It was 1977 and I was then forty five.
It was for me and many others still that time of hope after the Second Vatican Council when Pope John the 23rd had wanted to throw open the windows of the Church and let the light of new thinking flood in.
That was also meant to apply to the religious orders. But change, if it came at all, came only very slowly from the Bishops and in the Orders and amongst us in the Sisters of Divine Providence too.
Maybe because I had respect for the Mother Superior but was not afraid of her and the older sisters I was popular among the younger sisters. I had, after all, always believed that one must be sometimes prepared to fight for one´s faith.
Often one of the younger Sisters would come to me, disturbed by the behaviour of one or other of the older Sisters.
“Sister Maria hit one of the patients.”
“Sister Teresa left one of the patients sitting on the toilet for over an hour.”
In the meetings of the community of Sisters many topics were discussed and I did not see any reason not to talk about these incidents too.
“If we want to communicate God´s love for all, then these things are not acceptable.”
The older Sisters had to listen to my views but, for the most part, they remained quiet and, perhaps, waited.
One day a young woman who I was teaching to become a cook, by the name of Anna, came to speak to me. She seemed very distressed.
“Sister, I´m pregnant. “
Whoever had become pregnant out of wedlock had of course sinned and had to leave the House immediately.
“I don´t want to marry the man but I do want the child. I have to leave. But where can I go?”
I knew Anna well and that she had no family that would care for her and the child.
“Say nothing for now. Don´t do anything. Just stay here.“
Anna agreed and we waited. Then after a few weeks I accompanied her to visit her doctor at the Medical Centre. All the departments were together in the same building and everyone shared the same waiting room. An announcement came over the Tannoy.
“Anne Schörner to Gynaecology.”
As we stood up we saw in the corner of the room one of the other Sisters look up at us. She had come to visit the dentist. In her face we could see first surprise, then confusion and finally understanding. Everyone knew that a visit to the gynaecologist most likely meant the patient was pregnant.
As we came back to the House Anna was immediately called to the Reverend Mother. Sister Bernhardina with whom I had had such a happy relationship had retired some years before. The new Reverend Mother was appalled but Anna, now being in the sixth month of her pregnancy, could not now be required to leave the House.
On the other hand it was perfectly possible to get rid of me. I must be put out of the House and out of the Order. I was shocked and deeply shaken. If the Mother Superior, the head of the Order in Münster, agreed then where would I go?
In the chapel of the Sister of Divine Providence in Münster the Mother Superior of the Order prayed for guidance. Not for the first time in these unsettling years she felt isolated, even lonely. It was not as if she did not have some sympathy for what the Sister in Räckelwitz had done, rather that she felt Sister Franziska had been rebellious from the beginning of her time in East Germany.
Moreover she was aware the Order had not yet fully recovered from the arrival from Brazil in Germany of a Sister who, her head full of Liberation theology, had set up an independent convent with no less than sixty of the Order´s sisters. She was afraid the little sister on the far side of the Wall could do something similar. She had to be got away from the Order. But how?
Sister Franziska was well known and respected amongst the younger sisters in all the Houses in the East. It would be much easier if she could somehow be brought back to West Germany. Indeed she didn´t have any family or relatives in the DDR. But she was now a DDR citizen and it wasn´t easy to get back over the Wall. The Bishop must accept her decision, and Rome perhaps too, if the Sister made an appeal. It would be so much better if she could tell the Bishop the case was more or less resolved and that the Sister would soon be on her way home to her family.
Then the Mother Superior had an idea.
Several weeks later I found myself sitting before the Bishop, the Reverend Mother and the Mother Superior. They were now to pass judgement on my case. As the Bishop began to speak his body was wracked by a coughing fit. The Reverend Mother fetched him a glass of water and the Mother Superior turned to me.
“Sister Franziska, we all know that your life as a Sister in our Order is over and we don´t need to discuss that any further.”
I wanted of course to immediately interrupt but the Mother Superior raised her hand to insist on my silence.
