Pastor Wilhelm Berger

Pastor Wilhelm Berger

Biography in Brief:

Birth Date:

March 22, 1834


Bernhard Berger and Wilhelmine Fritz

Birth Place:

Rebstock, Sasbach, Germany


Hermann Berger – born April 13, 1832
Wilhelmine Berger – born May 5, 1838
Josefine Berger – born March 18, 1840
August Berger – born February 21, 1842
Ludwig Berger – born May 21, 1845

Ordained a priest:

August 10, 1857

Death Date:

April 1, 1901

From His Life:
From the Diocesan Archive, a diocesan historical magazine, for the year 1901 we learn limited information of the most important dates of his life: Berger, Wilhelm, born in Sasbach b.A.,  March 22, 1834, ordained the 10th of August, 1857, Vicar in Ulm b.O. 1859 Pastoral administrator in Herrenwies, 1861 in Oensbach (co-administrator of Moesbach parish), 1864 in Seelbach, 1866 pastor there, from May 1871 in Prinzbach, died April 1, 1901.

Pastor Berger is characterized in the Diocesan Archiveto the following extent: “He was personally, extremely pious and of an almost visionary temperament.  When the guidance of the community of the Sacred Heart Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis transferred to hands of others, he lived exclusively in the zealous practice of the care of souls in his peaceful Black Forest parish.”

His Priestly Years

Wilhelm Berger received his first vicar position in Ulm bei Oberkirch.  From the beginning, the young priest was moved by the deprivation, which he encountered with the old and ill.  It moved him even more, however, that he could not defectively help, for there were on diocesan nurses in our rural area, not motherhouse in which young women could be educated for charitable works.

Willhem Berger did not want to look on idly.  On the contrary, he embraced the resolve, with God’s help, and as soon as possible, to bring about a remedy.  His prayer did not remain unanswered.  Soon, young women presented themselves who were prepared, in the spirit of St. Francis, to renounce earthly riches, to leave their parents’ home and to serve Christ in the sick and poor.

Yet, in relation to his health, Pastor Berger demanded too much of himself.  Despite heart trouble and other illnesses which he had contracted in the winter as he ministered on foot to a widely scattered parish, he worked tirelessly on the realization of his plans…. to train and establish young women in charitable service.  For a long time he did to possess a building for a community.  To be sure, it seemed almost impossible to acquire one and still more impossible to obtain approval of his community, which was similar to a religious order. 

The he turned in his need to the counsel of the Bishop of Mainz who had business in the area concerning the stigmatic Maria von Moerl in Tirol.  He wanted, if it need be, if it were God’s will, to give up everything “even if it would entail such a sorrow as would tear out his heart.”  Through his confessor, Wilhelm Berger received the following auspicious answer: he should not entirely give up the hope of many years, the hope of his cherished plan.  He felt himself strengthened in his intent, but he still had to practice patience for a log time.  A turning point occurred when he received the pastorship of Seelbach and became an independent pastor.

As a start, he had the Jesuit priest, Paulus from Strassburg, come.  He succeeded to set forth the benefits of nurse sisters in persuasive Lenten preaching.  Still more persuasive was the presence of a nurse from Ingenbohler who practiced medical assistance in the area for several weeks.  So the ice was broken.  On the Feast of the Visitation, 1866 the first novices entered “Lenzlishof”.  The living conditions were, to be sure, no more than modest. “A small room which hardly had space for two beds served as the living room.  The table was an old trough and their chair was the floor.”

Luckily, the Inn at Ochsen, which had somewhat more space, could soon be acquired.
 The increase of space as soon cancelled out, for the demand was great.  The number of critics and those who were envious grew automatically with the growth in the number of occupants.  There were difficulties on the part of doctors, officials and also the people.  What all might have been rumored!

In the following year Pastor Berger was able to acquire Trettenhof, an impressive property of 117 and one half Morgen (42 and one half hectars) with 16 rooms, 2 gardens, 1 fish pond, 5 storehouses, 7 stables and more.  That was probably the most that could be obtained at that time.  A Motherhouse could not yet be spoken of and it was also not permitted that the formal dress of a religious order be worn.

The community had grown to number 59 sisters in the year 1870 when the Franco-German War broke out.  At the request of the military, Pastor Berger could make 26 sisters available for service in 18 military hospitals.  For that service, and on the part of the Kaiser and Grand Duke, he was granted high recognition.

On February 23, 1876 a decree came from Karlsruhe by which the “community similar to a religious order” at Trettenhof was disbanded.  All attempts to revoke the decree were to no avail.  There was nothing to do; the sisters had to leave

So of what use was that!  All adulation remained empty phrases, for in that decade, national liberalism and a spirit of hostility toward Catholics prevailed in Baden.  In the “Baden Struggle with the Church” and in the “Kulturkampf” (Bismarck’s conflict between the state and the roman Catholic Church) the churches, especially their charitable activities were cultivated to “unworthy extremes”.  Beyond that, Catholic religious orders were despised as “emissaries and hirelings of Rome”.  Embarrassing investigations by the rural police and the town director of the Grand Duke of Lahr followed.

The danger of the complete dismantling of the community was acknowledged.  What pastor Berger must have gone through those weeks!  He did not give up, but rather “it characterized the strength of faith of the religious foundation, when he, in this tribulation, disbanded the sisters with the wise course, to repay evil with good.

The sisters, of course, parted from one another, some to their homes, some to the 11 hospital wards for which they had cared until then.  They reconciled themselves to come together secretly and repeatedly to refresh themselves, to draw new strength.  Twenty-seven sisters emigrated to the U.S.A. and founded a new community there.  Others could find employment in the hospital in Gengenbach.

In 1885, after the “Kulturkampf laws” had relaxed, Pastor Berger turned to church authorities with the request to reestablish the religious community at Trettenhof.  This did not correspond to the wishes of the religious establishment.  Trettenhof had to be sold because the “future of the community lay, according to God’s Providence, in Gengenbach.”  The secret motherhouse for the time being was the hospital.  The building of the present Motherhouse did not happen until 1892-1893.

After his work was secured, Pastor Berger stepped back from the guidance of the congregation he had founded.  As pastor of Prinzbach he could observe the “interior and exterior growth of the tree he had planted”.  Here he worked quietly and unobtrusively in the service and care of souls until his death.

Pastor Damal of Steinbach spoke of his final days at his funeral in Prinzbach on April 4, 1901.  “We left him seemingly still well on March 28th.  Soon one of the most painful of illnesses came upon him …an abdominal inflammation, which he tried to bear with patience.  Although it appeared this illness ended, an unexpected, sudden heart paralysis brought release during the night of April 1st.”

Literary References

  1. Various written materials from the Motherhouse in Gengenbach. 
  2. Excerpts from Diocesan-Archives.
  3. Sasbach by Doebele


Compiled by:
Georg Haering, Rector
Karl Haering, Pastor

In April 2008 Sister Kathleen Moseley, during her visit to Archives of the Motherhouse of the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Gengenbach, Germany obtained this pamphlet on the life of  Pastor Wilhlem Berger. Barbara Muehler translated the German to English.