Gertraud von Bullion (1891-1930) and Marie Christmann (1881-1971) consecrated themselves to the Blessed Mother of Schoenstatt on December 8, 1920, thus laying the foundation stone for the Schoenstatt Women’s Movement – this was the interpretation of the founder of Schoenstatt, Father Joseph Kentenich, during several reflections on this event.
The context of the Consecration and its Effects
Seen from the two young women’s point of view, why was this highly daring? The Apostolic Federation, the first organizational form of Schoenstatt was created in 1919. This community for the formation of personalities who consciously follow their Christian vocation and who act as leaven in their environment, initially consisted only of men. The organization emerged from the Marian Congregation of Pallottine High School Students in Vallendar-Schoenstatt. Its members worked as sodalists on the fronts of Europe during the First World War and gave testimony to the awakening of graces they had experienced around the small chapel of the Blessed Mother in Schoenstatt. The young Countess of Bullion came into contact with one of them, Franz-Xaver Salzhuber. She was assigned as a Red Cross Sister in military hospitals on the Eastern and Western fronts. She could follow the development of the young movement, from this sodalist and his fellow students, as well as from the “MTA” Magazine, which they co-edited. Her heart caught fire.
A small beginning with great breadth
Gertraud von Bullion, a well-educated young woman in her late twenties from Augsburg (Bavaria), saw a place for herself and for women in general in the objectives of the Apostolic Federation, and asked about the possibility to join. First of all, she and some other interested women were accepted into the Apostolic League that had just been founded, which was open to the widest circles and which, together with the Apostolic Federation, was to form the Apostolic Movement of Schoenstatt.
The idea of admitting women into the Movement was not foreign to Father Kentenich. However, as was his usual practice, he waited to see if life would confirm this intuition. This was precisely what happened through individual requests from women during the war. Now, Gertraud von Bullion was to look for more women for a group. But their interest was not satisfied at the Apostolic League. Rather, she inquired about possibilities and conditions for founding a “Federation Group for Women”.
On the part of those responsible, Father Joseph Kentenich, the leader of the Apostolic Federation, and his co-worker, Father Michael Kolb, this wish was granted. Gertraud introduced her cousin Marie Christmann, also from a noble family, who was also looking for a place for her life. The two young women made a small beginning on December 8, 1920, consecrating themselves to the Mother Thrice Admirable in the spirit of the Apostolic Federation of Schoenstatt. This was the beginning of the women’s movement in Schoenstatt. The conclusion of this event was extremely creative – as Father Kentenich commented in a commemorative lecture after 10 years: The first members of the women’s movement were admitted to the League – but they immediately constituted themselves as a federation (December 8, 1930).
A Pentecostal Explosion Begins
What was the daring of this step? Gertraud and Marie could not guess what would follow their consecration and what the outcome would be. They were guided by a great longing and hope and they gave it space in their lives for a possible development. Already the following year, in the summer of 1921, the first women’s conference took place in Schoenstatt with 35 participants. In 1925, the “perpetual consecration” of these pioneers followed, who thus made themselves even more decisively – indeed “completely” available for the cause of the young movement – they continued to be led by grace. In that year, 1925, the first three, including Marie Christmann, moved to Schoenstatt in order to be there full-time for the growing movement. On October 1, 1926, the community of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary developed from this nucleus.
In the 1930s, the female youth found their home at the shrine in Schoenstatt. In the 1940s, the Secular Institute of the Ladies of Schoenstatt developed from the riverbed of the Apostolic Federation, which was constituted in 1946. At the same time, the international expansion of the Sisters of Mary followed. In view of this rapid development, after his return from Dachau, Father Joseph Kentenich undertook the re-foundation of the Apostolic Federation, which was almost completely transformed into the Secular Institute of the Women of Schoenstatt. He was convinced that without the Federation, the Schoenstatt Work would lack an essential dimension that stands for a balance between freedom and commitment. Communities for families and mothers also developed intensively during this period.
“Nothing without us…”
At the beginning of the Schoenstatt Women’s Movement there were young women who were driven by the desire to make the world Christian. In Schoenstatt they found a possibility for this and for a rich source of inspiration for their personal development. Their consecration was followed by deeds – the protagonists of the first hour worked with body and soul for the emerging communities.
Gertraud von Bullion forever gave the community of the Apostolic Federation its face and also a recognizable profile. She was not afraid to offer her life to God for the building of the Apostolic Federation. At the end of a long path of illness she died at the age of almost 40 years.
Marie Christmann came to Schoenstatt full-time on September 1, 1922, and was initially active in the mailing of publications. As a Sister of Mary, she was given the name Mary Magdalene. At first, she was engaged in a lively apostolate of writings, and then worked, among other things, at the train station apostolate in Ludwigshafen and as a pastoral worker in Vienna, Austria.
The founder of Schoenstatt, Father Joseph Kentenich, appreciated the commitment of these young women. When founding the Schoenstatt Work, he never wanted to act alone; already during the founding process he had clearly said: “We – not I!” In the courageous “urging” and also determined commitment of the first women – the two mentioned here stand for many others – he found a solid foundation on which the expansion of the women’s movement could take place. In his commemorative lecture on December 8, 1930, he said, in reference to Mt 16:17: “May we not rejoice that the first fruits of the movement made this act of faith? Let us give thanks for it… Blessed that you believed! Yes, blessed that you believed, those of you who were involved at that time, those of you who in the course of ten years not only did not lose faith in the mission of our family, but again and again awakened and deepened it in us!”
A hundred years later, we are filled with deep gratitude for these two women of the first hour and for all the countless women in many countries who throughout history have creatively developed the special charism of Schoenstatt and have witnessed with their lives to the effectiveness of the Covenant of Love.