“We are all of the opinion that the best solution would be for you to return to West Germany and to your family who will best know how to help you.”
I knew I had to speak now before it was too late.
“No, I don´t accept that…”
The Bishop was appalled. He simply could not understand how a Sister could be of a different opinion from her Mother Superior.
“She should be sent immediately to a factory where, for the first time in her life, she might really have to work. Then she´d know how hard life can be and how much the Order has done for her!”
After this outburst the Bishop started to cough again and this time so badly that the Reverend Mother had to take him away. Now I was alone with the Mother Superior.
“We have prayed and reflected a great deal on the best way to bring you home to your family. We have finally made a plan how this can be done, if you don´t agree then we will simply ask you to leave the House.” She paused a moment, then.
“We want you to go to our home for the mentally ill, St Josef´s in Weissensee in Berlin. When you are then we will then immediately put an application to the government to request you be sent back to your family in Münster. The mentally ill are simply seen as a burden in the East, they´ll let you go.”
I was astonished and too shocked to speak. The Mother Superior, unsure perhaps if I had really grasped her meaning, then added.
“Report to St Josef´s as a patient I mean, Sister.”
Then, as if she had not said anything in any way surprising, she stood up and left the room.
The next weeks were very hard. I hadn´t given the Mother Superior my consent but I had also not said no. I was hurt and confused. Did they really think that I was mad? Was I mad? It was hard to hold on to, hard even to find, a sense of what was real. Perhaps I should agree. Perhaps it was all well-meant. It was only a simple deception that would bring me home. But as a patient I would also then be no longer legally responsible for myself. Perhaps I might never get out of the hospital.
In the meantime I assumed that the Reverend Mother and Mother Superior were making arrangements for my being transferred to St Josefs. Every day I waited anxiously for someone to come who would tell me that today was the day that I must go to Berlin or leave the House.
One morning as I walked in the garden one of the younger Sisters approached me looking nervous. I was surprised to find that I was, despite all that had happened disappointed. Could the Reverend Mother herself not have come? I still did not know what I would say.
“Sister Franziska, they want to send you away as quickly as possible but don´t agree. The Bishop is ill and has to retire. There´ll soon be a new bishop.”
It was a few moments before I could grasp the implications of what she had said. A new Bishop. Then it was suddenly very clear to me. I would refuse to go, play for time, and insist on an appeal to the new Bishop.
Two months later I sat again before the Reverend Mother, the Mother Superior and the new Bishop. The new Bishop was a gray-haired, quiet older man, who listened and smiled a good deal, but said little. I had no idea what he would say but he had given me the opportunity to explain in detail what had happened from my point of view.
Had he smiled at me as I came in and sat down?
The Reverend Mother and the Mother Superior sat in silence, their hands folded on their laps and their gaze lowered. The Bishop began to speak.
“I believe, Sister Franziska that we are all certainly in agreement that we will be doing God´s will when we bring this unhappy situation to an end. But I do not believe that your future lies here. I believe St Josef´s in Berlin should still be your new home.”
My small flicker of hope had been quickly extinguished. So they still wanted to hide me, after all, amongst the mentally ill. Watching me closely though the Bishop seemed anxious to keep my attention.
“St Josefs desperately needs a cook and someone who can also train others to become cooks. We also need here in Räckelwitz a new start. And there will be a new start here too, Sister Franziska, I assure you.”
Was he recognizing the wrong done to me? Did he mean I had been right? Only later would I have time to think about his words. He was now giving me a new decision to make. He went on.
“If you wish, there is a new life for you, not in a religious house, but still as a Sister and as a member of your Order. In Berlin, Weissensee.”
He paused and smiled at me.
“So do you agree?”
“Yes, I agree.”
Footnote. Partially due to Sister Franziska´s courage, the policy of the Sister of Divine Providence is now to keep any community member who becomes pregnant as a part of the community, providing accommodation and support as needed.