Give everybody an answer who asks you for the reason of your hope!

mutter clara gesichtmutter clara konstitutionenmutter clara brust

Homily for the 140th Anniversary of the Wreck of the Deutschland

and the death of our five sisters

and the celebration of Mother Clara Pfaender’s Birthday

on December 6, 2015 – The Second Sunday of Advent

Proclaimed by Georgene L. Wilson, OSF, D. MIN

I hope, in this reflection, to connect the many facets of focus that this day invites us to ponder and to weave them into some Wisdom for our heart’s deeping....................

6Dez2015bLet me first name the facets................

Readings for the Christian Community this Second Sunday of Advent:

Baruch 5: 1-9

Phil. 1: 4-5, 8-11

Luke 3: 1-6

Our Advent Focus: Our Light Has Come. Let Us Live in the Light.

The Cry of our Franciscan Sisters Henrica, Barbara, Norberta, Brigitta and Aurea

(See the story in the brochure for the full story.). We find their cry in Gerrard Manley Hopkins’ poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland:

“She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly

Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails

Was calling ‘O Christ, Christ, come quickly’:

The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst Best.”

Mother Clara Pfaender’s Brithday: It is she who urges us all to “Let love be the queen, the rule, the spirit and the life of the congregation....... Let it shine forth (as LIGHT) from our faces, from our eyes, from our lips, in our speech, in our manner, in all places and in all things...” (Adapted by glw)

Some artistic images displayed here:

- A photo/picture of the banner representing the Poem. The large original hangs in the Deutschland Chapel.

- In front of it is an artistic circle of the waters that 140 years ago received our sisters bodies and sent forth their LIGHT as a shining witness of Love and Compassion.

These are the focuses of grace that we gather to ponder and integrate into our own lives.

We began our Liturgy this morning with the song/prayer:

“What Wondrous Love is This”.

We sang it in remembrance and gratitude for:

-Christ, Our Light who has come and lives as Light in our life,

-The lives of our five SISTERS who gave their lives so that we might have life and light, and

-The life and love and witness of M. Clara.

We lit our symbol, the Second Advent Candle, to remind us that we are on a journey into a deeper light within each of us and among all of us.

And we have just heard our Scriptures proclaimed.

o Let us gaze into these scriptures and ponder how they source our celebration of the Five Sisters and M. Clara and each one of our lives:

The reading from Baruch invites us to wrap the cloak of the integrity of God around us, for God means to show our splendor to all... God has shown such splendor through the witness of our Five Sisters on the Deutschland (see the brochure)

and the life and love of M. Clara God wraps each one of us in the cloak of Wisdom and Discernment to be a LIGHT for our world.

The Letter to the Philippines calls us to remember how we have been missioned to spread the Good News from the day we were born till NOW!

...The Sisters on the sinking ship had to put their trust in remembering this promise. They were the precursors of the American Province of the Franciscan Sisters, Daughters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. The sisters and companions continue to put our trust in God

from the day we were born until now.

Let us continue to deepen this Way of Life.

... The 5 Sisters were the seeds of the Wheaton Franciscan Province. 140 years ago it seemed that these seeds had been destroyed in their drowning. But the waters were only washing their witness and courage into the lives of all of us....

...“For God has done this good work in us and brings fruit forward” from all experiences of life......even from the death of loved ones and from our own dying and painful experiences.

...Let us remember what M. Clara said to the departing sisters: “My love for each of you increases. May you always recognize what is BEST and give it forth for the good of all others.”

...this BEST love is what prepares us, protects us and send us to


6Dez2015aThe Gospel from and for the Community of St. Luke reminds us....

... that within the Earthly time of “once before but really still yet!”

the Word of God came to John the Baptist,

and comes to each of us,

to be the precursor of THE CREATOR,



- to unite and reconcile,

- to level the hills, the mountains of hatred

- to straighten the paths, to shine the way of LIGHT for ALL,

- to live forth with open eyes, ears, and with all the senses of our hearts

- and to pray always,


- and live, believing that


May this be so.

Let the church gathered here proclaim AMEN!


