Sister Franziska is now eighty two. She has bone cancer. Her hips and spine have, as she says, gone. The cancer cannot be cured. This autumn she will move back to Münster to spend the last part of her life with her Sisters. Her Order, the Sisters of Divine Providence, apologized some years ago now for excluding her from the Community.
In July of this year she celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of her living in the east of Germany. During her years in Berlin Weissensee there were, of course, many challenges.
As she first walked into the kitchen in St Joseph’s Hospital she saw immediately.
“The kitchen was a catastrophe.”
There was a cook. But the Sister was ill and was over eighty. Some of the patients found themselves responsible for the kitchen. And, of course, mentally ill patients, did not find it easy to prepare food for more than three hundred other patients.
Sister Franziska can still remember very clearly.
“Everything was just thrown together in one big pot. Potatoes, vegetables and meat. And everything boiled until it was soft.”
All the same, in a few short months, with the help of the patients, Sister Franziska had the kitchen running smoothly. The agreement was that she would be the kitchen manager and would go back to Räckelwitz to the Order´s House only once a week at the weekend.
After a year her contract was renewed for another year, and then another and eventually she worked there for over twenty years. Over time she managed directly more than thirty staff, providing meals not only for the hospital but also for three care homes in the area.
And generally they were happy years. Cooking was, after all, a thread that ran through her whole life back to her mother´s kitchen in the village. She also trained many young people to become cooks and, as she proudly says,
“None of my students failed. Of course, some were better than others but then you just needed to give them more time, explain things more slowly…”
On the other hand, her status as a, more or less, independent Sister didn´t please everyone. The Reverend Mother of a different Order, who also had contact with St Josephs, took it upon herself to come into Franziska´s kitchen to give her ´guidance´. Sister Franziska spoke to her smiling Bishop and it was made clear to the Reverend Mother that St Josef´s kitchen was out of bounds.
The years after the fall of the Wall were also difficult. In the old communist East Germany the hospital grounds had been used to keep sheep and cows and fruit and vegetables were grown. All these were eventually used in the hospital kitchen. But in the new unified Germany this was regarded as too expensive and patients were also now no longer allowed to work in the gardens or in the kitchen. At the same time the amount of money Sister Franziska was given to provide meals did not increase very much. In the end it would come to a confrontation.
In the DDR the doctors and nurses who worked in the hospitals run by religious orders received lower wages than those in state run hospitals. For that reason they had their meals at St Josephs for free. After the Wall came down their wages, of course, went up. But they didn´t want to give up their free meals. But Sister Franziska wasn´t getting any additional money to feed them. She attended a management meeting and made clear that from now on only the patients could receive their meals for free.
However it soon became obvious that the doctors and nurses did not believe she really meant it. They continued to come and take meals without money to pay for them. So Sister Franziska simply closed the kitchen. After that they listened to the little Sister a little more closely.
Then there was the Priest who decided to ´protect´ her from a friend she had made in Berlin, who happened to be a Protestant Minister. He, and the Order, went so far as to send an official letter insisting that she should not have any more contact with her friend. Once again she had to really consider if it was right that she should submit to the discipline of being a Nun.
But when she met with the Bishop, he again showed his understanding for her and said.
“You´re a good sister. Don´t take it all too seriously. Just carry on as you are.”
In the end she came to the conclusion that, yes, people make mistakes, but that fundamentally the Order itself was a good thing. Sister Franziska had always tried to give of herself to others but she also tried, as a Sister, to bring another meaning to her actions.
So, for example, one morning, she was preparing breakfast with a young Sister in the kitchen at St Josephs, trying to teach her to cook. But the young Sister was frustrated and impatient. She wanted to pray and sing God´s praises.
“Wouldn´t it be better, Sister Franziska, if we just stayed in the silence of our House and only spoke to announce our love of Jesus? Couldn´t anyone do what we are doing here?”
Sister Franziska looked around the kitchen. They were alone. Then she looked through the kitchen hatch into the dining hall. There were five or six patients there. A man, who had grown old in St Josephs, was already waiting by the hatch. A young woman, not older than the young Sister, was sitting at a table on her own. Her eyes were empty. A young man strode restlessly back and forth. He was muttering continuously to himself. She called the young Sister over to her.
“Sister, is Jesus here?”
“Jesus is everywhere.”
“Yes, that´s true. And what would Jesus want for our patients.”
The sister looked at them. She felt a little unsure of herself now. Sister Franziska went on.
“I don´t mean it as a trick question. What would He want for these people? “
“That they should be healed.”
“A good answer. And how would He do that?”
“By bringing them peace and quiet and…” she hesitated a moment. “…and that they get good food to eat.”
Sister Franziska turned to face the Sister, took her hands and said quietly but emphatically.
“Yes, that´s right. And in this kitchen Jesus has no other hands than these. No other arms, no other legs, eyes or ears as ours. We try to be the face of God´s Providence. That is our duty and our joy.”
There was a moment of silence. Then Sister Franziska reached for a large pot and handed it to the Sister.
“And now, scrambled egg for fifty.”
She retired from St Josephs when she was sixty nine in 2001.
With the doctors in the hospital in Berlin Sister Franziska has come to a good understanding. Or perhaps better to say they have come to understand Sister Franziska. When she refused more chemotherapy and told the doctors there were other patients they could give more help to, they then asked her if maybe she could do something that would maybe be helpful for others. They had some medication that was not yet fully researched. If she was to take it it wouldn’t harm her, it might indeed help her and then they would better know how to help others. So at eighty two she has become, as she says, a guinea pig. She´s heard from the doctors too recently that partly through her help they have made progress in refining and improving the new treatments.
In the little winter garden in her fifth floor flat in Weissensee Sister Franziska looks out at the early evening sky and wonders what happens after we die. It is late summer. Her time in Berlin is coming slowly to an end. Its growing dark outside, but as the darkness grows each moment a new star appears somewhere in the sky. Sister Franziska asks herself.
“Is it not possible that every star was once a person? The scientists discover new stars every day and babies come into the world every day. Perhaps they are all still living up there…Mother, Father, Sister Bernhardina, the smiling Bishop, Hildegard….who knows? But it has always been, and still is, my hope and my belief that we will all see each other again.”