Sister Franziska, ex right. at a Fasching Party in the DDR in the late 1960s.
It’s the 24 June, 1964. Sister Franziska is now thirty two. She is waiting in a queue to cross the border into the DDR. It’s the hottest day of the year. She´s a little afraid of the border, but much more she´s afraid that she will faint before she gets there.
What anyone was allowed to take from West Germany into the old East was strictly controlled and limited. For that reason Sister Franziska and the other Sisters in Münster had thought it would be a good idea today as she set for her new life on the far side of the Wall, for her to wear one nun´s habit over another, and also two blouses, two underskirts, two coats….
“I´m going to die…” she whispered to herself as the queue shuffled forwards.
She tried to distract herself from the heat. When she got to the other side of the Border, she would finally have realised a dream. She would be a missionary.
As she had felt herself called by God to become a Sister, she was, of course, already aware that two of her father´s sisters were Nuns in the Franciscan order. But the Franciscans dedicated themselves to the care of the sick, and others who needed care. Frances wanted to join an Order where she could become a missionary. She wanted to go to Africa. So she had chosen to join the Sisters of Divine Providence.
Finally its her turn to cross the border. The young policeman examines her papers, only then does he notice how red in the face she is. He looks at her closely but then, apparently reluctantly, he waves her through.
With the Wall now literally behind her, Franziska wastes no time in taking off some of her clothes. A half hour later, she is sitting relaxed and relieved on the train to Bautzen.
The Order had originally agreed to send her to Africa. But when she underwent a medical examination it was found that her knee, her Meniskus, was damaged. As a young woman, she had played a lot of handball, perhaps too much. Only completely healthy and fit Sisters could be sent to Africa.
Then a year later the DDR was declared by the church to be a missionary area. The Mother Superior asked Schwester Franziska if she wished to be part of the mission there.
Of course, this was not an easy decision. Once she was living in the DDR it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to come back again. The Order also wanted to have the agreement of Wilhemina, Schwester Franziska´s mother
And Wilhemina was very afraid of the Russians. She said,
“Better Africa than the Russians, Sissy.”
She seemed so upset that Franziska pressed her as to why. Then she told a story that Sister Franziska had never heard before. When she was pregnant with her a gypsy woman knocked at her door. In the years before the war there were many gypsies in North Rhine Westphalia. The gypsy told her that she would have a child who would travel far, far to the east to a land of ice and snow. Wilhemina felt afraid, like many others in the countryside she had a strong Christian faith, but she was also very superstitious. She felt afraid then, but put it out of her mind, but now all her fears returned as Frances told her her plans. In the end, though, she gave her permission, saying.
“And Sissy if in the end you are sent to Siberia, then I´m coming too!”
The train finally rattled to a stop in Räckelwitz, Sister Franziska´s destination, near to Bautzen. The station was very small and it seemed abandoned. Franziska sat on a bank and waited.
She had read about this Sorbian area, the Lausitz, comprising an eastern part of the counties Brandenburg and Sachsen. Sorbians were Slavs, and Catholic, with their own language, flag and national hymn. With such a clear identity, they were treated with suspicion by the communist authorities. Although the Communist government always claimed that Christianity was accepted in reality it was not. Evangelising was forbidden, only through your conduct and not through persusasion were you allowed to encourage someone to become a Christian. In theory baptism was also not prohibited but anyone who was baptized was not allowed to be part of the SED, the communist party that controlled all aspects of the society. There were baptisms carried out in secret but overall the proportion of Christians in East Germany over these years fell very quickly.
Schwester Franziska couldn´t help also wondering if the attitude of the Catholic Church too was not very helpful. Anyone who, for whatever reason, had left the church, was not allowed to have their children baptized. The Protestant Churches were not so strict.
In the distance Sister Franziska recognised the silhouette of a Sister. She walked slowly along the sunny, dusty road, in the shade of the Chestnut trees.
Coming from the West were the post-war economic ´miracle´ was already well underway Franziska found the DDR backward. The cooks wore dark clothing in the kitchen. They didn´t seem really to think about hygiene too much. The chopping boards, used a hundred times a day in a busy kitchen, she ordered immediately to be boiled clean. But when she retrieved them from the hot water, they simply felt apart in her hands. In the Cloister kitchen there was only one oven, heated with coal, and it was already over fifty years old. The heating too came from steam, and as she walked about the kitchen pipes on the wall or above her head would unexpectedly hiss as she passed. She insisted on a revolution in the kitchen which did not please her twelve East German sisters.
