The Religious Woman
The religious woman - MIssion In Portugal
Prepared by Sister Alexandra Eisenkratzer Rgs
(Based on talks by Sr. Gudula Busch and Dr. Claudia Kolletzki, Germany)
After 7 long years of waiting Maria finally entered the convent of the Good Shepherd in Münster on 21st November 1888 and on 10th January 1889 she received the habit. (It was the same day and same year Therese of Lisieux received the habit). Filled with joy Maria heard herself being named Maria of the Divine Heart – a very unusual name in Germany.
In her noviciate Maria worked at the door and later with the girls. She put her whole enthusiasm in every task asked of her. About the girls she said, “When I preferred a girl it was always the most unhappy and most unfortunate one.” In her time and with the possibilities of her time she tried to give her love and tenderness wholeheartedly to the children entrusted to her. She felt like a fish in the water but a crisis was just around the corner. Life in the big community, busy work with the girls and at the door left little room for rest and contemplation she longed for so much. Maria thought that her prayer life was suffering and she began to doubt that her vocation was with the Good Shepherd Congregation.
Maria’s yearning for a contemplative life was growing and she struggled with the question: how to combine a deep inner life with a busy workload – do the problems and concerns of daily life not take away our focus on God? The Lord himself gives her the answer during Holy Week 1890 when she heard his voice saying, “When you work I work through you. When you rest I rest in you. In everything you do it shall not be you but me… I see with your eyes, work with your hands, speak with your mouth, I pray through you.” And Maria said her ‘yes’ to this lifelong tension between action and contemplation – but it did not end her struggle.
On 29th January 1891 Maria made her Final Profession. The presiding bishop gave her the cross with the words, “Receive this cross and after the example of our Lord stay attached to it until death.” It was not long before the next cross for Maria occurred. In June 1891 Mother Lamberta Bouchy, the superior of Münster, died. Maria was devastated because this great woman had journeyed with Maria through all the storms and struggles of her noviciate. She could tell her anything and she always found an open ear and heart. Mother Bouchy was something like an anam cara for Maria.
In order to find a new superior for Münster changes were made and Maria was asked to replace the mistress of the class. From one day to the other she had to take on the responsibility for almost a hundred children. She prayed, “My God, I can do nothing, you have to do everything.” To her mother she wrote, “Congratulations, you have become the grandmother of 97 grandchildren,”
Maria had a natural gift in her dealing with the children. She believed in their goodness and they knew this. Often she said, “The unhappy, most abandoned and poorest I love the most, they are my treasures.” Maria found fulfilment in her ministry but she missed someone to talk and share her experience. The new rather conservative superior could not follow Maria’s ideas about reforms, e.g. to change the enclosure as she believed it hindered the daily living and the ministry.
In January 1894 a letter from Angers arrived with the appointment of Maria of the Divine Heart as assistant to the superior of Lisbon, Mother Anna von Schorlemer. Her parents knew before Maria and were already packing as they had been asked to accompany her to Angers.
Click on the picture to enlarge.
Maria herself had in the end only 2 days to think about this change and to say her farewell. In Angers Maria said good bye to her parents and in February the journey to Portugal began. Anna von Schorlemer met Maria in Porto and they stayed there for some days.
With her sharp judgement Maria recognized the situation in Porto and in her direct way wrote to the superior general in Angers, “Regarding the house in Porto each one of us has to help a lot through prayer and sacrifice to bring God’s blessings on this heavily tested house.
O what a misfortune, dear Mother, when the spirit of religious life is lost in a community! Then God will withdraw his grace in spiritual and material matters. The new superior will have to suffer a lot before everything can be brought back to order.
The most pitiable of all are the poor children who are neglected and badly guided for years… Indeed these things have hurt me much…”
In Lisbon Maria took on responsibility for the children and the task of the assistant.
She tried to learn the language and wrote to her brother that she was tempted to throw the big grammar book into the fire… On the whole things seemed to go well. The climate in Lisbon was good for Maria, she gained more energy, could join the community prayer and took it on herself to lead the choir and play the organ.
