100 Years 100 Stories: The First Twelve Sisters’ Journey of Faith

June 19, 2024

Although the first 12 Sisters of the Redeemer did not arrive in America until March 1924, the pioneering journey began several years earlier. It all started when the Xaverian Brothers pleaded with Superior General Sr. Basilissa in Würzburg to send a group of Redeemer Sisters to join them in service at their St. Joseph High School in Baltimore, Md. The Brothers told them there was a great need for the Sisters’ God-given gifts in America. Although a strong connection already existed, as a few of the Sisters had blood brothers belonging to the Xaverian order, there was much hesitancy from Sr. Basilissa.

In the years following World War I, Germany, including the Sisters of the Redeemer, saw a significant increase in young women joining religious life. There was also a greater need for the Sisters’ healing presence and service. However, the war left Germany and many businesses with significant financial stress, and the Congregation was not immune.

After three years of discernment and prayer, Sr. Basilissa, with the approval of Bishop Ehrenfried Matthias of Würzburg, finally consented to send 12 Sisters to America. Their earnings would be sent back to Germany to help support the growing Congregation. The Sisters had no inkling that one ministry started in Baltimore would, over the next 100 years, expand into more than 30 ministries across six states.

Now that the decision to accept the invitation to serve in America was made, Sr. Basilissa asked the Sisters if any would volunteer for a new mission in America. Many of the Sisters responded enthusiastically. Ultimately, Sr. Annunziata, Sr. Bonizella, Sr. Eustorgia, Sr. Castora, Sr. Wiltrudis, Sr. Cortilia, Sr. Hildemarca, Sr. Adolfina, Sr. Abiatha, Sr. Rotrudis, Sr. Apollinaris, and Sr. Adalsindis were selected as the pioneers—the first 12 Sisters of the Redeemer who would serve in America. Together, they represented a variety of well-rounded trades—seamstresses, nurses, cooks—which were desperately needed at their first American ministry site.

Although the plans were falling into place, there was much concern and anxiety about what they would encounter once they arrived in America. The United States immigration quota was quickly reaching its limit. The Sisters received letters with warnings such as, “Immigrants are no longer welcome as in former times,” and “They make immigration even more difficult.” They read newspaper reports stating, “The religious are allowed to disembark, but are not permitted to leave Ellis Island.”

After all this preparation and excitement, the Sisters worried. Would they be welcomed in America? Would they be told to return to Germany? No one knew. However, they continued their journeys of faith with the courage God’s plan was in place for them.

On March 5, 1924, Ash Wednesday, the First 12, who were accompanied on the journey by Sr. Hernelda, left the Motherhouse in Würzburg. For many Sisters, this was their last time in their homeland. Upon their departure, Sr. Basilissa presented each of the 12 Sisters with a bouquet of white flowers.

Over the course of the next few days, the Sisters traveled by train to arrive at the S.S. Bremen ocean liner. On March 8, they began their 13-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean, and almost every day, they experienced terrible weather. According to the Sisters, the sea was so rough that suitcases would fly from one side of the cabin to the other. All the Sisters, except Sr. Abiatha and Sr. Cortilia, experienced severe seasickness.

However, as the S.S. Bremen approached America, the storm eased up. As reflected in the Sisters’ journal describing their journey, “Our 12 took advantage of the calming of the sea and got together and just talked and laughed.” As their ship arrived in the harbor, the sun shone bright. It was a beautiful day for them to plant the seeds of their new mission. In joyful appreciation, the Sisters sang hymns to St. Joseph—the Congregation’s primary saint, whose feast day is March 19—the day they arrived in America.

The Sisters expected to be picked up in Hoboken, N.J. by Sr. Hernelda’s brother and sister-in-law. However, only five of the Sisters had government-approved diplomas, therefore they were forced to stay overnight on the S.S. Bremen before they were sent by small boat to Ellis Island the next day. The Sisters had no idea what was in store when they arrived at Ellis Island and feared they would be sent back to Germany.

The following day, the Sisters waited four hours for a German-speaking judge to hear their case. The judge asked what type of mission work the Sisters did, only seeming interested in the Sisters who were nurses. The judge announced that only the three who were nurses could remain in America. The others were to return to Germany. One of the Sisters responded saying, “I was in the First World War and I did cooking for the soldiers. I also took care of them in a hospital, and I can care for those who are sick even though I am not a nurse.” Another Sister said, “If one goes, we will all go back.” Finally, after many tense moments, the judge conceded, “I think all the Sisters are very welcome in the United States.”

Soon, the Sisters were able to connect with Sr. Hernelda’s brother and sister-in-law, who helped them board the train to Baltimore. They were excited but also nervous to arrive at their new home.

When the Sisters awoke the next morning, they were surprised to see 18 inches of snow covering the ground outside. With deep appreciation, they explored their new home—a large three-story house with a kitchen, parlor, laundry room, and a bedroom for each of them. The Brothers were so kind and welcoming to them, making their first days in America very easy and pleasant. However, the Sisters were anxious to start working.

Quickly, the Sisters settled into caring for the students and Brothers at St. Joseph High School, believing it was no coincidence their first U.S. ministry site was named for their patron saint. Before long, Sr. Hernelda returned to Germany as planned, but before leaving America, she made a connection that would lead to the Sisters’ next ministry at Villanova College.

The Xaverian Brothers had been correct—the Redeemer Sisters’ healing presence was greatly needed in America. Since arriving in America nearly 100 years ago, the Sisters, called by the Spirit of God, compassionately have cared for sick, poor, and underserved persons. Responding to the needs of the times, the Sisters established ministries—in Philadelphia, New York, Massachusetts, and, of course, Meadowbrook. With much gratitude, the current 12 Sisters of the Redeemer stand on the shoulders of not only the First 12 Sisters who came to America but also every Sister who came after them.