June 2008: FATHER CHRISTOPHER BERNSMEYER, OFM (Rest In Peace)
This month we remember the founder of our Congregation, Father Christopher Bernsmeyer, OFM, who died on June 2, 1858 in Telgte, Germany. As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of his death, we pray for a deeper understanding of our Franciscan heritage and a recommitment to carry his vision into the future.
The story begins in 1777
Johann Christoph Bernsmeyer was born on May 15, 1777, in Verl, Germany, and was the second of four children. When he was not attending school, it is presumed that he worked with his father on a farm. He probably attended school in Gütersloh or Rietburg where there was a Franciscan school which offered preparation for study at a university leading to a professional career or to the priesthood.
Religious persecution by Government
At the age of 24, he entered the Novitiate of the Franciscan Province of the Holy Cross on September 13, 1801, at Koster, Hamm, and he remained there for one year. Just after his profession to the Order of Friars Minor (OFM), he was transferred to Warendorf to study philosophy. Soon after, on August 11, 1802, King Frederich III forbade all monasteries of men to accept novices and allow them to make profession. On August 26, 1802, this prohibition was attached to the doors of the churches.
After he had finished his philosophical studies in Warendorf Monastery, Father Christopher was transferred to Münster to study theology with the Observant Franciscans. He was ordained to the priesthood on January 24, 1805 - much earlier than was customary or prescribed by the Order. He then had to finish his Theological Studies and then was appointed to parish work. This transfer from Warendorf Monastery was made without the permission of the German government. On June 15, 1805, when the status of population was to be given from the Monastery and his name appeared on the list, difficulties arose with the government. The government ordered that Father Christopher had to leave Münster within six weeks. The Provincial wrote a 14-page excuse to the King on account of this political crime, and the Guardian sent a petition to keep Father Christopher because he needed his help. On July 26, 1805, the government allowed him to remain in Münster.
Fondness for Telgte, Germany
Beginning in March 1808, part of his ministry involved a weekend commute from Münster to Telgte where he heard confessions and preached to pilgrims visiting Our Lady of Grace Chapel. This Chapel was built in 1654 under the direction of Prince-Bishop Bernhard von Galen and displayed a wooden pieta (the artistic term describing “Mary holding the body of Jesus after his death”) that was carved in 1370.
Growing tension between the government and Church leads to vision for the future
Throughout these years, there was a growing tension between the government and the Church. Then one day in 1811, a notice was posted on the Franciscans’ Monastery in Münster that read: “…Now therefore I, Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, do decree that the aforementioned Franciscan Monastery at Muenster, Westphalia, be, and hereby is, dissolved; that all property of whatsoever kind appertaining thereto be forfeited to the state; and that all members thereof be expelled and dispersed.” (The Monastery became a barracks and their church became a stable and then a prison.) On January 1, 1812, Father Christopher and the other Friars were forced to leave the monastery. He returned to Telgte and served as assistant pastor at St. Clements Church (for more than 25 years) and tended to the pilgrims who visited Our Lady of Grace Chapel. Here he learned about the situation of the sick in rural areas.
What he needed was a religious nursing organization devoted to the sick poor of the rural districts with the same efficient, full-time care that other sisterhoods were giving the poor of the cities. It became his dream to care for the sick and poor of Telgte. He purchased a former leper house at Auf der Hille near Telgte - paying for it from his own savings - and worked with another former Franciscan Brother to build an orphanage. The cornerstone of the house was laid on May 4, 1844 and completed in 1845.
The foundation of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis
On July 2, 1844, in Our Lady of Grace Chapel, he officially welcomed five young women as Sisters to the Third Order, which constituted the founding of the Community of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis. This group based their religious life on the rules of the Third Order of St. Francis approved by Pope Leo X in 1521. To these, Father Christopher added statutes of a more local character, as the care of the sick – poor of that territory in their own homes, as well as in hospitals. Kneeling before the wooden pieta where thousands of pilgrims had also prayed, these young women devoted their lives to the service of God and His people. Political and Church complications made for the slow evolution of the small group of Sisters.
During his life, Father Christopher continued to practice his Franciscan spirit but under very difficult political circumstances. He dreamed of nurturing the Franciscan spirit in whatever way that would be possible and even build a convent for sisters who would care for orphans, the poor, and the sick. His dream came true in spite of his distancing from it. The Congregation grew, and before his death in Telgte on June 2, 1858, at the age of 81, Father Christopher lived to see much accomplished what filled his heart with joy.
His vision continues today
Today, Father Christopher’s vision of a nursing sister has grown into a 164-year-old Congregation of Hospital Sisters serving the poor, sick, and needy throughout the world. Presently, there are 1100 Sisters in four Provinces (Germany, Poland, USA, and Japan) and one Region (India) who strive to be Christ’s healing presence and to bring this healing presence to others.