrast, society included the public sphere of business and politics. A profession of their own choice outside the domestic sphere was out of the question for married bourgeois women. Those who wanted to work as teachers, for instance, had to remain unmarried. For women of the impoverished classes, on the other hand, a paid job was an economic necessity; however, this had nothing to do with a personal choice and self-fulfilment. The type of religious congregations that emerged in the 19th century offered women a third way: convent life afforded them quasi-family structures and economic security while at the same time giving them the opportunity to pursue a profession. In addition to the usual household activities considered women’s work (cooking, washing, sewing, children’s education, etc.), the convent offered them a wide range of activities: as manageresses and administrators, chroniclers, gardeners, bookkeepers, musicians and much more. Outside the convent, the Sisters were active as teachers, nurses, social workers and the like. In a way, 19th century congregations anticipated what was to become a matter of course for women in the 20th century: the dual orientation of their life plan towards family on the one hand and occupational work on the other.

Romantic Era and Romantic Religiosity

Luise Hensel – Woman of Romanticism

Franziska, Clara and Pauline all attended the Catholic Girls’ High School in Aachen where they were taught by the above-mentioned educator and poet Luise Hensel. She exerted a decisive influence on the girls and set the course for their lives. Luise Hensel (1798-1876) is a typical example of educated women in the Romantic era. In some ways, Romanticism was a counter movement to the Enlightenment. The latter had elevated human rationality to the one-and-only criterium; it believed in the human ability to design society and control the course of history. Nature became matter, a “machine” and an object of scientific study. The Enlightenment had made God dispensable. If God existed at all, then as a depersonalised, rational entity that had no immediate influence on human daily affairs. Enlightenment had converted the world into mere matter and thus “disenchanted” it. Romanticism formed as a countermovement, seeking to balance this coldness of reason. It was strong, especially among artists. Luise Hensel came from a family of painters, poets and composers and was directly influenced by Romanticism. She also wrote poetry and lyrics.

Romanticism emphasised emotions and mysticism over against rationalisation; it cherished the feminine and soft above the masculine and hard. Romanticism rediscovered nature as pure and original beauty, untouched by man. The two great sources of inspiration for Romanticism are nature and the supernatural. Compared to Protestantism (with its emphasis on the word and susceptibility to liberalism), Catholicism seemed to better express and contain the mystical and the emotional. The Catholic liturgy with its many references to the sensual offered a space for the romantic depth of feeling. Mystical experiences of the saints, visions and apparitions seemed to be manifestations of the supernatural in the material world. That is why many intellectuals and artists of Romanticism became Catholics, including Luise Hensel.

The Romantic image of woman is the maiden and virgin: the pure, untouched, ultimately unattainable. Romanticism sees the feminine as closely related to the soul, to the depth of feeling, to mystery. Woman, especially as maid and virgin, is the manifestation of the soul: the soul which has immediate access to the mystical and divine. Virginity was thus newly valued as an authentic expression of the feminine; quite a few women of the Romantic era chose not to marry. Women like Luise Hensel remained free and unmarried in order to devote themselves entirely to art or religion. At the age of 14, Luise, daughter of a protestant pastor, made a private vow to give herself completely to God. At 20, she converted to the Catholic faith. For religious reasons, Luise rejected her numerous suitors who were willing to marry her; she renounced to marry her childhood sweetheart because he was a Protestant. At the age of 22, Luise took a private vow of virginity and spent her life earning her living as a teacher while doing charity work for the poor and sick. Sometimes she lived and worked together with like-minded women, but did not consider founding a congregation. This step would only be taken by her pupils Clara, Franziska and Pauline, for whom Luise was a role model, and to whom they remained attached throughout their lives.

Mary – Catholic Religiosity in the Romantic Era

The pure, the untouched, the mystical – Mary became the emblem of Catholic Romanticism. The visual arts, music and poetry of this era portray Mary in soft, emotional and intimate tones. Unlike in ancient and mediaeval depictions, she does not carry the Infant in her arms, for she is not primarily a mother; rather, she is the virgin with her immediate connection with the divine. In visions and apparitions, she appears alone without her son; for she herself is divine revelation.

The 19th century is the great Marian epoch. Marian devotion experienced an unprecedented upswing and became the epitome of Catholicism. May devotions, rosaries and pilgrimages spread like wildfire. Marian apparitions happened in rapid succession all over Europe. The most famous apparition occurred in Lourdes in 1858 and is directly connected with the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary proclaimed by Pius IX in 1854. It is striking – and telling for Romanticism – that virtually all apparitions were experienced by women, mostly girls. The same holds true for stigmatisations: the 19th century features a high number of stigmatised persons, all of them women.