The sisters liked her and said that she told them many stories about her childhood and her homeland and that she was very funny during recreation and could make stones laugh.
Maria settled for a long time in Lisbon but at the end of April an emergency call came from Porto. The superior there had a breakdown and Angers had been notified. On 12th May 1894 a cable arrived from Angers with the appointment of Maria as superior of Porto.
Mission in Portugal
This is the most difficult part in Maria Droste’s life.
At the end of the 19th century Porto with a population of about 200.000 people was the most important city of the country besides Lisbon. Because of the big harbour and the factories at the outskirts an urban proletariat developed so far unknown in the rural country. Portugal had become the poorhouse of Europe. Most of the poor farmers and people were illiterate. Compulsory education up to the age of 12 only began in 1894. The factory workers and day labourers rejected a decadent church loyal to the aristocracy. Middle class people developed liberal ideas and wanted to free Portugal from the monarchy and from Catholicism. On the streets there were attacks on priests and religious and Maria wrote, “The people here lost all respect for priests and religious and it’s no wonder as corruption often comes from the clergy.”
The house in Porto, only founded in 1881, was in a very difficult situation. The long illness of the first superior, financial debts and lack of discipline had brought the house to the edge of ruin. There is no guidance for the sisters and the children are neglected. Anna von Schorlemer had sent her own assistant as superior but after only a few months she broke down. Now the sisters expect the arrival of this new German superior with mixed feelings – a difficult start for Maria.
She began with stock taking and the result was devastating but that was no problem for Maria. She felt in her element and put together a plan for immediate action: clarification of the financial situation and renovation of the house. Maria took care of all the details herself. The Portuguese sisters must have been appalled by the strict and sometimes incomprehensible orders of this new superior. Most of them were women from rural families with little education and no professional skills. During the illness of their first superior they had made up their own religious life, dependent on their moods and comfort. That’s over now. The times for prayer were observed again, contacts to the outer world were restricted and an enclosure established. With her full authority and her Westphalian pig head Maria enforced her concept and of course met with great resistance. Some sisters wanted to complain her to Angers, other boycotted her orders and the cook took vengeance by spoiling food and sisters became ill. Maria tried to understand that it was not easy to change habits so deeply rooted for a long time and spoke of patience needed – but patience was never her virtue…
In order to revive the zeal of the sisters Maria gave conferences about religious themes, especially the love of the Sacred Heart. She took part in all the work that had to be done, whether in the garden or house, in the kitchen, with the cleaning, in the laundry or with the care for the children. Particularly difficult was the reform of the finances of the convent, the vicar had been involved in obscure finance dealings and in the beginning refused to give proper information. With prudence, her organisational gifts and also her knowledge of administration from Darfeld things got better but many problems remained.
In the city of Porto people became aware of the new superior and many prominent visitors arrived at the door. Maria’s Portuguese had improved and she was now able to understand and speak with the people. Her apostolic zeal resulted in 130 children now in the care of the sisters. When there was no space anymore she transformed the community room into a place for five children. She said to her sisters, “My principle never to refuse a child as long as there is one little free corner in the house and to prefer the poorest, the most abandoned, the worst is obviously so blessed by the Divine Heart that I want to leave this principle as my testament when I die.” One of the sisters affirmed, “The children saw her as her mother… and trusted her fully. Her heart belonged especially to the little ones between three and five years of age. She often called them to entertain and reward them, to teach them little plays and songs. It was her greatest relaxation after the work of the day. Sick children she nursed personally.”
Maria even developed some form of aftercare. One of the sisters at the door had to visit the parents and foster families of the children. She had to visit the past pupils regularly and to give a report. She also had to go from door to door with a reference from Maria to find work for the girls. The former children and girls were invited for the main feasts of the year to spend a day in the convent and Maria took the opportunity to talk with them at great length.
No wonder that her health was deteriorating and Mother Anna von Schorlemer called her to Lisbon for a rest. Maria could not stand to be idle in the face of all the problems in Porto and went back soon. She suffered from sleepless nights, strong headaches because of the heavy burden. The headaches were signs of the developing myelitis which became more aggressive as the time passed.