The Steyler Missionary Sister Ortrud Stegmaier SSpS, from Wiesloch has been living in Rome for 50 years. She was the first woman to receive a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Then she led the two co-founders of the order to beatification. But she was never a missionary in China … A visit with the Diamond Jubilarian.
Today, Sister Ortrud Stegmaier is a spry 85 year old. White habit, straight posture, and when she tells her story, there is now and then a flash of mischievousness in her eyes. We visit her in Via Cassia, on the northern outskirts of Rome, where the headquarters of the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters is located.
“This is a profession that you don’t give to yourself, but one that you feel you are being drawn to,” is how Sister Ortrud describes how it came about that she boarded the train in her village in Southern Germany, alone for the first time, to join the Missionary Congregation at Steyl in the Netherlands. How old was she? Fifteen years old.
“And my father absolutely didn’t want me to go, ‘why Steyl of all places? They’ll send you off to China…!’ And the first thing they told us when we arrived in Steyl, ‘You have to learn to drink hot water, otherwise you can’t go to China!’ And I immediately started drinking hot water so I could go to China.”
Sr. Ortrud was to travel to Latin America, Africa and Asia in the 60 years of her religious life, but never to China. In the same way, she did not take the classical path as a missionary. She was destined to do intellectual work. As a young Sister, she studied theology in Münster and Freiburg. Among her professors: Metz, Kasper, Rahner – “wonderful; I was completely carried away” – and Ratzinger.
“Yes! And he was a very good professor. But I studied at a time when you didn’t study theology. And that’s because it was during the Council. Then, Professor Ratzinger had already told us, ‘For the material of today, unfortunately, I have nothing Catholic to offer you.’”
Nothing Catholic – so on a case-by-case basis, Protestants were also invited to introduce students to theology. This was not without certain risks, as Sister Ortrud remembers. “Everyone got a letter from the Bishop, Höffner, who was previously a professor and later became bishop, ‘ You will now need Protestant literature for your theology studies. If you feel that you are getting into trouble there, you yourself are obliged to stop, when you find it goes wrong.’ And I read through that letter very well. After all, I myself came under this obligation. And then, I found a wonderful Protestant theology professor. When I had gone through his work, I realized: This is another world. So, I never touched him again. Afterwards, I realized that even priests left because they had started with that one.”
The Catholic Church of the 1960s needed a reformation – that’s what the Council, which Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, attended as a young theologian, was all about. And when Sister recalls today her own expectations of the Council? They weren’t that great.
“I had no difficulties with my church. That’s why I didn’t look out for earth-shattering changes. One heard that it was necessary, but I myself…”
Doctorate instead of chickens and rabbits
Especially since everything was still brand new and fresh, she, who would have liked to take care of chickens and rabbits in the convent, was allowed to study. In Münster, Sister Ortrud says, already in her time, in the mid-1960s, half of the theology students were women. “Yes, we Germans weren’t so sensitive about that,” she comments dryly. Nevertheless, when she completed her studies, her order, with its Dutch headquarters at Steyl, did not at that time have a proper place for such an educated sister.
This is how Sister Ortrud came to Rome and to the Pontifical Gregorian University. At the renowned Jesuit university, she was the first woman ever to earn a doctorate in theology. She wrote on “The Contribution of the Sisters to Missionary Activity in Southeast Asia.” For this, she did field research in Indonesia, the Philippines, and India. She remembers the sticky heat almost physically, but above all she remembers her fellow sisters and the realities of life in these countries, which helped her to understand what the universal church is and what mission is.
A Suitcase with Instructions
She graduated in May 1973, and with her doctorate in her pocket, Sister Ortrud Stegmaier was given a very special role in her religious community. “They told me, ‘there’s a room up there, your room, with a suitcase on the table. You open it and read what’s in it, and then you will know how to do it.’ And with that, I was installed as a postulator. And then I read and read.”
Postulator means: the one who accompanies the beatification procedures. Sister Ortrud conducted two of them for her order, whose official name is “Missionary Congregation Servants of the Holy Spirit”. They were for the two co-foundresses of the Congregation, Mother Maria Helena Stollenwerk and Mother Josepha Stenmanns, who worked beside the founder Arnold Janssen. The causes ran parallel. Many fellow sisters urged Sr. Ortrud to speed up her work and to tell them many things about the venerated mothers; but this was difficult because both had written so little.
“’We want to know something about our mothers! Why don’t you write something!’ they said. But I always needed facts. For the Vatican, I needed facts.” And the facts led to the goal: Mother Maria Helena was beatified by John Paul II in 1995, Mother Josepha by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008.
A missionary is a woman who renounces herself
Diamond Jubilee of Profession – 60 years as a religious: last June, Sister Ortrud was with Pope Francis at his General Audience, in the front row. Because what is to be celebrated must be celebrated.
“I told him, Holy Father, I ask a blessing for a sick child, for our Superior General and for all the Sisters. That’s when he put a big cross on my forehead.”
A missionary is a woman who renounces herself. Sister Ortrud, 85, boarded the train alone at 15 to become a missionary.
“I never did missionary work in that sense. Only in the modern understanding: the way I behave has an effect on others. That’s my mission.”