For our Founders’ Day, November 9, 2011, Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity Novices Sister Regina Rose and Sister Leslie reflected on our early Sisters’ example of a humility born from complete obedience to God’s will, a poverty mirroring the lowliness of Christ, and a foolishness that, even today, many would call disturbing. After highlighting individual Sisters of the Community of the Poor School Sisters of St. Francis of Gieboldehausen, Germany, as well as Theresa Gramlich and others who began our fledgling community here in Amercia, the Novices challenged us in our living today. Read part of their script.
Beginnings in Germany
The Community of the Poor School Sisters of St. Francis of Gieboldehausen in the diocese of Hildesheim had a humble beginning. In contrast to the founding of the American branch by Father Fessler to meet the crying need of Catholic Education in pioneer Wisconsin, the European branch owes its origins to a young woman in her late teens, Magdalena Bohrman. She, too, was moved by an educational need- that of young girls in a male dominated society. It was for them that she worked unceasingly to attain her goal of becoming a Franciscan teaching Sister.
Magdalena Bohrman was born in Einum, Germany. We know little of this founding sister other than that she always had a deep love of St. Francis. At the age of 18 and after completing her education, she convinced her friend, Catherine Engelke from Hasede near Geisen, Germany, to join her in approaching the Bishop of Hildesheim to tell him of their desires. His Lordship was not impressed. He heartily tried to convince the two to join with the Ursuline Sisters in Duderstadt but this was not their wish. As there were no Franciscans in his diocese, he sent them to the School Sisters of St. Francis in Brixen, Tyrol. Here they made their novitiate and received their foundation for their future religious life. They spent a little over a year in Franciscan training. Besides religious practices, they learned to make flowers, work with wax and many other artistic skills. On April 16, 1856, they received their habits and were perpetually professed, taking the names of Sr. Seraphica and Sister Bernwarda…
Beginnings in America
Nine years after the founding of the German congregation, 1866, in Wisconsin, Teresa Gramlich left her home of St. Nazianz to travel to the town of Clarks Mills to teach catechism. It was June 5th, the Feast of the Sacred Heart. This seemingly simple event lead to the foundation of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity. Teresa must have had a deep trust in the Lord to set out away from St. Nazianz because St. Nazianz was a special place. St. Nazianz was a colony founded by Fr. Ambrose Oschwald from Baden Germany. His favorites saying was, “Let everyone do his best to promote the welfare of his neighbor.” The purpose of the colony was “the sanctification of its members by a life of piety, self-denial and charity in all its forms.” The members were to follow the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity according to their state in life, and obedience. Everything was to be held in common: the members were to work without wages, receiving everything needed from the general fund; the surplus to be used for charity. The Gospel living of this colony provided for a tight knit community that worked together in an atmosphere of loving support. Teresa’s deeply religious family originally from Schluerstadt, Germany, were established members of the colony, Teresa herself was 23 years old when she left St. Nazianz. It must have been difficult for Teresa. She wrote, “For three months I stayed with a family in the village all alone to my task.” That sounds rather lonely but even in her loneliness she was faithful to God and to the task of teaching…
Conclusion: Challenge to Be Disturbing Presence
During our Community Days this year, Sr. Louise challenged each one of us to strive to be a disturbing presence to the values of the world by our unity with Christ and with each other. This call reaches farther back than Sr. Louise, however, and echoes the lives of all our past superiors, St. Francis and, most importantly, Christ Himself. What does it mean to be a disturbing presence in the manner of Christ, Francis and Clare? These three, by the way they lived and spoke, challenged the status quo, spoke uncomfortable truths, embraced those whom others forgot, and never stopped loving and forgiving. These three had the ability to keep going with hope and confidence even when they were misunderstood and rejected by their own.
Though we’ve touched only on a small part of our entire history as Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, we can be certain that the lives and examples of our founding sisters were an enormous invitation and challenge to the future members of this community. These women were not prophets. They were not theologians. They were not famous or exorbitantly rich. They were merely pioneers. Nevertheless, they boldly, fearlessly, and tirelessly embraced God’s call upon their hearts. They yearned to radically live, speak and practice what they found in the Gospels: poverty and humility. In a time when some governments were persecuting the Church, women weren’t typically educated, the Church in America was young, and basic survival was a challenge, these women would have been called foolish, indeed. Through living simply and simply living, they revolutionized the world they lived in.
According to an article written by Matthew Vallipalam, “Religious are called to listen to God as He speaks, communicates, reveals Himself in Scripture and in the teaching of the Church, in the constitutions of the Institute and in conscience. Not only that, but they are called to listen to God through people, events and things. (Propositum, pg. 37.)
The Church and Franciscan Orders are prophetic communities, the voice of the Lord, the light of the world facing the darkness. The signs of the times, our own awareness of our religious values, and how those values have been accommodated to and compromised by other values tells us that old patterns are no longer immune to question and challenge. God’s will may, and often does, bring us into conflict with conventional positions and this will hurt. But a deep trust in a God who is our Lord and Savior will provide us with the strength and courage to stand against common opinion and to be Christians of counter-culture. This is the basis for our vocation as Franciscans (Poverty: St. Francis and the 20th century).
“The present and future grow out of a common history. To the extent that an individual or a community is aware of its past, they can make better decisions in the present. To the extent that they are unaware of the past influences, they are hampered in their decision making. When a group has dynamic memory of past heritage preserved in a living tradition, it is more likely to have a creative imagination in moving ahead.” (Charisms pg 13) Tonight, we have tried to bring to light that our community’s history, from the very beginning, has been bound up and rooted in Gospel values that ask- no, require – that we welcome and embrace every opportunity to embody the poverty and humility of Christ.
The lives of our sisters are a direct reminder of the encouragement of St. Francis: “I have done what is mine to do. May Christ show you what is yours!”