The Life of Blessed Maria Theresia Bonzel
In every age there can be found persons whose hearts yearn for life in God, and from among these the Holy Spirit calls noble, generous souls to do His work. One of the great religious women who founded a Congregation was Mother Maria Theresia Bonzel, foundress of the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration in Olpe, Westphalia, Germany. Little known as yet in America, Mother Maria Theresia was one of God’s special instruments, chosen to promote the ideals of Christian charity and piety.
Mother Maria Theresia was born of deeply religious parents on September 17, 1830, the feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis. In Baptism she was named Regina Christine Wilhelmine, but was called Aline. Her father, a well-to-do merchant, died when she was only seven. Her home was close to the village church, and the sound of the organ and the singing of the congregation often mingled with the cradle-songs her mother sang to her. From earliest childhood she showed great love for prayer and a strong devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. The reception of her First Communion made such an indelible impression upon her that she recalled it vividly throughout her life. Of that momentous event she would later say, “On the day of my First Holy Communion I was unspeakably happy. Before that I was a vivacious child, ready to take part in every prank. But after I received the Lord in my heart and returned to my place, an indescribable feeling came over me. Without really knowing what I was saying, I repeated over and over again, ‘O Lord, I am your victim, accept me as your victim; I do not reject me.’ The Lord accepted her sacrifice.
While studying with the Ursulines in Cologne, Aline’s attraction to the life of the Sisters grew from day to day. She was often seen kneeling before the tabernacle. Before long, the thought that she was called to the religious life took form within her. She treasured this grace offered her and was determined to overcome all obstacles placed in her way by the social life of the youth of that day. With a schoolmate, Regina Loeser, she devoted herself to good works, becoming president of the Sodality and promoting deeds of charity and devotion among her associates.
During a mission given in a neighboring town in 1850, Aline experienced an even stronger calling to religious life. A year later, she became a member of the Third Order Secular of St. Francis, taking the name Maria Theresia. At the same time she pronounced a private vow of chastity. Many struggles and trials, however, were to come between Aline and the fulfillment of her spiritual goal. At first, her mother refused to grant permission for her to enter the convent. In the years that followed, Aline took care of her sick sister, Emily, thereby preparing herself for her later care of the sick in their homes and in hospitals.
Through the intervention of her parish priest, Father Hengsteback, Aline unexpectedly received her mother’s consent to become a religious, but at that point a sudden illness prevented her from traveling to the convent she had chosen to enter. Like all great souls, she saw in these events the hand of God, and more and more the image of St. Francis impressed itself upon her consciousness.
At that time she met a teacher, Clara Pfaender, a Sister of Christian Charity, who had received permission to leave her Congregation in order to start a life of service for poor orphans. Maria Theresia and her friend, Regina Loeser, decided to join her. In rented rooms they began their work of mercy with four young children. Most of their financial support came from the Bonzel and Loeser families. Other young women joined them, and in 1860 Bishop Martin of Paderborn approved of the new Statutes for their way of life. The first investiture took place in the church of Olpe, December 20, 1860, when nine candidates received the religious habit. Maria Theresia kept her tertiary name adding the phrase “of the Blessed Sacrament.” The following morning Mass was celebrated for the first time in their little oratory.
Everything seemed promising for the development of the young Congregation, but before long, both internal and external difficulties led to a division of the group. It was evident that God, in His providence, wanted not one Congregation but two, both destined to do much for God and the Church. On July 20, 1863, the convent at Olpe was approved by the bishop as an independent motherhouse. This date is observed as the founding day of the Congregation. Sister Maria Theresia was appointed Superior of the nine Sisters who remained with her. The Rule of the Third Order of St. Francis was accepted by the Sisters. A saintly Franciscan, Father Bonaventure, was called to Olpe to lead the Sisters more deeply into the spirit of St. Francis. This priest was also instrumental in bringing to Olpe Mother Frances Schervier, foundress of the Poor Sisters of St. Francis at Aachen, to help direct the path of the new Congregation by her wholesome advice. With the assistance of Mother Frances, Mother Maria Theresia worked on new Statutes, and in 1865 they were approved by the bishop. Mother Maria Theresia was full of joy and gratitude. In all things, especially in poverty and mortification, she followed the Seraphic Father Francis.