The faithful went on pilgrimage in droves to the apparition sites, and the mass pilgrimages became a vehicle of self-assurance and demonstration of Catholic identity. The Enlightenment had discredited Catholic popular religiosity as superstition: the belief in miracles, relics and sacred sites, in visions and sacred rituals. Now, through her apparitions, Mary seemed to discredit the critics: miracles do happen, and the supernatural is a reality to be reckoned with! Demonstrating their fervent devotion to Mary, the Catholics defied the enlightened society in general, and the Protestant Prussian state in particular.

The Steyl Founding Generation and Romanticism

Were the SVD and SSpS founding generation romantics? Not in the sense of Romanticism as an intellectual-artistic movement; they did not belong to the aristocratic or bourgeois upper class that engaged with the movement. Still, they were women and men who breathed the romantic ideals and religiosity of their times. For instance, Marian devotion was dear to them. They made pilgrimages to the Marian shrine of Kevelaer in the lower Rhineland. Margaretha Messner made a pilgrimage to Maria Trens in South Tyrol when she sought clarity about her vocation. A great number of newly founded congregations at that time were given Marian names. Although this was not the case with the SSpS, Arnold Janssen chose the 8th of December, solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, as the foundation day for the SSpS. Likewise, he had chosen the 8th of September, feast of the nativity of Mary, as the day of the inauguration of the Mission House.

Another trait of Romanticism found in the Steyl founding generation is their high regard for folk religious practices as well as mysticism. Mystical prayer experiences were seen as the crowning glory of spiritual life. The affair of Marie van Basten-Batenburg (Sr. Aufrida-Seraphim), the first superior of the cloistered sisters, has left a rather difficult trace of this in the founding history of the Arnoldus family.

Design of the SSpS religious habit, watercolour by Br. Lukas Kolzem, SVD
Design of the SSpS religious habit, watercolour by Br. Lukas Kolzem, SVD

The first design of the SSpS religious habit clearly has romantic features. In the original tradition of the old religious orders, habits usually imitated the clothing of widows from poorer classes and wrapped the female body in rather shapeless garments in the non-colours black, grey or brown. The SSpS habit, by contrast, was conceived in a vision (!) by the mystic Magdalena Leitner, whom Arnold Janssen used to consult in many matters concerning his foundation. Leitner envisioned for the Sisters the colours of Mary: white and blue. The shape of the dress is graceful and resembles mediaeval noble women’s gowns.

Although it may sound strange to call the austere Arnold Janssen a Romantic, he, too, was influenced by his times. Romanticism placed great value on nature as a source of inspiration and revelation of the divine design of the world. The typical priest of Romanticism was in equal measure interested in nature and in the soul. A caricature from the era shows a priest holding the breviary in his right hand, and a plant identification book in his left. Those who have read the novel “Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo will remember the character Bishop Myriel Bienvenu, who during the day devotes himself to pastoral care and service to the poor, and at night observes the stars. Arnold Janssen fits this picture; before taking up theology, he decided to study his field of interest: mathematics and natural sciences. As can be seen from his writings and the prayers he recommended, his spirituality was marked by the traits of soulful romanticism: nature as the path to God; Mary and the Heart of Jesus, the angels and saints.

Catholic Associations – Women go public

Back to Aachen and to Pauline von Mallinckrodt. In a way, Pauline’s life repeated that of her great role model Luise Hensel. Like Luise, Pauline, too, had a Protestant father who worked as a high Prussian government official in Aachen. He must have been an open-minded and courageous man, because at the request of his Catholic wife he allowed the four children to be baptised Catholics. In doing so, he risked his employment, because according to Prussian law he was obliged to have his children baptised Protestant. Pauline, living her Catholic faith, would cause her father severe troubles; she would become the reason that he was denied his due promotion so that he finally handed in his resignation.

A young man from a good family asked Pauline to marry him. His only defect in Pauline’s eyes: he was a Protestant. Pauline struggled with her feelings: she felt attracted to him, but out of religious conviction could not imagine marrying a non-Catholic. After receiving the sacrament of confirmation she resolutely decided against her suitor. But Pauline did not leave it at her personal decision; she went public and campaigned, in a militant manner, against mixed marriages. For this purpose, Pauline founded a girls’ association. The girls promised to refrain from all contact with Protestants, and to persuade other Catholic girls to make the same pledge. For this purpose, the association had pamphlets printed and advertised in the local press. This alarmed the Prussian administration. An investigation report states: “The daughter of the Councillor Mallinckrodt, whom her father allowed to be Catholic, is at the head of an association of Catholic girls who have sworn on the host never to marry a Protestant, and even to break off all contact with Protestants. An example from the daughter of such an official makes the most detrimental impression for Protestantism in that area.”

