european, Mission

SSpS Sisters in the land of St. Josef Freinademetz

Many people don’t know, but the Missionary Servants of the Holy Spirit have a community in Bressanone (Brixen) in South Tyrol, in northern Italy, in the region where Saint Joseph Freinademetz and Mother Theresia Messner lived.

Sr. Hemma Christine Jaschke, the SSpS Provincial Leader of Austria, writes about the history of the sisters in the South Tyrol and the current pilgrimages to Oies.

When we took the decision at one of our last Provincial Chapters to close two communities in the Province, we did so with the intention of continuing, if possible, the SSpS presence in South Tyrol.
Three reasons led us to do this:
• South Tyrol is for us kind of “native soil”, the home country of St. Joseph Freinademetz and Mother Theresia Messner.
• More than one third of the sisters in our Province come from South Tyrol.
• Although South Tyrol is economically a rich region, the diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone needs pastoral personnel, and the spiritual needs of the people (but not only) are manifold.

While Margaretha (Sr. Theresia) Messner was the first South Tyrolean woman to come to Steyl in 1891, it took until 1948 for the SSpS to establish its first community in South Tyrol.

A difficult start

At that time the sisters were not really welcomed in the diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone, as there was a large number of female religious congregations in the country, though none of them were missionary.

The beginnings were accompanied by great difficulties and obstacles of all kinds and the sisters, like most people in this post-war period, lived in poor conditions. In the first community in Reinegg in der Mahr (not far from Brixen) they soon began to take care of the education of the young women. Courses in home management were set up and numerous retreats were organized. Especially the courses for “rural nursing” were highly appreciated by the young women.

Through this educational work, a large number of young women from the entire region found their way to their SSpS vocation. In the course of time, sisters also worked in some of the diocesan houses of formation, mostly in the housekeeping area.

From the valley to the mountain

In 1970 the community moved from the valley to the mountain, to Pairdorf above Brixen. There, the sisters ran a school (college for women’s social professions) and boarding house for more than three decades. During the summer holidays, when the students were away from the boarding house, sisters from the province, the neighbouring provinces and from the Generalate came for holidays. The house also served as a place for retreats and seminars.

After it became apparent that the school and boarding house were not needed any more, a considerably smaller community of sisters found a new place in 2007 in the Capuchin monastery in Sterzing, which had become vacant.

Soon the sisters found a home there and a rich field of pastoral and social activity, despite their advanced age. When the Capuchin Province finally had to withdraw its last confrere, and our community, too, had to say goodbye for reasons of age, the search for a new place for our sisters began again.

Invitation from the Dioceses

This time it was the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone itself that met us with various offers and expressed obvious interest in a further SSpS presence in South Tyrol.

Thus, a new small community of four sisters was opened on 29 September 2021 in the parish house of St. Michael’s on the Cathedral Square in the heart of Bressanone.

Two Austrians and two South Tyroleans, of “active” retirement age, have already become somewhat at home in Bressanone.

While Sr. Maria Illich continues her seminars, retreat and accompaniment work, the other sisters are active in various socio-pastoral ministries on a voluntary basis.

Sr. Berta Oberhammer, with many years of experience in Ghana, works in the House of Solidarity, where many migrants, including from African countries, find accommodation.

Sr. Maria Elisabeth Schwitzer, formerly a religion teacher and parish sister, continues to work in the liturgical-pastoral ministry and Sr. Andrea Maria Maier, retired parish assistant (pastoral worker), was already integrated into the diocesan team for vocation promotion and looks after the MHGG (Holy Spirit Mission Association) members in the area.

Hospitality towards others is greatly valued by the community, also for their own fellow sisters who are looking for a place to rest, for recollection and retreat.

Testimony of the Sisters

It is very nice to hear what the sisters in Bressanone are saying about their mission:

I, myself, find my mission there (in the House of Solidarity) important and good, because I can give courage and hope to people of different nationalities by being there, listening and collaborating (Sr. Berta SSpS).

So far, I only knew South Tyrol from my holidays. Now I just want to be there and see what happens in the encounters with people. I came here to Brixen with an open ear and with joy (Sr. Andrea Maria).

For years I have come to South Tyrol in summer to offer hiking retreats and other seminars in the mountains. Now, in “official retirement”, I am happy that I was able to make South Tyrol my permanent residence and from here I undertake my missionary activities, which consist of spiritual and therapeutic seminars and personal accompaniment (Sr. Maria Ilich).

Picture: The House of the Solidarity where Sr. Berta is a presence to migrants from many countries.

Pilgrimages to Oies

It is important for us sisters in the Austrian Province (to which South Tyrol belongs since 1959) to work together with our SVD confreres. Therefore, we are now increasingly looking for collaboration with the SVDs in Oies.

A start for this was (during the Covid-19 years) the joint redesigning of the pilgrim centre, which is used by various pilgrim groups. Oies is also meant to be a place where SVD and SSpS themselves can find solace, rest and time for prayer.

Every summer since the 1980s there has been the “Steyl Pilgrimage” on foot to Oies, for many years a joint project of SVD and SSpS Austria. Last year the pilgrimage week was given a “European touch”.

For the first time there was a mixed Austrian-Slovak pilgrim group. (At least) trilingual, we were en route in the footsteps of St. Josef Freinademetz, who inspired us with his search for God and his passion for mission. One of the highlights of the pilgrimage was the mission sending of Mária Majerčáková as a temporary missionary (MaZ) to Argentina (see pictures).

Though our ministry keeps changing in South Tyrol, our call to be a Mission continues. Today, we SSpS contribute through our hospitality and accompaniment to the mission of the church. We are reminded by the trademark quality of Mother Theresa Messner to constantly ask God’s blessing for her sisters, for the intentions of the people and for the whole of creation. May our sisters through their presence in South Tyrol continue to be a Mission on this earth.

Note: South Tyrol, called Alto Adige in Italian, has been part of Italy since 1919; until the First World War it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. The Autonomous Province of Bolzano – South Tyrol is the northernmost province in Italy and, together with the Province of Trento, forms the autonomous region of Trentino-Alto Adige. The population of South Tyrol is currently composed of over 62% German speakers, about 23% Italian speakers and about 4% Ladin speakers.
According to Sr. Anna Trojer, the Provincial Archivist: we had approximately 130 admissions to the Congregation from South Tyrol from 1948 – 1986. Those who left are also counted here, but not those who entered before 1948. At present we have 35 Sisters from South Tyrol in the Austrian Province and in addition, there are some in other continents.

Writen by Sr. Hemma Christine Jaschke, SSpS Provincial Leader of Austria

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Ursula Bukan, SSpS

26 January 2023

St. Joseph Freinademetz and Sr. Thersia Messner, pray for us