When Gertraud von Bullion was preparing for admission to the Apostolic Federation in Schoenstatt, she thought of December 3 as the date of entry, the feast of St. Francis Xavier, who is considered the patron saint of missionaries. For her, this perspective resulted from the objective of the Apostolic Federation as well as from her own basic attitude: she had always been missionary, and this orientation should now be able to be fully expressed in the Federation.
At Father Joseph Kentenich’s suggestion, she chose to celebrate her entry on December 8, the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God, who was conceived without original sin. With this date, the founder of Schoenstatt also gave orientation to all the women who would follow: to see Mary not only as the original concept of man, but also as the missionary, as the “great missionary”, as St. Vincent Pallotti called her. Gertraud von Bullion could well find herself in this.
She then set out, together with Marie Christmann, her cousin, to get to know Mary more and to establish a personal relationship with her. At first this did not happen without skepticism, but step by step, both of them found a fascinating source of inspiration in the shrine in Schoenstatt and in Father Kentenich’s retreat lectures. Her preparatory letter, which she wrote to Marie Christmann in view of December 8, 1920, makes it possible to immerse oneself in the expectant atmosphere of this historic beginning and to get an idea of the path the two young women now chose: through Mary to Christ.
What is special about the Women’s Movement in Schoenstatt?
Both protagonists, Gertraud von Bullion and Marie Christmann, did not consecrate themselves to the Blessed Mother directly in the shrine in Schoenstatt, but from their respective places in Bavaria – in spiritual union with the shrine. What was special about the now emerging Schoenstatt Women’s Movement? It is not easy to describe all the main points. I would like to summarize some of them here, which already stood out clearly in the first days, months, and years of this movement’s existence and found a strong echo in the young women. This inner experience, the application and creative unfolding of Schoenstatt’s impulses can be read in their letters. For example, in the letter of December 8, 1920, Gertraud von Bullion wrote to her cousin: “The thought of the Mother will always lead us to the Son. And when she leads us to him and says, ‘Behold, this is my beloved child’, then he will spread his gentle hands over us, blessing us, drawing us to himself as a child of the same mother.
Effectiveness through the Formation of the Personality and World in Community
Above all, it was about personality formation, getting to know one’s own identity, discovering and developing the charism that God has put into each one. This path happened in community, with like-minded people, in prayer and in mutual inspiration, support, and correction. In the end, it was all about making a contribution together to the Christian shaping of the world.
Because of the different charisms and life plans of the individual women, it was obvious that a variety of communities would quickly develop. To this day, this diversity has experienced a creative development in several countries on all continents. From the beginning, the path of individual personality development in community led to the goal of Christians, the ideal of holiness. It was precisely this clear and high goal that awakened the strength of the young women. It was to be the answer to the challenges of the difficult wartime, as the founder, Father Kentenich, expressed in the founding document of Schoenstatt. The vocation to holiness is also a current call today, as the letter of Pope Francis “Gaudete et exultate” (2018), among others, again suggests. The women of the beginning left behind fascinating biographies. Biographies that still inspire us today and give impulses for the formation of the inner life and a multifaceted commitment in the Church and the world. This makes it understandable why there have been serious efforts for decades to introduce the daring women of that time to the broad public of the Church (among others Gertraud von Bullion and Sr. Emilie Engel).
Oriented towards Mary and on the Journey with Her
In Schoenstatt, the women of the beginning found an image of women that was inspired by Mary, a woman who changed the history of the world in the most lasting way. They wanted to discover her, her strength, and her inner mystery. The Founder of Schoenstatt opened up Mary to the women precisely as a woman and this in her irreplaceable position and task in God’s plan. With this he gave them an important identification figure. He also revolutionized their relationship with Mary by inviting them to a freely chosen covenant with her, thus opening up a new, existential access to the Blessed Mother. In this way, both the women of the beginning and the many women who followed have been given the experience of being able to journey with Mary as women.
Rethinking the relationship to Man and to Culture
A part of the Schoenstatt-inspired anthropology and spirituality of the woman that still needs to be further explored is the mission that is dedicated to the woman, to “redeem” man and, more broadly, to “redeem” the culture. On December 8, 1930, Fr. Kentenich spoke of “that woman must contribute an essential part to the redemption of humanity, but in her feminine way. Here, too, he made an allusion to Mary. To outline and affirm this type of woman is a delicate matter in the age of the gender debate. In fact, with his anthropology and spirituality of women, Father Kentenich enters the stage of current debates as a representative of the philosophy of being, but in a dynamic relationship between the sexes (he always saw the accents attributed to the female and male genres in a “more” or “less” relationship, and thus very individually marked).
Seen against this background, and with a sideways glance at Mary, Father Kentenich’s conviction, which is based on Bernhard von Clairvaux (Non erigitur vir nisi per feminam – Man is not redeemed except by the redeemed woman), can be classified as very demanding. What does that mean today, in the debate about the Church’s mission statement, indeed the multiple upheavals it is currently experiencing, to take the contribution of women seriously? The Schoenstatt Women’s Movement is not only about strengthening women in their vocation; no, it is much more: it is about women helping to shape the world and culture in their own way.
As an encouragement for this great task, it helps to be aware that women do not have to face this task alone, but in an existential covenant with Mary, Mother of God, who continues to work as the Mother of the Church. She needs courageous covenant partners.
German by Alicia Kostka, Member of the Apostolic Federation for Women https://www.schoenstatt.de/de/news/5077/112/Wagemutige-Frauen-damals-und-heute-Gedanken-zum-8-Dezember-2020-Hundert-Jahre-Frauenbewegung-Schoenstatts