Mother Frances responds to the Kulturkampf



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c 2 08Aachen in the 19th centuryIt is last decades of the 19th century. Europe is trying to extinguish the enthusiasm kindled by the French Revolution in order to return to the old social order. The German Empire tries to suppress the Catholic Church, denying faith in the name of science, free thought, and progress.

This is the Kulturkampf period, the conflict between the State and the Catholic Church triggered in Germany after the proclamation of the Empire in 1871.During these years Mother Frances witnessed for us a woman of prayer, of deep faith and of determined courage.  

Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of the newly formed German empire, bitterly fought the Catholic Church in Prussia.  He desired to create a single, state dependent German National Church. 

In 1871 the Catholic division of the culture ministry in Berlin was dissolved, officially starting the Kulturkampf. In 1872 the government banished the Jesuits and restricted the rights of Bishops. 

c 2 07Phillip KrementzThe Bishop of Ermland, Phillip Krementz, was punished by house arrest.  Prussian Bishops Paul Melchers of Cologne and Miecislas Halka Ledochowski of Gnesen/Pose were punished, fined, and imprisoned after protesting the restrictions.  In 1873 the government enacted the “May Laws” which created a civil court to govern church affairs.  These laws also banished the four orders associated with the Jesuits and later banished all religious orders except those nursing the sick.  

Mother Frances immediately began to prepare her Sisters for the time of greater, still unknown sacrifices, sufferings and dangers in the only secure refuge, the Heart of our Divine Savior.  She sent a letter to all the houses with special prayers to be said.  During Lent, 1874, Mother Frances again asked for prayers, fearing the Prussian government would take control of the Congregation.  Her fears came true when police demanded the names of all the Sisters, including novices, at the Mother House and the Dominican building.  Mother Frances knew this new demand was the first act of State supervision over the Congregation.

Elections in the Congregation had been postponed twice, but in 1875 Archbishop Melchers directed the election be held before the Congregation faced even worse conditions.  Mother Frances was re-elected, but immediately wrote to the Archbishop and begged him not to approve the election. 

c 2 06Paul MelchersHe responded by letter “Venerable Mother: At the present time of severe trials and tribulations, you may not refuse the choice which has again fallen on you.  That is my complete conviction and my wish.  God will help you.  What would you say to a shepherd who would desert his flock at the hour when it was assailed by a robber?  God be with you.”  Mother Frances received the decision of the Archbishop as an expression of the will of God.

In 1875 further laws were passed, including one giving the government the authority to seize Catholic Church property.  Sensing that the congregation would soon be banished, Mother Frances sent three Sisters to America explore the possibility of moving the entire Congregation to America.  She had a friend of her cousin Dr. Schervier purchase the motherhouse to keep it out of state control.  

c 2 05Anticipating that the Congregation would not have been able to exist any longer in Prussia, Mother Frances decided to move to Belgium supported in her decision by the opinion of her Councilors. Property was purchased in Engheim to serve as a temporary home for the elderly and sick sisters, with Sister Kunigundra as superior.  A new Mother House was constructed in Andrimont.  

c 2 04Adalbert FalkOn July 1, 1875 Minister of Culture Adalbert Falk came to the Mother House to demand Mother Frances dismiss the school girls in the Congregation and stop begging from the community. 

To this Mother Frances replied, “Because with the results of the collections the costs are met for the kitchens for the poor and sick founded by the Congregation, on this prohibition rests the closing and consequently the poor and the sick will be severely affected by it.”  Falk protested and Mother calmly replied “If our activities are curtailed in this manner in our German fatherland, we will be forced to go to America or to some other country.” 

Falk backed down and Mother stated “We are religious in the first place, then nurses; and if the State wished to interfere in the religious life, we will give up nursing the sick and leave.  Rather would I lay my head on the block, and so would every one of us, than deviate one iota from it.”  Falk shrugged his shoulders and left in defeat.

c 2 03Children at work in Germany at the end of the 19th centuryLater that summer the government demanded details about the Congregation’s exterior and interior life. 

Mother Frances answered all the questions regarding the exterior life of the Congregation, but those which concerned the interior life she left unanswered. 

She wrote a letter declaring:

The questionnaire sent to be filled out has doubtless the object to serve as foundation for the State supervision of our Congregation. 

c 2 02Queen AugustaBut this contains questions which arouse the fear that the State supervision will not permit the free disposition of the means of subsistence and the free assignment of the members of the Congregation and hence, as a consequence, will restrict the activities, even abolish them; and that in particular the religious character of our Congregation will suffer under them. 

So long as this view of the directives is not corrected, to my regret I cannot complete the questionnaire.
    Aachen, July 20, 1875            Frances Schervier
                Superior General of the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis

During these difficult times Mother Frances appealed to her friend Queen Augusta, wife of Kaiser Wilhelm I.  Queen Augusta interceded and the persecution of the nursing and women’s congregations, as well as government requirements, was lessened. 

Only the protection of Empress Augusta prevented the exile of the Congregation and other nursing orders.

Gradually the storm of the Kulturkampf gradually subsided and the government permitted the Congregation her former activities in the branch houses and the free reception of new members.

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Published: August, 1, 2014

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