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Venerable Maria Theresia Bonzel

Aline Bonzel was born in Olpe, a small town in the Sauerland area of Germany, on September 17, 1830, on the feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis. Her birth date prefigured her future. She was the daughter of wealthy citizens of Olpe. Her father died early, and her mother raised her in a strong spirituality centered around their parish. Aline believed she was called to religious life. Her mother protested but eventually allowed Aline to enter religious life. Many difficulties, including heart disease, stood in her way until age 29, when she joined with two of her friends to form a community, although not the Franciscan sisters for whom she would eventually become foundress. This new community experienced conflict with another community doing nursing in Olpe and friction among its own co-founders. Causing more tension was Sister Maria Theresia’s wish to use the Franciscan rule, which ran counter to the established Augustinian rule. The Church authorities stepped in to create two communities. Sister Maria Theresia became the superior of the new community in Olpe, and the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration came into existence in 1863.

Mother Theresia was resistant to founding this new group, the Poor Franciscans of Olpe, but did what was asked of her. She wrote the Constitutions after the Rule of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis.  She also needed to form a way of life, a style of clothing and provide for the economic needs of the new congregation. The picture here is a drawing of Maria Theresia, which shows her kindness and the style of clothing chosen. This habit was worn by all sisters until 1960.

Funds were necessary for the care of orphans, and many wealthy families in Olpe came to their aid in this work. The sisters gradually added other works of charity. The community grew slowly, with the addition of two or three women each year. They also had to deal with the difficulties brought on by their poverty. Mother Theresia placed these intentions in the care of St. Joseph and added the name “of St. Joseph” to the name of every sister. 

The community spread. Mother Theresia started schools of advanced education for girls, and they began to provide nursing outside Olpe. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), she sent sisters to nurse victims of war, and five sisters eventually died from the diseases contracted there. Mother Theresia and 20 of her sisters were awarded medals by the Emperor for their service.

Their ministries came to an abrupt halt with the beginning of the Kurturkampf, Chancellor Bismarck’s attempt to control the Church. To evade having the young community’s property confiscated as “church property,” it became the property of Aline Bonzel, Mother Theresia’s maiden name. Soon new candidates could not be accepted. The community was at a standstill, forbidden to perform most of their ministries. At the invitation of Bishop Dwenger, Mother Maria Theresia sent seven sisters to Lafayette, Ind. in 1875. In the U.S. they could not only nurse freely, but were asked to become teachers to the children of German immigrants. Soon more sisters were needed for the work in Lafayette. Since the Kulturkampf forbade accepting any new members into the community, Mother Maria Theresia secretly invested three young women during the night and sent them in lay clothes to America. She even considered sending the entire community to the U.S.  But by 1850 the legislation of the Kulturkampf, still in effect, was no longer enforced. Growth came quickly in Germany. 

In the U.S., growth was even greater because of fewer restrictions, causing many of the sisters to become overworked. Maria Theresia’s person and holiness are revealed in her letters, especially to those at a distance in America. She wrote: “As I learned from your letters, my dear Sisters, you are overburdened with work, for some of the Sisters are weak and sickly. My heart aches for you, and I would love to write a word of comfort to each of you individually, but time will not permit.”   

The remainder of Mother Maria Theresia’s life was spent leading the community in Germany. At each election for the general superior she was overwhelmingly elected, despite her wish to leave that office.  In 1900 she was awarded the medal of the Order of the Red Cross by Emperor Wilhelm II in recognition of the great work of the congregation. In 1903 she was near death for weeks, but recovered. In 1904, despite her protestations and weakening health, she was reelected general superior. She died on February 6, 1905, finally relieved of her illness. In 2010, she was pronounced “Venerable” by the Church.  Hopefully, one day she will be officially declared the saint that she is.