“I wanted to change everything so much that quickly they wished I´d never come.”
Franziska also knew perhaps it was better when she didn´t wear her new clothes and shoes from the West.
Nevertheless she could understand the feelings of her new Sisters. The cloister had been founded only in 1936. They had then endured the hardships of the national socialist period, and then in the war they were forced to become a field hospital. Because they were caring for German soldiers when the Russians came the Sisters were shot at and spent many nights hiding in cellars with the other women in the village fearing rape. In the end one of the Sorbien women, who spoke Russian, went to the Russian commander and courageously expressed the anger of the women.
“Real men do not conduct themselves like that!”
After that things were easier but then as other army units came through the area, the women of the village put up signs on all the roads and paths into the village, marked with a skull and crossbones and the word, plague.
In the DDR the cloister was re-built and the Sisters, because they worked hard, were respected and supported. Nonetheless amongst her sisters Franziska felt herself still to be an outsider and lonely.
When she prayed at night in the chapel, she asked herself if she would come through this difficult time. She thought back on her first difficult years in the Order. She had become a Sister in September 1956 in Münster. She had been twenty four. She swore the three vows of Celibacy, Obedience and Poverty.
She smiled to herself as she thought back on her first shock at the reality of a life as a Sister. She had to share underclothes with the other sisters. You weren´t allowed to keep your own and the convent underclothes only came in sizes one, two or three.
As a novice she had also to undertake spiritual exercises. For this purpose there were spiritual exercise books set at different levels. Frances wanted to study a book called `Love up to the feet of the Cross´. The novice mistress saw this as too challenging for Frances so she was given an easier book to work with.
On the one hand she could understand this. Because of the War she had had to leave school at thirteen. And she had never really read the Bible. The stories of Adam and Eve and the Flood, she knew as they had been told to her by her parents. On the other hand she knew this was also a means of testing her, and in particular, her obedience.
In any case she was grateful not to have had her obedience tested by working alongside her Sisters in the Orphanage. There the Sisters did not hesitate to beat the children or punish them by sending them to bed without having eaten. Luckily she had only to occasionally help out, and was normally set to work in the Kitchen.
Nevertheless in the end she had successfully become a Sister in the West and she would manage here in the East too.
Sister Franziska in the DDR in the late 1960s.
Then, one morning, the Mother Superior, Bernhardina, came to her and asked her a question.
“Sister Franziska, have you got a driving licence?”
Sister Franziska said no she didn´t have one, but she would love to take lessons and learn. Sister Bernhardina agreed to her doing so. For a few days she was happy and hopeful of the future. She knew that the Mother Superior had often to be away visiting other houses of the Order and therefore needed another Sister to drive and to accompany her.
Then one of the older sisters paused one afternoon as she passed her and said.
“Good luck with your test Sister. I´m also taking it. When we both pass you´ll be my deputy. But I don´t think its likely that you´ll need to be away very often.”
Franziska was disappointed and surprised.
The day of the test came. It was cold and rainy. Franziska and the older Sister waited together at the test centre.. Franziska noticed how the Sister´s hands were shaking as she climbed into the car. She failed.
Now Franziska saw her chance. She needed to concentrate but stay relaxed. The rain didn´t make the test any easier. After an hour, it was done. The instructor turned to her.
“Well, Sister, it gives me great pleasure to tell you that you´ve successfully passed the test.”
Really a Sister should not shout for joy but Franziska couldn´t help herself. But then there came another surprise.
“Congratulations, Sister. Now I need your identity papers. “
Sister Franziska passed hers to him.
“But this is from the West. Are you not a DDR citizen? “
“I´m sorry but without it I can´t give you a driving licence. “
Franziska could only get DDR citizenship after several stages and a couple of months. This was enough time for the older Sister to pass her test and at the third attempt she managed it. However on her first trip with Sister Bernhardina she went over a red light and then a stop sign. Coincidentally a policeman saw this and the Sister was immediately fined. It was then held to be God´s will, after all, that the Mother Superior should take Franziska with her as her driver. And, often together, they got on well.
Because some of the Sisters were not happy to see Sister Franziska so often travelling to Magdeburg, Dresden, Görlitz and often to Berlin she thanked God for the independence of mind that was so much part of her character. She would not get too concerned about the jealousy and disapproval of the Sisters.
Although she didn´t know it yet the disapproval of her Sisters would soon lead to the most difficult experience of her life.