Beginnings of the Passionists in Germany 1922-1929

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by Rob Carbonneau, C.P., Ph.D.

On March 23, 1922, Provincial Justin Carey informed the Passionist Procurator in Rome that he was pleased that the Passionists being sent to Germany “had no newspaper notoriety, which is,” continued Carey, “the one thing I was anxious to avoid.” Carey’s decision to avoid publicity about the beginnings of the German foundation has remained true to the present day. It always seemed to be less important than China, which, over time received more personnel, money and support from the Sign. Still, the German foundation and the Passionist participants merit reflection on their own even if Provincial Justin Carey appeared to opt for quiet as the United States faced a post-World War I world. This short essay will examine the genesis of the German foundation from 1922 to 1929.

“The problems facing this Chapter were, for the most part, quite unlike those of previous Chapters” reflected the members of the Twenty-First Provincial Chapter of the Province of St. Paul of the Cross held July 16 to 24, 1923. The mission to China and the Sign were progressing. Passionist vocations were increasing “with unprecedented rapidity” and, reported the capitulars, the Province had “planted the Cross in Germany.” Later, in response to a letter (apparently from Fathers Victor Koch and Valentine Lehnerd who had been sent to Germany), the Chapter decreed to “recognize the arduous undertaking and the many difficulties attending the First Foundation of the Order in a country where the Passionists were unknown.”

The German foundation received mediocre attention in the Sign. May 1922 readers of “Current Fact and Comment” were told that Father Victor Koch, rector of St. Paul’s Monastery in Pittsburgh, and Father Valentine Lehnerd, who had been involved in preaching, had sailed for Rome in April 1922. “It is planned, ” stated the Sign, “to make it the nucleus of a Passionist Province” in Germany. The article went on to say that the partition of Germany meant the loss of five million Catholics out of seven million that were detached. Excluding the Sarr district Catholic proportion in 1922 was 33.5%.

Carey had also reported in the March 1922 letter that a “substantial sum” of money was available for the German foundation. But that did not deter Passionists, prior to their departure, from collecting money from their friends in the hope that they would “bring more than money to Germany, [and] that they will bring the spirit of St. Paul of the Cross.”

From the start the German foundation faced financial problems. On February 15, 1925, Provincial Stanislaus Grennan had received a letter from Father Victor Koch announcing that he had closed a contract for land in Austria for $7,000. Koch then went on to request a total of approximately $10,000. Grennan did see this as a request in good faith “through some misunderstanding” and was not afraid to cite that the Bavarian foundation had received $35,000 “with practically no results.” In addition Grennan lamented that a church built for $20,000 raised by American benefactors was owned by the Cardinal, not the Passionists; this was compounded by the fact that the Pasing foundation might never belong to the Passionists because the “real legal difficulties will start after the death of the Countess.” On February 15, 1925, Grennan told Father Leone, the Procurator General in Rome, that there was no surplus money to send Father Victor Koch. It had been spent on the Springfield foundation which had a debt of $200,000. Grennan did not desire “to contract a new debt, which neither I nor my Consultors, nor any of the Rectors of this Province would feel disposed to do for the German foundation.” One could argue that the early development of the German foundation was influenced by domestic issues in the Province as much as issues that the first members faced in Germany. New mission ventures have to be evaluated in relation to overall issues faced by a Province.

Later, the 1926 Chapter received a report from Father Victor Koch and “expressed their desire to cooperate…by supplying more religious.” The 1929 Chapter recognized the progress of the German and Austria foundation; a canonical rectorship had been established, as well as a canonical novitiate at the Retreat at Maria Schutz, and a Preparatory School at Pasing. The Chapter went on to give high praise to the work of Father Victor Koch and his companions. And because the foundation appeared to be “flourishing,” the Chapter voiced support for development of a “separate autonomous German foundation” in which Pasing in Germany and Maria Schutz in Austria would be under the direction of the General. No doubt to assist the move, the Chapter agreed to give $50,000 to secure property at Pasing so long “that no further demand or request for funds” be asked of the Province. And the Chapter agreed, right before the start of the Depression, that a $5,000 subsidy be sent to Germany each year for six years.

When viewed in the context of other Passionist apostolates in the 1920s, the German foundation received limited attention and support. Domestic ventures and China were the priority. But the mission to Germany, the work of Fathers Victor Koch and Valentine Lehnerd as well as those Passionists who followed after World War II, demand more study.

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