Legacy of Sr. Bernarda Heimgartner: Empowering women through education
Two hundred years ago, a little girl was born in the canton of Aargau in Switzerland, and her life continues to inspire the empowerment of women in society through education.
Sister Bernarda Heimgartner brought much hope to mankind. On 26 November 2022, we marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Foundress of the Sisters (Teachers) of the Holy Cross of Menzingen.
She was born in 1822 in the canton of Aargau in German-speaking Switzerland. In 1844, along with two companions, at the initiative of Capuchin friar Teodosio Florentini, she founded a congregation of teaching sisters for the education of young women, thus contributing in a crucial way to the development of women’s roles.
Anna Maria Heimgartner, who took the name Sister Bernarda when she became a religious, had the good fortune as a child to learn to read and write in the local school of her native village Fislisbach, in the canton of Aargau. Maria was highly intelligent and happily conscious of this privilege.
In the 1830’s Capuchin Father Teodosio Florentini came up with the idea of establishing a community of sisters dedicated to the formation of young women, and Anna Maria immediately expressed her availability. In 1839, Florentini sent her and two of her companions to the Maria Krönung convent in Baden.
Meanwhile, the political situation was becoming increasingly more unstable and anticlerical, and Maria Krönung convent was closed as were many other convents. Formation in teaching was temporarily suspended.
However, Fr Teodosio encouraged the young women to pursue their studies. They continued their formation in Freiburg im Breisgau, with the Ursuline sisters, and completed their novitiate in Ribeauvillé, Alsace.
The three young sisters wanted to bring the type of religious life they had experienced in Ribeauvillé, also to Switzerland, going to the smallest villages to teach in small groups. Their project was destined to be fulfilled.
The parish priest of Menzingen, in Zug canton already had the intention of instituting a school based on the model of Ribeauvillé. In the meantime, Bernarda and her sisters had made their vows in October of 1844 in the Capuchin convent of Father Teodosio in Altdorf and were thus able to begin their work in Menzingen.
As the community of sisters grew, they began to go to the mountain villages in groups of two or three to teach children in the local schools which were surrounded by great poverty. In her role as director, through letters and visits, Sr. Bernarda encouraged her sisters to persevere in their teaching.
There is ample documentation showing that when the State’s authorities would pay them a visit, they greatly appreciated the scholastic results obtained by the Sisters of Menzingen.
The sisters were formed in the context of Catholic Enlightenment. They wanted the girls and women to be able to develop their potential through education, and in that way, to begin a journey of emancipation. In fact, Catholic Enlightenment wanted to create a link between reason and faith, without however, omitting knowledge of the Bible.
However, with her work, Sr. Bernarda did not attract only friends. Representatives of Catholic circles in which her sisters mostly worked, rejected the education of young women.
According to their mentality, their daughters and wives were to work strictly in the family environment: have children, raise them, cook, run the house and be responsible for religion within the family.
But it was not just the conservatives who rejected Sr. Bernarda. Liberals suspected that the sisters’ teachings were limited to educating children in exercises of devotion.
At the same time, an ever-growing number of young women joined the congregation of teachers, and a school was opened in Menzingen, the foundation’s headquarters, where young women could study to become teachers.
In 1883, the sisters began their mission in Africa and at the beginning of the 20th century, they started their mission in India and in Latin America, followed by Sri Lanka.
In Europe, the Sisters (Teachers) of the Holy Cross of Menzingen arrived in Italy and then in Germany and England.
To date, one of their greatest commitments is to faith formation through pastoral work, religious education and faith formation from childhood, and through opportunities to participate in spiritual events, such as spiritual exercises, geared especially towards young people.
Nowadays, many sisters in Europe are old and in need of assistance. Yet even in their nursing homes, they are aware of their mission and often are able to give the nursing staff an anchor in life and in faith.
The Sisters spur the young women to cooperate for a period of time with their sisters in Africa so that the young are able to deepen their own faith, which was Sr. Bernarda’s goal: to develop each person’s potential.
Even if we are still lacking an officially recognized miracle for her canonization to take place, many people entrust themselves to her as an intermediary to God. She continues to inspire the Sisters of the Holy Cross to highlight the gifts of every person.
Sr. Franziska Mitterer – Sisters of the Holy Cross