A community of charitable nurses. The history of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Elisabeth

The Congregation was born out of the social needs of the 19th century. It was born in Nysa and was the first native congregation in the country of Silesia, established after the dissolution of the orders by the Prussian government in 1810.

The genesis and development of the Congregation are closely linked to the specificity of the political and economic changes which took place in Silesia in the first half of the 19th century, the period of the nascent capitalist economy: the rapid development of industry had place to the detriment of the poorest social strata. In addition, there were repeated natural disasters and hunger at that time, which were the main cause of many epidemics of typhus and cholera. With an insufficient number of doctors, nurses and hospitals, it claimed a large number of victims, especially among the poorest.

In such a social situation, in 1842, an association for the care of the sick at home was created, which later turned into a religious congregation. She was born on the initiative of Dorota Klara Wolff, soon joined by Matylda Merkert and her sister Luiza Maria Merkert and Franciszek Werner.

On September 27, 1842, on the feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian, in front of a modest altar in the house of the altar, where they rented an apartment, in front of the painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, they consecrated themselves and the future work of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. From the hands of their confessor, they received a priestly blessing on the path they have chosen. Their main objective is to help the sick, the suffering and the needy in their homes, regardless of their condition, age, sex, religion or origin. This day is considered the founding date of the Congregation, although the community of four daughters has not yet formed an association guaranteed by religious vows or state law. It was a private community of charity nurses. They were called “grey sisters” because of their dress.

The clergy of Nysa and Wrocław wondered how to transform the nursing community into an association. The Episcopal Curia of Wrocław supported the project, making approval of the association conditional on the need for an annual novitiate of two virgins in a religious congregation recognized by the Church. Thus, in 1846, Klara Wolff and Maria Merkert went to Prague to do their annual novitiate at the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy (Boromeuszko). They were to familiarize themselves with the norms of religious life and obtain the nursing training necessary to carry out the work that had already begun as a formal religious community after their return.

However, without the consent of the Gray Nuns, their confessor took steps to include the Nysa women in the community of Borromean nuns. Shortly after, in 1847, Klara, wanting to remain faithful to her original vocation, decided to leave the novitiate. She went to Bystrzyca Kłodzka, where, as a tertiary of the Third Order of St. Francis to devote herself to charitable works. New companions quickly join her. She died on January 4, 1853 as a result of injuries sustained in an accident on the path of the patient.

In 1849, the religious authority in Prague allowed Maria Merkert to return to Nysa, where, together with Franciszka Werner and other members of the community, they joined the Borromean Sisters.

In June 1850, Franciszka Werner and Maria Merkert decided to leave the novitiate of the Borromean Sisters, whose charisma did not correspond to the intimate conviction of the girls of a vocation they discerned. This fact contributed to the ever growing misunderstanding with the church authorities of Nysa. Therefore, when they resumed their charitable work, they turned to secular authorities for help. The city council approved the sisters’ request and registered their activities. Maria and Franciszka wore gray clothes again. They chose St. Elżbieta Węgierska and on the day dedicated to her memory, November 17, 1850, officially began their interrupted activity, distributing hot meals and clothes. Soon other candidates join them and Maria Merkert, as an eldest, takes over the leadership of the community as the Gray Sisters of St. Elisabeth.

As their numbers grow, the sisters expand their activities. According to reports, in addition to caring for the sick, the sisters also performed nursing duties in military hospitals, especially during the war years. They cared for poor and neglected families. And since they were most often large families, the sisters also took care of the children most exposed to the consequences of the lack of adequate living conditions. The need to develop childcare activities became even more evident with regard to orphaned children following the then numerous wars and epidemics. Thus, at the very beginning of the Congregation, besides the detailed initial objective of caring for the sick in the field, the care of children became an equally important task of the Community of the Sisters of St. Elisabeth.

On September 4, 1859, Bishop Heinrich Förster approved the Society of Gray Nuns of St. Elisabeth. Mother Maria Merkert is elected first Superior General.

On May 23, 1864, the King of Prussia, Wilhelm I Hohenzollern, granted social rights to a charitable foundation called “St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Charity Center”. In the following years, around 80 new facilities with a headquarters in Nysa were built. The sisters acted, among other places, in Nysa, Wrocław, Złotoryja, Prudnik and Jelenia Góra.

