In December 1875 five Sisters ventured from the motherhouse in Salzkotten, Germany, to St. Louis to lead the new American Province. They were the fifth group of Sisters to journey to the United States since 1872. Early in their voyage, as the ship moved along the coast of England through the English Channel, they were caught in a violent winter storm. The Deutschland went aground on a sandbar off the coast. The ship remained lodged with a broken propeller. Calls for help went unheeded due to the howling winds and low visibility. Huge waves crashed across the deck of the doomed ship.
(Photo courtesy of the Illustrated London News)
Among the dead in the accident were the five Franciscan Sisters. It was reported the Sisters had given up their space in limited lifeboats for women and children. The bodies of four Sisters were found, but the body of Sr. Henrica Fassbender (the 28-year-old chosen by Mother Clara to lead the American Province) was never recovered. Franciscan priests were sent to accompany the remains of the Sisters as they were transported by train to Stratford, England. The Sisters were remembered at St. Francis Church in Stratford (pictured below) with a Requiem Mass celebrated by Cardinal Henry Manning of London. His Eminence offered the eulogy for the Sisters, who had yet to be individually identified. Newspaper accounts stated large crowds of people lined both sides of the street as the funeral processed to St. Patrick Cemetery in nearby Leytonstone.
The newspapers were filled with the grim details of the Deutschland’s loss of life. Many were moved to profound sadness, including Jesuit priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. He had spent several years in Stratford as a child with his family and his mother sent him the newspaper articles. Deeply touched by the tragedy, Hopkins turned to poetry. His resulting masterpiece, The Wreck of the Deutschland, dedicated to the Sisters, celebrates Hopkin’s deep sense of God’s presence in the face of disaster and memorializes the Sisters. This sketch by artist Wilhelm Foeckersperger was commissioned by the Gerard Manley Hopkins Festival, Monasterevin, Ireland.