Mother M. Clara Pfänder, Foundress

The life of Mother M. Clara Pfänder, foundress of the Franciscan Sisters, Daughters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, was often difficult and dark. She survived the darkness with deep faith as her foundation and her own strong resolve of accepting everything in life as Divine Providence. Mother Clara’s religious community founded in 1860, was soon caught up in the hostile environment of the early 1870s as the state of Prussia passed laws to severely limit the influence of the Catholic Church. The Kulturkampf (culture struggle) drove the Jesuits out of the country and forbid men and women religious from teaching or running orphanages. In a book published in 2018, Sister M. Carola Thomann traces the life of Mother Clara especially during these most difficult times.

Book by Sister M. Carola Thomann

From the start, Sr. Carola was interested in restoring the good name of Mother M. Clara Pfaender, something that Mother Clara had sacrificed toward the end of her life.  The restrictions of the Kulturkampf outlawed new members from being accepted in religious communities without prior approval from the Prussian State. Bishop Konrad Martin (pictured above) of the diocese of Paderborn, Germany, was a champion of Catholic causes and of Mother Clara and her community. His strong support of the Church led to his imprisonment.

Mother Clara visited the bishop in prison in 1875, when he quickly wrote out plenary powers (pictured above)  authorizing Mother Clara to accept the vows of women entering the order, the right to accept women into the novitiate and other extraordinary powers exclusive to clergy. Mother Clara found it necessary to utilize these powers in a handful of circumstances to protect the Ecclesiastical Moderator (Father Klein) of the congregation. Done through him, such acts would have put him at risk of imprisonment himself. Father Klein and her own Sisters noticed women coming to the convent one day and being sent out to the Netherlands or to the United States the next. Father Klein falsely asserted that Mother Clara was excommunicated; a bewilderment to her Sisters who followed Mother Clara’s assertions to pray for the persecuted Church, one of the pillars of her newly-formed community.

Mother Clara, having been sworn to secrecy by Bishop Martin at the time of his granting Mother Clara the powers, was eventually driven out of the Congregation she founded. Misunderstood and distrusted by the hierarchy of the Church in Paderborn, she was exiled from the daughters she loved to Rome, Italy. There, for two years, she attempted to clarify her situation  and return to her service of love that was her life, but was blocked on every front. Receiving only an initial payment of the money promised her by Father Klein, Mother Clara soon fell into ill health. She died of diphtheria on October 5, 1882.

A last pharmaceutical bill found in Archives in Rome, help us know how Mother Clara died.

The Sisters of the whole congregation suffered the loss of their foundress and their guiding light, though it was especially harsh for the Sisters in Germany. They were forbidden to even mention her name or show a photograph of the foundress whom they had loved deeply. The Church put the Sisters of the Order in a position of choosing between Mother Clara or the Church.

The original secret authority from Bishop Martin was found in 1977 in an archive in Rome, almost a century after Mother Clara’s death. Sister M. Carola Thomann dedicated years to careful research in archives in Rome, Germany, and the Vatican to collect and expose the true facts of Mother Clara’s life and actions as well as those of the clergy who surrounded her. Sr. Carola was assisted by a canon lawyer, Msgr. Ruediger Althaus, a professor at the Faculty of Theology in Paderborn.

Book presentation (from left) Sister M. Magdalena (Congregational Directress), Sister M. Carola (researcher and author), Sister M. Angela (German Provincial Directress), and Prof. Dr. Ruediger Althaus.

Sister Carola found that Mother Clara had not been excommunicated as had been rumored at the time she was forced to abdicate her leadership in 1880. Sister Carola’s thorough biography of Mother Clara, as well as the indisputable facts she uncovered, proves Mother Clara acted within the authority with which she was entrusted by Bishop Martin.

In February 2018, at a festive special Mass in the Cathedral of Paderborn, Archbishop Hans-Joseph Becker proclaimed that Mother Clara had suffered a great injustice during the Kulturkampf in Prussia. The allegations against her did not correspond to the facts of her life. In truth, she lived bravely and with great integrity to God, the Church, and her congregation, never trying to clear her own name but knowing that all was well between her and her God. Later that day, the bishop blessed a sculpture of Mother M. Clara and a commemorative plaque in a side altar of the Cathedral, where Bishop Martin is also honored. We celebrate the good name of our dear foundress with thanksgiving for all she was in her life and for all the people who have been “helped through love” in her name.

Archbishop Becker blesses the sculpture and plaque honoring Mother Clara in a side alter, dedicated to Bishop Konrad Martin.

Sister Melanie Paradis, Provincial Directress of St. Clare’s Province in the United States, shares with other leaders of the international congregation, in the celebration honoring Mother Clara at the Cathedral in Paderborn.

Sister Magdelena Schmitz, General Directress, and Sister Carola Thomann (researcher, author, and past General Directress, address the Archbishop during the service.

The sculpture of Mother Clara and the plaque are placed next to a large, marble sculpture of Bishop Konrad Martin.

Our Sisters from Indonesia are joined by two sisters from Germany and Sr. Mary Lou Wirtz (back, center) sing for the congregation.

Sculpture of Mother M. Clara Pfaender by artist, Karl-Heinz Oswald.


Click to View 2020 Reflection