Pauline’s association was religious by nature, but the campaign was also a political one. Catholics saw themselves as attacked and oppressed. Enlightenment had discredited popular Catholicism as superstitious. In the secularisation, the church had lost its secular power and most of its possessions. And now, the Protestant Prussian state had taken over government in the Catholic Rhineland. The Catholics saw themselves in a position of defence and siege. As a response, Catholics sought to rebuild their shattered church structure and wounded self-esteem. Catholic associations mushroomed. These usually had religious purposes, such as prayers, the veneration of a particular saint, the custody of a church or a place of pilgrimage, or the service of the poor and sick. Associations were meeting places and action platforms for Catholics where a strong sense of “we” developed. Associations also provided a structure to organise and coordinate social and charitable activities more efficiently. In some cases, as described above, religious congregations developed out of the associations. Politically, Catholics founded their most important organ with the establishment of the Catholic Centre Party (1870).

Associations were not an exclusively Catholic phenomenon, though. There were also Protestant or non-denominational associations. Associations were particularly popular among women, often founded and led by women themselves. They offered women the opportunity to become active in society and the public sphere. As mentioned above, the sphere of middle-class women was otherwise limited to their own family and household. History shows that a political power, intent on restoring the “good old” social order after a time of upheaval, often seeks to relegate women to “their place” – and “their place” supposedly is the household and care of husband and children. Napoleon, for instance, severely curtailed the legal status of women, effectively placing married women on equal footing with underage children. The Catholic church presented the woman as housewife and mother in religious images: the woman as the “priestess of the family” who turns the home into a domestic church and instils faith in husband and children. In this somewhat stifling, bourgeois atmosphere, the associations afforded middle-class women an “escape route” for legitimate activities outside their homes. Thus the associations functioned as a stage for women’s social appearances.

We will now briefly describe the association to which Helena Stollenwerk belonged before she entered the Mission House at Steyl. It played a decisive role for her personally, as well as for spreading enthusiasm for foreign missions in the German speaking countries. It is the Missionary Association of the Holy Childhood [of Jesus], founded by Auguste von Sartorius.

The Association of the Holy Childhood

Once again: Aachen in the year 1830. While Clara, Pauline and Franziska are taking part in the Sunday circle at the Fey home, a few streets away Auguste von Sartorius is born.  Her father is a doctor; her mother is a member of a Catholic women’s association that runs a maternity clinic for poor women. Naturally, Auguste also belongs to an association, the Marian Congregation of Virgins. As is customary for the members, she attends Mass daily, visits the sick and makes clothes and toys for poor children. At the age of 15, Auguste learns about the situation of children in China from letters written by missionaries. She is especially touched by the fate of orphaned girls. Auguste collects money and sends it to Bishop de Forbin-Janson of Nancy/France. In 1843 he had founded the “Œuvre de la Sainte-Enfance” (Institute of the Holy Childhood) with the purpose of supporting children in China. Inspired by his idea, Auguste founded a similar association in Aachen in 1846. Not only children but also the clergy joined her cause. Soon the association spread to most German dioceses and was recognised as a papal institute by Pope Pius IX. Because Auguste, at 16, was not yet of age, her father together with a priest nominally ran the association; but in reality Auguste was the driving force. She looked after her association for nine years, until in 1855 she decided to join the Sacre Coeur Sisters (whose Superior General she became in 1894).

A few years after Auguste’s entry into the convent, Helena Stollenwerk of Rollesbroich became a member of the Association of the Holy Childhood. Like Auguste, she would dream of helping orphaned girls in China…