On June 7, 1871, Pope Pius IX approved the Congregation with a decree of praise. Mother Maria Merkert was Superior General of the Congregation for 13 years. At the end of her life, the community already numbered more than 450 sisters. Nearly 90 religious houses were built. Mother Luiza Merkert died on November 14, 1872. She was called the “Silesian Samaritan Woman”. In 2007 she was beatified.

Further efforts by successive superiors general: Mother Francis Werner and Mother Melchiora Klammt, led to the final approval of the Congregation by Pope Leo XIII on January 26, 1887. The process of forming regular religious life in the Congregation s was completed with the final approval of the Constitution on April 6, 1924. The Congregation of the Sisters of St. Elizabeth became a full religious congregation under papal law.

In 1890, the general government and the novitiate were transferred to Wrocław. In the same year, the Elizabethan nuns completed the construction of a hospital in Wrocław, which was placed under the care of St. Joseph. This hospital was considered the most modernly equipped in the territory of East Germany.

Due to the increasing number of sisters, and therefore also of establishments, on April 26, 1898, the Congregation was first divided into provinces. As a result, the house in Wrocław, which was already the seat of the general administration, at the same time became a provincial house with 200 affiliates.

In 1901, the construction of a house intended for the seat of the novitiate was completed. He stood in front of the generalate. The need to build a separate novitiate house was urgent, because at that time about 100 candidates applied for admission into the Congregation each year.

The period of the war was a dramatic experience for the whole Congregation. Approaching the Eastern Front, the sisters operating in various Silesian outposts were particularly exposed to the brutality of Soviet soldiers as religious. The Elizabethan Sisters have made their Stations of the Cross. 10 sisters who will be beatified on June 12, were killed by Soviet soldiers in 1945, some of them had already been raped. But there were many more casualties among Elizabethan women, more than 100 of them died during the war.

The post-war period was also full of difficult problems facing the Congregation. In 1946 the General Management moved its headquarters from Wrocław to Reinbek (Germany). The impressive number of institutions (before 1939, only 165 houses belonged to the province of Wrocław) has decreased significantly. The first reason was the war itself. A large part of the houses was destroyed, some of the institutions previously belonging to the Province of Wrocław were located outside Poland, many houses abandoned by the sisters, during the repatriation were occupied by the newcomers. The number of sisters also decreased because those who had German origins left for their homeland.

Communist governments, characterized by a programmed struggle against the Church and all manifestations of its activity, posed new problems, hitherto unknown. It began with the expulsion of the sisters from state-owned workplaces, then the capture of individual houses, and finally the sisters were deported to labor camps in Gostyń, Kobylin and Dębowa Łąka (1953-1956 ). At this time, more houses were illegally nationalized and monastic property was plundered mainly by prominent figures of the time.

The situation stabilized only after 1989. It was then that the right to some previously taken houses was regained. Including The Novitiate House in Wrocław was recovered and now houses a care and treatment center after a complete renovation.

The case of rapes and murders committed by Soviet soldiers was a taboo subject in post-war Poland. It was only after 1980 that documents concerning the martyrdom of Elizabethan nuns began to be collected.

Currently, the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Elizabeth has 678 sisters in Poland and 995 worldwide.

It operates in Poland, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Israel, Palestine, Brazil, Russia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Georgia, Bolivia, Kazakhstan , Paraguay, Hungary and Tanzania.

Elizabethan Sisters are characterized by work and service to the poorest and needy, in accordance with Christ’s command: “Whatever you have done for one of my least brothers, you have done for me” ( Mt 25, 40). Elizabethan women worked as nurses in hospitals, as catechists in kindergartens and schools, and helped in the daily work of parishes. The sisters also run retirement homes, orphanages, educational institutions and boarding houses.

The beatification process began on November 25, 2011 and ended four years later in Wrocław. On June 19, 2021, Pope Francis announced the decree of martyrdom for Sister Maria Paschalis and nine Elizabethan sisters.

June 11, 2022 in Wrocław Cathedral at 11 a.m. the solemn beatification of the Servants of God – Sr. Maria Paschalis Jahn and nine Companions will take place. The Holy Mass will be presided over by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Card. Marcello Semeraro.

(Based on: selzbietanki.com, elżbietanki.wroclaw.pl, elżbietanki.nysa.pl).

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