December 6, 2012 

Reflection  (S. Henrika’s Farewell letter to M. Clara;  Matt 7: 21, 24-27)

S. Margaret Grempka

Jesus said to his disciples: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.

“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.” 

deutschland 1Today we remember and celebrate the life and death of our five Sisters who died in the wreck of the Deutschland off the coast of England in 1875, 137 years ago. We honor Sisters Henrica Fassbender, Barbara Hultenschmidt, Norberta Reinkober, Aurea Badziura and Brigitta Damhorst.  These five Sisters were young women, between the ages of 24 and 32.  The morning of their departure from Germany to America, four made their final vows and one made her first vows.  We also remember Mother Clara (whose birthday we celebrate today).  In the young Congregation, Mother Clara knew these young women personally, received their vows and missioned them to serve in America.

There were already 19 Sisters in Missouri and Mother Clara had recently decided to unite the existing American houses into a Province.  In The Burning Seal, Sister Brunilda Probst described how Mother Clara discerned who might be the first Provincial for the new Province.  She chose Sister Henrica for her “intelligence, prudence, motherliness and piety.”  This was at great personal cost for both of them because “they were truly devoted to each other.” However, for the sake of the future of the Congregation and the spread of the gospel, Mother Clara courageously sent them, as she had already sent so many from Germany to other countries, with her blessing and a deep trust in God’s love and care. 

It is in this context that Sister Henrica wrote her farewell letter to Mother Clara.  No wonder she can pour out her heart.  She so clearly is in touch with the difficulty of leaving her homeland, her Sisters and Mother Clara.  In this leave-taking, she is experiencing a real death, the loss of all that is familiar.  Her words touch us as she writes that her “heart throbs with fear … in bitter pain.”  However, we notice that as Henrica allows her tears of pain and loss to flow, she is consoled. With that consolation, she is then able to depart. She feels Mother Clara’s ”precious blessing” surrounding and protecting her.  She knows that God will heed the blessing.  She has moved from fear to absolute trust in the love of God to protect her on her journey.

Here is the excerpt we will use from S. Henrica’s poem to Mother Clara:

“Now the solemn hour of departure is at hand,
And my heart, deeply touched, throbs with fear;
‘Tis bleeding as though pierced by many a spear,
For in bitter pain we leave you and our land so dear.
 But, oh! as once again before you I kneel,
Allow these tears of departure free reign
Thus consoled, I shall depart: for I shall feel
Your precious blessing coming to us o’er the main.
Yes, bless me, Mother! God can and will heed
The prayerful blessing your fingers trace on me;
I need not fear—God knows best my every need—
Is he not ruler over land and sea?”
The words of Sr. Henrica Fassbender
Thanks be to God.

We can imagine how this moment of grace becomes the rock she  stands on as she makes her journey and that she lends her strength and confidence to her four Sister companions.   We can also imagine that this same trust and confidence strengthen them when the Deutschland runs aground on the Kentish Knock off the coast of England during a fierce and stormy blizzard.   

We can also imagine that our Sisters were sustained by each other’s love and encouragement during the many frightening hours when the ship was stranded on the sandbank.  We hope that words of a loving and faithful God, similar to the following ones from scripture and our communion hymn, steadied them:  “Do not be afraid, I am with you.  I have called you each by name.  Come and follow me, I will bring you home; I love you and you are mine.”  Home suddenly has a new meaning.

deutschland 2We know from many accounts that our Sisters refused places in lifeboats, offering them to children and their parents.  Having already let go of all that was familiar in leaving their homeland, they were ready to let go once again. They had turned their faces and hearts to their souls’ home.   I am reminded of Francis words in the Canticle “Blessed are those who endure the first death, for the second death will do them no harm.”  As Illia Delio reflected in her article in the LCWR Occasional Paper, “… we need to develop a consciousness of life that includes letting go; death – not as a finality – but as a transformative process.”  From the life of Jesus, we can add it is the ongoing process of life, death and resurrection –the paschal mystery!

We know from various accounts as well as Hopkins’ poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland” that Sister Henrica remained faithful to the end.  She was heard calling “O Christ, Christ come quickly!” Praying, our Sisters faced death together.  They not only listened to Jesus’ words, they acted on them through their surrender to the waters and to the call of their God.

