Cellitinnen Augustinian Sisters

History of our Congregation in Burger hospital (1838-1870)

[Translation of an article found in the Souvenir published by our sisters on the occasion of the 125 year jubilee of the St. Joseph’s hospital at St. Vith, Belgium.]

The true nature of the congregation of the Cellitinnen according to the rule of St. Augustine should be understood in the specific context of the city of Cologne. Its development and spiritual role should be seen from the perspective of historical situation of that time. The Chronicler records that on 19th of Nov. 1838 four sisters from two different Cellitinnen congregations who were engaged in the Home based nursing care (Home Nursing) started their service in Bürger Hospital of the city (A Bürger hospital can be understood as a Government Hospital). This was a simple and humble beginning but it grew to one of the most prominent and biggest congregation of the three Cellitines of Cologne in the following century.

It was on 19, November on the feast of St. Elisabeth of Thüringen a request from church authorities came to the superiors Sr. Gertrud Matheisen of St. Elisabeth convent of Antongasse and Sr. Ann Maria Merx of St. Marys’ convent of Kupfergasse. The content of the request was to take over the nursing care in Bürger Hospital. The types of patients in the hospital were mentally disoriented and invalids. When Dr. Otto Fisher started his service in the hospital he started to admit very serious patients. The Bürger Hospital was functioning in the old St. Cicily convent which had to be closed down in the process of secularization . The city authority handed over the nursing care of Burger hospital to the sisters because there were serious negligence in the care of the patients and was evidently corrupt. This was a great concern for the administration.
The four sisters accepted the request to undertake the newly assigned responsibility and started working after nine days of receiving the request. This laid the foundation for a new era of social service in the city of cologne. To attend to the new need of the time they had to come away from their familiar life situation as well as the field of service. They had to work and function under the strict rules and regulation and were placed under constant control of Doctors and civil authorities. These posed a huge challenge to them.
After a year the number of sisters in Bürger hospital was increased to 11. At the start this group was considered as filial convent of Antongasse convent which means a branch convent. Later they started their own community independently in the new situation and in the year 1840 the city government gave the sisters its own statutes to follow. This small convent had their own independent superior who was elected by the sisters from the beginning itself. The first superior who thus elected was Sr. Aloysia Tychon in the year 1838. She died in the year 1855. She sacrificed her life due to infection of a contagious type of meningitis which she contacted while taking care of two other sisters who had the sickness. Sr. Ignatia Külpman became her successor.

It was not even in the dream of the sisters to start an independent congregation as they started the new ministry in the former Cäcilien convent. However, in the mind of the Diocesan and civil authorities there was a hidden agenda to integrate the Cellitinnens of Antongasse and Küpfergasse through their service at Bürger Hospital and eventually to make a single organization from these three entities. This plan could not or did not materialize due to various reasons. Sisters in Bürger hospital were under the jurisdiction of the superior only in the care of their spiritual matters. They were dependent on the civil administration that paid them regular salary in all other matters concerning work and even in the internal matters of sisters like new admission or dismissal of an aspirant. Their decisions were mostly dependent on budget and supply of materials.

The number of sisters could not exceed more than 34. The only criteria of admission of an aspirant to religious life according to city hospital administrators was physical strength since they were expected to work 14 to 16 hours every day of a week. The directive which was written in the year 1840 for Superior and sisters of Bürger Hospital there is no mention about the real spiritual motivation of the Wartenonnen or any type of spiritual impulse. Instead there were detailed instructions about their daily routine, the strict reporting about the purchases they make, the number of bed linen and personal clothes to be given to the sick and invalid people, the preparation of the food- mainly the type of food to be served from the opening to closing time, their going out or receiving visitors and so on. This is the reason why we cannot find how the sisters maintained their religious and community life during the initial stages of the foundation of the congregation.

One should not forget that it was forbidden from the government to make final commitment as an after effect of secularization which drained the religious life in its original spirit. So much so the sisters in Bürger Hospital did not have an enclosure: a place reserved only for sisters. Novitiate training was not possible as the candidates were recruited mainly to work in the hospital.

The struggle for independence from Civil administration saw success in 1841 because three years of their service in Bürger Hospital won great appreciation in every realm. It resulted in job security and insurance facility for old age. With this background the Congregation slowly and steadily began to get rooted and to admit new members. The permission from Arch Bishop Johannes von Geisel to admit independently aspirants and to conduct vestition was undoubtedly an important event in the life of the young congregation which established the separation of the Congregation from the two mother houses of Antongasse and Kupfergasse.

