The spiritual relationship between Saint Arnold Janssen and Blessed Maria Helena Stollenwerk

Author: Dariusz Stanislaw Pielak, SVD
Subject: St. Arnold, Blessed Maria Helena
Language: English, Spanish
Portrait of Mother Maria

Reading about the life of Blessed Maria Helena Stollenwerk, the fact that she belonged to the Apostleship of Prayer caught my attention. Sister Maria Helena joined this movement in 1866 at the age of 14. What is surprising is that in the same year a young priest, a mathematics teacher from a small German town of Bocholt also joined this movement. His name was Fr. Arnold Janssen. On the one hand, this coincidence did not have much significance. At that time, the Apostleship of Prayer in Germany was growing every year, and every year hundreds and thousands of laymen and women joined it, as well as dozens of priests. But on the other hand, it is not surprising that Providence was leading these two people along similar paths, until the moment of their meeting that will take place 16 years later. But let us look at other aspects of a possible ”spiritual relationship” between Fr. Arnold and Sr. Maria Helena.

1. The missionary spirit.

Maria Helena Stollenwerk already from the early age of 10 years became part of the Holy Childhood Association (Pontifical Mission Work for Children). Already as a child she had a passion for the mission, especially for China, and her opinion did not change over the years. Her trust in the voice of God that was calling her was so strong that she did not care about the opinion of the confessor who did not approve of her longing, nor about the possible stability of family life. Interest for the mission was further area of her presence in the Apostleship of Prayer.

One of the main ideas of this movement is to share the ardent desires of the Lord to save all humanity. Making Jesus known to those who had never heard of Him, was the great dream of young María Helena.

China also greatly impressed St. Arnold Janssen. The number of people who lived in that distant country and the fact that only a few knew Christ, did not leave the Founder of the congregation at Steyl alone.

2. The spirit of perseverance.

St. Arnold on more than one occasion went through a long way of discernment and search for means before making a decision and undertaking a new work. But once the work began, he put all his strength into its realization.

For Blessed Maria Helena, the realization of the vocation that she felt in her heart was more complex and took more time than she might have thought at first. She could not find a congregation that was working in China then. In addition, the 70s of the 19th century were not favorable for religious life due to the policy of the German government that prohibited the performance of religious orders. María Helena had the only chance left: Steyl’s congregation. Upon learning that a priest founded a German missionary house in the Netherlands and that the main destination of the missionaries will be for China, María Helena adhered to this hope, having only a vague promise of the possible foundation of a female missionary congregation.

Maria Helena worked patiently as a servant for 7 long years before her big dream came true. On December 8, 1889, the group of servants from Steyl (including another co-founder of the Missionary Sisters – Josefa Endrina Stenmanns) finally began religious life.

3. The spirit of sacrifice.

Life in the Steyl mission house was not easy. From today’s perspective there is even no shortage of criticism that the Sisters worked too hard and often under deplorable conditions. But such was the “Steyl spirit” of which Fr. Arnold Janssen himself was an indisputable example. However, the spirit of sacrifice refers not only to the physical part. Perhaps harder were the spiritual sacrifices.

We have already seen that Sr. María Helena did not want to give up her missionary dream at the insistence of her confessor. However, the challenges of founding the congregation forced her to stay at Steyl and dedicate herself to the formation of future missionaries. Her dream of going to China was not fulfilled in her personal life, but in the lives of the sisters she had formed. The sisters who continue to commit themselves to the mission today are also part of
the fulfillment of María Helena’s dream.

One of the last sacrifices of her life was the leaving from the missionary active community to the budding contemplative community. The curious thing is that already being Superior General, she had to go back to the novitiate. It was an act of obedience required by Fr. Arnold, but above all for the good of the opening contemplative congregation.

4. The spirit of prayer.

The participation in the Apostleship of Prayer at the age of 14 and the transition to the contemplative branch of the Servant Sisters of the Holy Spirit at the age of 46 (two years before her death) form a “buckle” of her spiritual history. In this also Sr. María Helena demonstrated her affinity with Fr. Arnold. For the founder of the three missionary congregations, the mission without the support of God’s grace has no reason to exist. In his letters to the missionaries, he often insisted that if things are not going well, then one must implore God’s help. One of his favorite quotes from the Gospel is the one that talks about the Kingdom that suffers violence and violent people enter it. It was not, of course, physical violence, but an insistent and confident prayer.

(The reflection is centered on the life of Blessed Maria Elena. We hope that with a similar reflection we will honor Blessed Josefa Stenmanns in the month of May).

Blessed Maria Elena and Saint Arnold, pray for us!

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Dariusz Pielak, SVD
Dariusz Pielak, SVD

Dariusz Pielak born on 30.03.1965 in Poland. In 1985 he joined the Society of the Divine Word. During the seminary he did the experience of OTP in Argentina in a community of life inserted in popular environments of Greater Buenos Aires. After finishing the seminary he worked in Spain and did a licentiate in biblical theology there. Since 2003 he has been working in Russia teaching at the seminary and attending the parish of St. Olga in Moscow. He also devotes himself to deepen the themes related to the spiritual history of Arnold Janssen.

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