But that was not the last that was heard of our Sisters.  Although initially their identities were unknown, it was clear they were Franciscans.  Their funeral was presided over by Cardinal Manning at St. Francis Church in Stratford, England.  The church and vestibule were filled to overflowing.  Thousands of people lined the way from Stratford to St. Patrick Cemetery in neighboring Leytonstone.  And Gerard Manley Hopkins was so moved by the entire experience that he wrote the poem which has memorialized this tragedy, spreading the word of our Sisters throughout the world! 

The entire experience of finding the Sisters’ bodies and a Cardinal arranging for their funeral is already a resurrection, a transformation.  Women who never set foot in England are considered heroes and laid to rest with great ceremony.  Their lives are transformed by their death.  They become “bigger” in death that they were in life.  Their goodness, virtue, and love are now available to all in ways no one could have imagined.

Some of us have been blessed to visit the places where our Sisters were laid to rest.  I was there in 2003 with Sisters Diane Przyborowski, Mary Ellen McAleese, Beatrice Hernandez, Alice Drewek and Gabriele ühlein after our General Chapter in Rome.  We visited the cemetery first.  A caretaker met us and, when I said we were Franciscans, he immediately said “you’re here to visit the Sisters who drowned.”  He took us to their grave.  It was hard to grasp that we were actually standing at the grave of our Sisters. 

We read the weathered engraving: 

deutschland 3“Pray for the repose of the souls of:

Barbara Hultenschmidt

Henrica Fassbender

Norberta Reincober

Aurea Badziura

Brigitte Damhorst

Franciscan Sisters from Germany, who lost their lives

Near Harwich in the shipwreck of the Deutschland.

December 6, 1875.

 Four were buried here December 13.”

We were overcome with awe.  Silence …and tears were our initial response.  We prayed together, took some photos, walked around, quietly talked with each other, trying to take in the immensity of their sacrifice.  I felt humbled to be there and grateful for all they had given.  When we went into the office at the cemetery, they showed us the burial records.  I again felt humbled as I touched the record of their burial and was so sad when I saw that next to each entry was the word “unknown” because at the time of burial, they had not yet been identified.

deutschland 4We also went to the church and, as it happened, were met by a Franciscan Friar who has met many of our Sisters through the years.  He took us to the hall where our Sisters were laid out – and again we were filled with a deep sense of awe, feeling that we truly were on Holy Ground.  When we went upstairs to the church, the fragrance of incense met us, for there had been a funeral that morning.  Fr. Francis offered a spontaneous prayer asking that the spirit of our Sisters who had been buried from there would live on and continue to bear much fruit.  We, in turn, blessed him by singing the blessing of Francis.  We lit some candles and gathered around the altar to remember our Sisters.

Our final stop was at the harbor in Harwich where our Sisters’ bodies were brought ashore. As we looked out in the direction of the Kentish Knock, we were all aware of S. Henrica whose body was never found.  We pondered and prayed and gave thanks.

(Shortly after our return to Wheaton, Mary Ellen wrote an article for News Chips sharing our pilgrimage that day in greater detail.  Anyone who is interested can read a fuller account of that blessed day in News Chips.)

As I was preparing this reflection, I continued being struck by the words of today’s gospel. These were wise women who built their house on rock – our Sisters Henrica, Barbara, Norberta, Aurea and Brigitta as well as Mother Clara.   Their faith did not collapse in rains, floods, snow or waves. Neither did it collapse in loss and grief and unbearable heartache.   In many ways, our Province was born out of the deaths of our Sisters and the related suffering in Germany, England as well as the States.  Our Province has come to flourish because of the early sacrifice of their lives. The paschal mystery is deeply embedded in us as a Province and Congregation as well as our souls. 

The spirit of our five Sisters, as well as Mother Clara, lives on in us.  It is as if the memory of their lives and their deaths have been “splattered like sparkles” over all of us.  May we, with open hearts, willingly catch the sparkles and let them light our way!  Their spirit lives on!   Thanks be to God.

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