The struggle towards independency was overshadowed by structural as well as personal differences. The superior, Sr Ignatia Külpmann, who tried to find her own solution to this problem ended in leaving the congregation. Her successor was Sr. Dominika Barth. Under her leadership the independency took more and more concrete forms also in matters of personals. The number of sisters until the year 1845 came up to 18. They were responsible to care for 628 patients. The new hospital building was built in corridor style and had the capacity for 750 patients against the old building for 430 persons. This resulted in a rush of new admissions to the convent as well.

The medical efficiency of these new sisters was proved in 1849 with the arrival of patients with Cholera epidemy. From the 1275 reported cases in Cologne alone 573 sought admission in Bürger Hospital. Rev. Fr. Adolf Kolping joined the group for sometime residing in the Hospital giving spiritual care for the dying.

In addition to the concerns regarding care of patients, sisters had to face many other difficulties in the year 1850 to 52. As the new director took up job he began not only to interfere in the autonomy of the sisters but also in their religious life and to restrict them. It is said that once sisters took a procession along the corridor of the hospital in honor of the first Bishop of Cologne Bp. Maternus. As a result Superior Sr. Dominika Barth received a stern warning and strict letters. In short, sisters in Bürger hospital had to face a politically motivated and antireligious movement in the following years. This was more of a challenge to prove their competence as well as their capacity to defend themselves. At the same time it was also an opportunity to show their determination to follow the Lord through religious life and commitment. This situation came to a peak in the years of civil revolution from 1871 to 1878.

After almost twenty years of trial sisters of Kupfergasse and Antongasse could claim back their property which was taken over by the city administration from 1835 onwards and with that a better picture of financial boosting in the care of the sisters could be seen. It also gave a positive face for the autonomy of sisters in Bürger hospital. Thus they were saved from the danger of extinction.

Sr. Dominika Barth in Bürger Hospital could not hope for an amalgamation of all Cellitines in Cologne especially with the new rule of the French (Preuss) in 1850s which gave the church new and broader freedom. The motivation behind this movement was to give to the dioceses a body of an organisation which consists of good and versatile qualified personnel so that the most urgent problem of nursing the sick could be approached more professionally. An additional effect would have been freedom of these three convents from the tie of civil administration.

The new Archbishop Johan von Geissel had a project of unifying the convents of cologne from Antongasse, Kupfergasse and from Bürger Hospital along with the Cellitines of St. Ursula in Düren and the Sisters of Mercy in Neuss with a free and secret election of superior general, a common Mother house with Novitiate but with autonomy in financial administration. It was easier said than done. The naming of Sr. Dominika Barth as Superior General by the Cardinal met with less appreciation in other Cologne convents. With that the enthusiastic move to unite the Augustinian convents wrecked for the time being. The second attempt undertaken later too met with the same result.

The condition of the sisters in Bürger Hospital progressively deteriorated. In the years 1867 to 1868 total number of Sisters including postulants were only 22. Besides the huge work load they had to shoulder they were nearing a dismissal of the contract of 1840. Continual intimidating and at times torturing way of interference made it impossible for the sisters to acquire the required number of 34 sisters. The newly appointed Cardinal Paul Melchers gave new statutes for the Congregation in Bürger Hospital in the year 1870 which was based on the old statutes of the Cellitines and supported by the Rule of St. Augustine. This gave at last a new turn to the congregation.

At the same time a new contract was made by the city Administration with the congregation after their repeated failed attempts to contact superiors of other congregations. They came to realize that no other religious group was willing to take over nursing care in Bürger hospital. The new contract also had the pressure from the doctors and the public. It was signed by the majority of the sisters on 21 March 1871. It gave more rights for the superior of the congregation by which the congregation for the first time was seen no more as branch convent or filial convent in Bürger Hospital but as an autonomous Congregation with the name Mercy or Charity sisters according to the Rule of St. Augustine. The new congregation came to an equal status of a Congregation in the city with the acquisition of their own Motherhouse in Severinstrasse (Mommerslocher Hof) on 15 January, 1870.

This had a double effect namely, the sisters were out from Bürger Hospital with their convent toward an autonomous novitiate and a Generalate and it was the final step for separation from mother convent in Antongasse. In fact, it took three decades of continual struggle for the congregation to have an elected superior of their own, to make a proper and a better contract with the Bürger hospital, and arrive at a better financial independency.