The task of beginning a new mission in America was entrusted to four young Pallottine Missionary Sisters from Germany: Srs. Franziska Zabel (33), Dominika Senn (32), Alacoque Radecker (34), and Priska Hess (24). They were originally scheduled to sail on the ill-fated TITANIC, but were prevented from doing so by an error on a Sister’s passport.
S.S. Bremen by Chris Butler
Instead, they sailed from the city of Bremen a few days later on a much more humble ship, The BREMEN, a German Barbarossa class ocean liner commissioned in 1897. This ship was 571 feet in length, with a tonnage of 11,540 GRT (gross register tons). The TITANIC, an Olympic-class passenger liner, was 882 ft. 9 inches in length, with a tonnage of 46,328 GRT. (Wikipedia Encyklopedia)
“On April 20, 1912, while sailing from Bremen to New York, the S.S. BREMEN passed through the debris field left by the sinking of the R.M.S. TITANIC. Passengers and crew reported seeing hundreds of bodies floating in the water…” (ibid)
On April 25, 1912, the Chicago tribune published the following article:
The S.S. BREMEN’s Captain Wilhelm described the scene the BREMEN encountered in the North Atlantic, near the site of the disaster, approximately five or six days afterward. Captain Wilhelm stated that he scene was overwhelming. He estimated between 150 to 200 bodies of men, women, and children floating around – all wearing lifebelts. He said the ship “ploughed through fields of bodies…they were everywhere.”
Upon arriving in New York, they expected to stay with the Sisters of Penance and Charity, Stella Niagara, New York. Instead, they received a telegram from Sister Cypriana, of the Franciscan Order instructing them to wait until she arrived, but Sr. Cypriana never did come. Jacob Reiman arranged for the Sisters to stay with the Sisters of St. Francis in Hoboken, New York. The train they had originally expected to take wrecked, killing many of the passengers.
The Sisters were welcomed at Stella Niagara by Mother Leonarda Hannappel, Sr. M. Gonzaga, the local superior, and Sr. M. Dorothea.
Father Nicholas Joseph Hengers was born in Luxenburg, Germany in 1875. He came to the United States in 1898. In 1902 he was put in charge of the missions of central West Virginia. By 1910 he was living in Richwood, Nicholas Co. W.V. He opened a little school there, and he went to New York to find sisters to teach in this school.
The Pallottines were seeking a place to settle, and it was quickly arranged for them to travel to Richwood.
West Virginia is a small mountainous state, entirely enclosed by the Applachian Mountains. It has a history of poverty, due to its isolation. It has also been invaded by industry: Lumbering, and Coal Mining. The land has been stripped, leaving behind bare hills and decaying towns, once the resources were exhausted.
Much blood and tears left here in W.V. (photo by Author)
Today the hills are no barrier, due to modern technology, and the future seems bright and shiny to some folks, but in the early 1900’s, the Sisters must have been overwhelmed by poverty they saw and experienced. Lumber camps and coal mines were scattered around Richwood. Many immigrants settled there, attracted by the availability of unskilled labor.
Prejudice abounded, both ethnic and religious. W.V. is strongly Methodist by faith, and between 4-5 percent Catholic. Protestants and Catholics did not work together in those days, and it took Vatican II for the two sides to join forces. Immigrants were disdained by the native population, and WV was tough place to live!
Sisters gathered in Huntington in the late 1950's. (archives)
The students attending Holy Family School came from the surrounding area. Since the distance was too far to travel on a daily basis, and some of the children boarded with the Sisters. Father Joseph Brumsfield attended the school, and was one of their first boarders. He later did a great deal of missionary work in W.V., building several churches. He died here in 1980 and is buried in Preston Co, WV
And so it was that four German women, wearing unusual attire, and speaking broken English, took on the W.V. mountaineers, and eventually won their hearts! The school succeeded, and soon a hospital was erected.
The tiny town of Richwood cradled a new beginning for the Pallottines in the U.S. and British Honduras. The future saw growth and expansion, and Pallotti’s vision grew.