Pauline’s (Cultural) Struggle – Ultramontanism

Back to Pauline’s girls’ association. As described, Pauline caused a public stir with her anti-Protestant marriage campaign. And it was not, as might be expected, a Protestant clergyman who raised the alarm, but a Prussian government official. What caused Pauline’s campaign to be a political demonstration against the government? After the Catholic Rhineland was annexed to the Prussian state, Protestant government officials settled there in great numbers. This led to many marriages between Protestant Prussian men and Catholic women from the Rhineland. Initially, parents could decide about the religious upbringing of their children. In 1825, however, the Prussian government decreed that the children had to be baptised according to the denomination of the father. This clashed with Catholic canon law, which required that in mixed marriages the children must be raised as Catholics. The Archbishop of Cologne, Clemens August Droste zu Vischering, openly opposed the Prussian government and declared that he would not follow any instructions from the government, but only those from the Pope. The government responded by forcibly removing the archbishop from office and sending him to prison. The Catholics were outraged; they saw the archbishop as a martyr, felt that their freedom of faith was being attacked and that they were being “persecuted” by the Prussian state. As a consequence, Catholics aligned themselves with the Vatican over against the Prussian government. The Pope was their true, not only religious, but also political head – and not the Prussian government. The events in Cologne helped the new self-perception of the Catholics to a final breakthrough. This Catholic mentality is called Ultramontanism. Ultra montes (Latin: beyond the mountains, i.e. the Alps), over there in Rome resides the Pope to whom, and only to whom Catholics must be loyal and obey more than their governments. Pope Pius IX was eager to promote Ultramontanism for its part. The result was an unprecedented centralization of power in the Roman Curia. Traditionally, the dioceses as well as the religious orders had enjoyed a certain autonomy; now Rome assumed far-reaching powers to interfere with the affairs of local churches, dioceses and religious orders. Culmination and symbolic expression of Ultramontanism was the declaration of the dogma of infallibility by the First Vatican Council (1870).

Of course, not all Catholics were Ultramontanists. There were also liberal Catholic circles that engaged in dialogue with the new intellectual currents of the time. Especially among theologians and bishops, opposition arose against the exaggerated exaltation of the Pope. At Vatican Council I almost all the German, Austrian and Swiss bishops, as well as some of the French bishops, were against the declaration of the dogma of infallibility. The question was also hotly debated by the clergy of Münster, to which Arnold Janssen belonged. While almost all his colleagues were against the dogma of infallibility, Arnold Janssen belonged to the minority of supporters. He saw himself as a man of the people and a man of the Pope.

Summary and concluding remarks

Often the situation of women is presented as a history of oppression and marginalisation. And that is certainly true. This article has taken a different approach by trying to show how women actively shaped society and the church in the 19th century.

In the social context of the time, the SSpS co-foundresses appear quite typical. Like most Catholic women of their time, they belong to a religious association (Helena Stollenwerk: Holy Childhood Association; Hendrina Stenmann: Franciscan Tertiaries). Through the association they develop a certain spirituality, learn regular prayer life, and take on social responsibility (collecting money for disadvantaged children, visiting the sick, sharing with the poor, etc.). As with many other women, this awakened in them a vocation for religious life.

Helena Stollenwerk’s vocation story is an example of how women, in the wake of the Enlightenment, developed a sense of individuality; and in the wake of Romanticism, a spiritual self-confidence. Against all odds, Helena believed in her missionary vocation and did not give up the search for a suitable place. Helena represented the new type of religious vocation: the goal was not monastic life as such, but a specific ministry. Helena wished to take care of orphans in China, and she did not compromise on that while looking for an institute to enter. The Mission House at Steyl that she chose to join was not even a congregation; she was content to start there as a servant, hoping that it would serve as a stepping stone for her desired destination, China.

Women who joined religious congregations expanded their horizons far beyond what was ordinary for women at that time. Religious life offered them professional activities and leadership roles that were otherwise reserved for men. Many congregations accepted women also from the lower middle classes, sometimes even from the working class. By becoming a Sister, these women had educational and career opportunities that otherwise would have been unattainable for them. Congregations thus offered women a space for their development that society did not provide. A typical but nonetheless astonishing example of this is Theresia Messner (1868-1938), the first SSpS Superior General. She was a peasant girl from a remote valley in the Alps with only elementary school education. Letters and reports from missionaries in Catholic magazines awakened in her the wish to become a missionary herself, and in 1891 she joined the nascent female branch of the Mission House at Steyl.  Recognising her potential, Rector Janssen made her novice directress and eventually leader of the community, which was growing rapidly. Under her leadership, the women’s branch gained independence from the male foundation. In her time as superior general Messner founded over one hundred communities on all continents. She took executive decisions about personnel, finances and apostolates that governed a global institute. Furthermore, she undertook journeys around the world. Thus, her childhood dream to leave the mountain valley and “one day go far, far away” was more than fulfilled, in a way she could not have imagined, by means of her joining a religious congregation.


Anna Damas, SSpS

Sr. Anna Damas * 1966 in Germany. Entered the SSpS Congregation 1987 in Steyl. Studied theology in Münster/Germany and Nimwegen/Netherlands. Pastoral Work in Diocese of Aachen/Germany. 2006-2019 pastoral and biblical work in Papua New Guinea. Since 2019 research, publication and seminars in SSpS history and spirituality, and interculturality.

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