Far-sighted in outlook, Mother Maria Theresia quickly saw that her Sisters needed professional education for their work in hospitals and schools, and as more candidates joined the young Congregation, the house was enlarged. In 1868 the orphans were transferred to a newly acquired building and the following year a new wing was added, with Bishop Martin himself laying the cornerstone. With great confidence, Mother Maria Theresia appointed St. Joseph her treasurer, and her trust was amply rewarded.
In 1866 Mother Maria Theresia and her assistant, Sister Franziska Boehmer, first mistress of novices, pronounced their vows according to the new Statutes. Sister Franziska was to die only two years later. Because of the number of generous young women who joined the Congregation, new houses could be opened. During the war years of 1870-71, eight hundred wounded soldiers were cared for by the Sisters from Olpe. The Empress presented Mother Maria Theresia with a service medal for the work of the Congregation in caring for the sick and wounded. Later, Mother Maria Theresia also received the Red Cross medal in acknowledgement of the splendid services of her Sisters. Five of the Sisters died from sickness and overwork while caring for the soldiers.
The Kulturkampf, an anticlerical reaction against the growing strength of the Catholic Church, brought much distress to the young community. The Sisters were forbidden to receive new candidates, the convents were placed under police control, and in 1876 the orphanage was closed. During this persecution by the State, when bishops and priests were jailed or fined, many religious exiled, and much material damage done to Church property, moral victory remained on the side of the Catholics.
Since the continuation of the Congregation was threatened by the severe restrictions of the May Laws enacted under the Kulturkampf regime, Mother Maria Theresia considered it wise to begin a new foundation in North America. When Bishop Joseph Dwenger of Fort Wayne, Indiana, visited the Olpe motherhouse in 1875, he approved of Mother Maria Theresia’s plan and offered her a wide field of missionary work in his diocese. During the same year, therefore, Mother Maria Theresia, together with her assistant, Sister Paula, accompanied the first six missionary Sisters to the ship which would take them to America.
In December, 1875, the missionaries reached Lafayette, Indiana, unknown and without funds. With the assistance of the Franciscan pastor of a German parish there, the Sisters found housing and began their work of caring for the sick in a few poorly furnished rooms. God’s blessing was on their work, however, and they received many vocations. During the years that followed, through the help of generous benefactors, the Sisters were able to open many new hospitals and schools. Three times Mother Maria Theresia crossed the ocean to visit her Sisters in the United States. Thus the persecution in Germany resulted in great blessings for the Church in America.
Conditions slowly changed in Germany and the Kulturkampf regime ended. After repeated requests to the government, Mother Maria Theresia was finally given permission, in 1882, to admit new members to the Congregation. Within the first year, seventeen candidates were received and the opening of new houses became possible. In 1884, forty two postulants were admitted, and the government permitted the Congregation to assume the care of epileptic children in the orphanage. During the same year, Mother Maria Theresia acquired the old castle of the former Teutonic Knights at Mulheim on the Mohne where, before the time of the Kulturkampf, the Salesian Sisters had conducted a school for girls. This was the convent that the young Aline Bonzel had first intended to enter. The newly acquired building became the novitiate of the Congregation. In 1895, the novitiate was moved back to Olpe.
In 1886, the first General Chapter of the Congregation was held in Mulheim. During this chapter, the Congregation was divided into two rovinces, one in Germany and one in the United States. Two American delegates, Sister Alphonsa and Sister Rosa, took part in these deliberations. Mother Maria Theresia was unanimously elected Superior General and remained in that office until her death. Her patient endurance during the time of the Kulturkampf was blessed by God with great success. In time, the government removed all restrictions, orphans were again accepted, and more hospitals and schools were opened. Another addition to the motherhouse at Olpe was constructed. In 1932 the motherhouse at Olpe also served as the provincialate of the southern province, but it was later moved to Bonn.
