The reflection is excerpted from the publication, “Enlarge the Space of your Tent,” compiled by Sister Victoria Wiethaler in 2003.
In Conflict with the Nazi Party
Ten years after the end of WWI, at the General Chapter in 1928, Sister Almeda Schricker was elected General Superior of SSND. It was a happy choice of a woman whose kindness encouraged many sisters to remain faithful during difficult times. Already, in 1930, she sensed the darkness that lay ahead. She urged the sisters to give the children the best they had, their love created in the heart of Jesus. The exact observance of Holy Poverty was her urgent plea.
The Archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Michael Faulhaber, exhorted the sisters on March 13, 1933, "In convents with educational institutes the sisters are warned to use the greatest possible reserve in expressing themselves, in asking and answering questions about political affairs and government orders, and to practice a very careful silence.There is otherwise a very great danger that children and their relatives, servants, and guests of the convent may pick up hasty judgments and remarks, either intentionally or through misunderstanding, and then repeat them in public to the danger of the convent."
Mother Almeda urged the sisters not to join the National Socialist Teachers Association. This would be done by the congregation when the time for it would be ripe. What they could join was the Association of German Catholic Teachers and the Center for Schools of Religious Orders, both represented by Bishop Berning of Osnabrueck. "Let us continue on our way in the firm conviction of faith that nothing will happen which we cannot utilize for our eternal welfare." (Circular, December 12, 1933)
During 1933, Mother Almeda visited many sisters in North America. A young priest said to her, "Without the Notre Dame Sisters and their work in the parish schools, the Catholic Church in North America would not be conceivable as it exists today." Reverend Mother felt that "Sisters were united in a bond of love under the banner of our Lady, following the cross-bearing Savior on the steep path to heaven." (Letter, June 16, 1933)
As times became more anxious, Mother Almeda exhorted her sisters on May 31, 1936, "A Pentecostal wind shakes the tree of our order, so that it shudders to its innermost center. Will this wind be able to buckle it and tear away its foliage? No, never! Mary controls the threatening storms. This wind can blow away only withered leaves. Those that have life grow ever more closely along with the tree, unfold themselves more freshly while new powers of growth stream through them. Yes, now every sister must undergo a severe test of her strength, must decide for herself whether she will remain true to her God-given calling, her promise made to God. In these days so rich in graces, may the Holy Spirit with his sevenfold gifts visit our souls and above all grant us the gift of fortitude. May He fill us with true sisterly love, with kindness and patience toward the children entrusted to our care, Let us support and encourage one another; let us pray for one another, asking for the grace of loyalty and perseverance,"
Dr, Rudolf Gerg, spiritual advisor of the Generalate, was her loyal support, He was especially concerned about our sisters in the southeastern provinces, Through the use of code names, as "Dear Father, Good Grandpa, Uncle Rudolf," he was able to receive news and calls for help in Romania, Yugoslavia, Poland, and Hungary.
Families also became involved in the battle, as is evident in the following testimony of a working man, "For years I was without a job, and I was so happy when I finally received the work to wash buses at a post office. Now, suddenly, I was dismissed because my children still attend the school taught by the Poor School Sisters at the Anger."
Dr. Boepple stated in the National Socialist paper: "In 1936, the National Socialist government comes to the final decision to eliminate the activity of the Catholic Religious Sisters from teaching in the schools. About a hundred years ago, when the education of girls was decided upon, there were not enough lay teachers. Sisters were employed as a makeshift solution. This awkward situation was dragged along for a century even though the ideals of the sisters could not be considered compatible with the goals of public education. The educator has to be an enthusiastic fighter for the National Socialist world view. The sisters are guided by a narrow viewpoint determined by their religious community. The state, therefore, has to make the merciless decision: either a convinced National Socialist teacher or a strictly religious sister. We have no use for an in-between situation. Therefore, the dismissal of religious teachers has to follow.”
Mother Almeda's answer to Dr. Boepple' s announcement of the dismissal of the sisters from the schools appeared in a Circular on June 3, 1936, "With the present situation in mind, we make the following recommendations to teaching sisters: We have, until now, carried on our work as teachers for the honor of God and the service of youth. This work in the public elementary schools of Bavaria was entrusted to us by the people who had confidence in us. If today we are dismissed from the schools, we can say with a clear conscience, in the sight of all people who love truth and justice, that we have fulfilled our duty to the best of our ability, and we will fulfill it in the same way in the future, 'Do not be anxious for the future!' This saying indicates our belief that God's providence has foreseen the future path, the future work of the order and of each individual sister.