It was Mother Maria Theresia’s great joy to see the constant growth of her foundation. Ecclesiastical and civil authorities recognized her work, and the greatest joy of all was the praise of the Congregation and the approval of its Statutes by the Apostolic See in Rome in 1897.
Throughout her life, the Lord sent Mother Maria Theresia many difficulties, sorrows, trials, and disappointments. In 1896 she would have liked to travel to the United States a fourth time, but her health did not permit the trip. Very slowly she recovered from a severe illness, a complication of a heart and kidney disease, but she was rarely without pain. In 1903 the doctors gave up all hope of her recovery. With great devotion she received the last Sacraments and then blessed all the Sisters, adding these significant words: “Dear Sisters, I have loved all of you, all without exception, and this love will endure.” Contrary to all expectations, and to the great joy of all, she slowly recovered.
In January, 1905, another sickness befell Mother Maria Theresia, and she sensed that her end was near. With great devotion she received the last Sacraments and joined in the prayers that were said around her bed. Her last words were: “My Saviour, will You come soon?” She died on Monday, February 6, 1905.
Mother Maria Theresia’s great soul was centered in God. Hers was a life of prayer, like that of St. Francis whose humble and loving disciple she was. Her supernatural motives were the secret of her strength and success, and she considered herself merely an instrument in the hands of God. Her whole appearance inspired reverence and confidence in all those around her. A woman of prayer, she possessed a piety marked by a truly childlike relationship to God. She often prayed, “Teach me, O my Jesus, to think and judge mildly and charitably, to speak little and wisely, and to act justly and prudently in order that my life be always pleasing to you and that I may reach perfection in holiness.” Throughout her life she cherished an unshakable confidence in God’s providence, and she tried to inspire the same confidence in her Sisters. In a letter to them she wrote: “Constant prayer and conversation with God is what makes us true religious, not our work among children and the sick. God will not let anyone be confounded who trusts in Him and not in man.”
Her true Franciscan spirit caused her to cherish a special love for the Holy Eucharist, the manger, the cross, the Blessed Mother, and St. Joseph. Her zeal for Christ in the tabernacle prompted her to provide for the proper decoration of churches, and for beautiful vestments and altar linens. She always strove to inspire respect for the priesthood. At the motherhouse she introduced perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, a privilege which remains the primary apostolate of the Congregation. For many years she prayed the Stations of the Cross barefoot outdoors, some distance from the convent. On Christmas Day she placed into the crib with her own hands a statue of the Infant Jesus. Devotion to the Mother of God and to St. Joseph she left as a most precious heritage to her Sisters. The Franciscan motto, “My God and my All,” was her favorite prayer. She cultivated a great reverence for the Holy Father and the bishops, especially the bishop of the diocese.
Mother Maria Theresia always showed great zeal for souls and was deeply troubled when she saw others in danger of going astray. She was always faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church and to all her rules, principles, and institutions. Like St. Francis, she was a great lover of poverty, humility, repentance, and charity. She used to say: “We are children of St. Francis; we must follow his example.” In all things, even in the greatest successes of her life, she gave credit to God and never lost sight of her own unworthiness. She bore her sorrows and sufferings with heroic patience. She knew all her Sisters by name, because she carried them all in her heart. She had a special affection for the orphans and was willing to make any sacrifice for them. She was unselfish, gentle, and understanding, and she radiated joy and contentment. In brief, she was all to all.
After a life of adoration and selfless service, Mother Maria Theresia died on February 6, 1905, leaving a work richly blessed by God and a well-established Congregation. A miracle attributed to her intercession was accepted by a decree of His Holiness Pope Francis, which paved the way for her beatification on November 10, 2013. Today the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration still has its generalate at Olpe, Germany. There are four provinces. The St. Elizabeth Province is in Germany and they sponsor a foreign mission in Brazil. There are two provinces in the United States: the Immaculate Heart of Mary Province in Mishawaka, Indiana, and the St. Joseph Province in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The fourth province is the Immaculate Conception Province in the Philippines.
After the example of St. Francis, the Sisters strive to combine the contemplative life with the active in the perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and their selfless service for others in the works of mercy. They continue to serve the Church through the apostolates of education, health care, and other works of mercy.