"One already hears from many sources that whisperings have reached the sisters, telling them to lay aside their religious habits and to accept a position as a lay teacher. The state authorities would welcome such petitions. Every upright religious will not hesitate to reject such a suggestion with dignity. Our candidates, in particular, will be tested as to their loyalty. They may trust that their superiors will advise them in the way that is best for them.
"Through the Concordat, the state has expressly guaranteed the preservation and indeed the erection of new confessional schools. Therefore, no one needs to fear that she is failing in her duty because of a basic and lasting objection to the public school."
On July 10, 1936, Mother Almeda informed her sisters, "Mother Medulpha Ebner has recently sent an urgent invitation to help them in the extensive American mission field. Especially needed at present are house sisters, then kindergarten teachers, seamstresses, teachers who are willing to learn English well. Mother Medulpha wrote that she has a roof, work, bread, and welcome for all the sisters. Sisters with a special call for missionary work in America should make this known as soon as possible, since the preparations for departure require considerable time."
The threat soon became reality. Thirty-five of our houses were closed during the last two months of 1936. In consequence of this appalling measure, about three hundred sisters and eighty candidates were without professional work on January 1, 1937.
The candidate mistress, Sister M. Lidoria Schmidbauer, expressed her deep concern for the candidates as follows: "The youth of the order are also touched by the dismissal of our teachers, but gazing upward gives us strength to bear the burden that comes from below. First of all, supported by grace, we will in humble submission to the dispensations of Divine Providence pray, 'The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; blessed be the name of the Lord.' In second place, it is necessary to make this statement clear to all the missions, 'See how the Christians love one another.' All should be lovingly united in carrying this heavy cross. Reverend Mother will not send away any candidate who is true to her vocation as long as the sisters have a piece of bread to spare. But the candidates must be prepared to accept the sacrifices and privation with the sisters as long as God wills this.
"Sooner or later our country will need again people who remain at their post out of love of God. Therefore, only those who perhaps from their childhood cherished in their hearts the desire to go forth and teach should send in their application to work in a foreign country such as Austria, Romania, etc., or in our North American and South American missions. To be sure, candidates must be in good health in order to apply for this kind of work. Naturally, they must obtain the consent of their parents. The novice mistress in Milwaukee speaks German very well and would be able to help those who desire to learn the English language.
"I understand that some parents are encouraging their daughters to transfer and become secular teachers. But we know what would be demanded of you. You would support the struggle of the opposition and help it to prepare for a triumph. I beg you candidates, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, to consecrate yourselves to our heavenly Mother. Renew your promise of fidelity to her."
A great consolation amidst these heavy trials was the steadfastness of the sisters. They encouraged one another to use their talents to acquire new skills such as typing, book keeping, or playing the organ. Some sisters went to Sweden, England, Holland, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Italy. It often meant learning a new language and adjusting to a new culture.
Mother Almeda stated, "The young members of the order are a source of joy to me because of their idealism and their courage. On the feast of the Immaculate Conception no less than 140 candidates begged for reception into the order. Shall we succeed in granting the fervent desire of this eager group?"
The dismissal of the sisters from kindergartens, grade schools, and schools of higher education continued. (In 1936, there were 683 Sisters employed as grade school teachers; by 1945, only 94 Sisters were teaching.) The government also wanted to undermine the continuation of the order. It developed a new form of teacher education, and the candidates were forced to attend the State Teachers College, where faith and morals were in danger.
His Eminence Cardinal Faulhaber encouraged the sisters on a visit to the Anger convent. He said, "At the present time the order has to withdraw, to step aside quietly, but it will flourish again. Mother Theresa will know how to protect her work."
As more schools of lower and higher education were closed, hundreds of sisters needed new employment. Mother Almeda found support through the Church and its institutions, through friends, and through the loyal Catholic population. Many sisters found work in parishes and were employed by the Caritas (Similar to Catholic Charities) Organization. After the war started, many convents were converted into military hospitals. Large groups of children were sent from cities to rural places for protection. The sisters served with devotion and love wherever help was needed. So many requests for sisters arrived to the motherhouse that Mother Almeda found it difficult at times to fulfill them.