Solitary, but not alone

Meet the martyr/dad Franz Jagerstatter

Melissa Keating

One theme unifies the stories of all the saints: Christians are never alone. Even in the most isolated circumstances, saints have a profound union with God. This principle is demonstrated by the martyrdom of Franz Jagerstatter, a father and martyr during the Nazi occupation of Austria.

A peasant background

 Franz Jagerstatter poses on his motorcycle. From right to left: Franz Jagerstatter; his stepfather, Heinrich Jagerstatter; his mother, Rosalia Jagerstatter; and Aloisia Sommerauer, Franz's cousin and foster sister. / Styria Verlag. Used with permission.

Franz Jagerstatter poses on his motorcycle. From right to left: Franz Jagerstatter; his stepfather, Heinrich Jagerstatter; his mother, Rosalia Jagerstatter; and Aloisia Sommerauer, Franz’s cousin and foster sister. /Styria Verlag. Used with permission.

Franz was no St. Therese. He was the illegitimate child of a maidservant in a tiny village in Upper Austria. His mother married when Franz was 10.

Franz was a wild child. He was a womanizer, and even had a daughter born out of wedlock. Gordan Zahn, whose book In Solitary Witness is the definitive work on Jagerstatter’s life, discovered that Jagerstatter was exiled from his community for several years, during which time he stopped attending Mass.

However, Jagerstatter received a passable education in the village’s one-room school schoolhouse before becoming a farmer. Then he met his wife.

 

Marriage transformed him

Franz and Franziska Jagerstatter after they returned from Rome, probably in April or May 1936. This is their wedding photograph./Styria Verlag. Used with permission.

Franz and Franziska Jagerstatter after they returned from Rome, probably in April or May 1936. This is their wedding photograph./Styria Verlag. Used with permission.

He married Franziska Schwaninger on Holy Thursday 1936. On their honeymoon, they received a papal blessing from Pope Pius XI.

 

Franziska’s effect on her husband was subtle but persistent. Jagerstatter became the sexton of the village Church, meaning he assisted at all the liturgies and maintained the building. This led to him becoming a daily communicant. He began to memorize the Bible and learn the lives of the saints. In fact, he once told his wife, “I could have never imagined that being married could be so wonderful.”

 

 

Road to martyrdom

Three of Franz Jagerstatter's four children: Maria, Louisi and Rosi./Styria Verlag. Used with permission

Three of Franz Jagerstatter’s four children: Maria, Louisi and Rosi./Styria Verlag. Used with permission

Jagerstatter and Franziska had three girls together, and remained close to his other daughter. In 1938, around the time their eldest daughter was born, Germans invaded Austria.

The Catholic Church in Austria had warned against Nazi socialism for years. Catholics in Germany were facing severe restrictions, including the prohibition of Mass outside of Sundays, even for the holiest solemnities and feast days.   Jagerstatter’s own pastor had been jailed for delivering an anti-Nazi sermon. His bishop had dictated an anti-Nazi letter to be read in all the parishes several years earlier. That same bishop would declare, “It is impossible to be both a good Catholic and a true Nazi.” He was later replaced with a bishop who spoke more cautiously.

The same pope who had blessed Jagerstatter’s marriage, Pope Pius XI, published the encyclical “Mit Brennender Sorge“, in which he warned that socials was more dangerous than communism.

 

Buoyed by these witnesses, Jagerstatter was still the only person in his whole town to disavow Anschluss, or the German annexation of Austria. He was dismayed to see many Catholics support the Nazis. One cardinal even demanded that all parishes fly the Nazi flag from their churches on Hitler’s birthday.

 

“I believe there could scarcely be a sadder hour for the true Christian faith in our country,” he wrote.

Franz Jagerstatter refused to support the Nazis, despite the pressure his village placed on him./ Styria Verlag. Used with permission

Franz Jagerstatter refused to support the Nazis, despite the pressure his village placed on him./Styria Verlag. Used with permission

The prevailing idea at the time was that a peasant layman should do what his country told him to do. By this obedience, the people who made the decisions, and not the peasant, would hold moral responsibility for the actions. But Franz couldn’t reconcile that worldview with the fact that he had a freewill, and that he could not call himself a disciple if he bowed that will to a movement he viewed as satanic. He would not fight for the Nazis.

Franz Jagerstatter: Letters and Writings from Prison (Orbis Books) contains many of Jagerstatter's arguments for objecting to the Nazis.

Franz Jagerstatter: Letters and Writings from Prison (Orbis Books) contains many of Jagerstatter’s arguments for objecting to the Nazis.

At first it seemed that being a farmer would keep him from fighting–Germany’s massive army required equally massive amounts of food. Unfortunately, in 1943 the need for fighters grew, and Jagerstatter was called to active duty. He went to the induction center, where he announced that he would not fight. He was summarily carted to the military prison at Linz to learn his fate.

“I am convinced it is best that I speak the truth, even if it costs me my life,” he wrote.

 

 

Saints have saints for friends

Friends, family and even the local bishop visited Jagerstatter in prison, trying to convince him to fight. None of these visitors gave him a convincing argument against his moral convictions about conscientious objection. Instead, they all tried to convince him that God would not hold him accountable for doing what his state ordered. Jagerstatter was unconvinced.

 

“Since the death of Christ, almost every century has seen the persecution of Christians; there have always been heroes and martyrs who gave their lives — often in horrible ways — for Christ and their faith. If we hope to reach our goal someday, then we, too, must become heroes of the faith,” he said.

Austria: The first page of Franz's last essay, written while he was in prison. The first sentence reads,

The first page of Franz’s last essay, written while he was in prison. The first sentence reads, “Now I’ll write down a few words as they come to me from my heart. Although I am writing them with my hands in chains, this is still much better than if my will were in chains.”/Styria Verlag. Used with permission

His wife accepted his need to follow his conscience. He was also part of a movement of Catholic martyrs who gave their life to fight the Nazis.

 

St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) had died the previous August in Auschwitz, almost a year to the day after St. Maximillian Kolbe. Blessed Marcel Callo was just beginning the undercover Catholic activities in his forced labor camp that would eventually lead to his 1945 martyrdom for being “too Catholic.”

Most impressively, Jagerstatter spent May to August of 1943 in the same prison as the renowned Lutheran pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There is not evidence that the two men ever met, or even realized they shared a prison with someone so similar in conviction. Jagerstatter was able to learn, though, of a priest who had been martyred in the same prison for the exact reasons he and so many others shared.

That conviction ultimately cost him his life. He was taken to Berlin, where he was sentenced to death for sedition. His last recorded words before he met the guillotine are,”I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord.”

Easter 1943: Franz Jagerstatter's daughters; Loisi, Rosi, and Maria, holding a sign that reads,

Easter 1943: Franz Jagerstatter’s daughters; Loisi, Rosi, and Maria, holding a sign that reads, “Dear Father, come [home] soon.” Franz was in jail in Linz and was later executed./Styria Verlag. Used with permission

The Church agreed. During Vatican II, Jagerstatter’s life helped shape the section of Gaudium et Spes that talks about conscientious objectors to war. He was beatified 50 years after his death. His daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren attended the ceremony.

COMING UP: Local artists choose life in pro-life art show

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For someone who’s always been in love with art, it’s not surprising that Brett Lempe first encountered God through beauty. Lempe, a 25-year-old Colorado native, used his talent for art and new-found love of God to create a specifically pro-life art show after a planned show was cancelled because of Lempe’s pro-life views.

Lempe was “dried out with earthly things,” he said. “I was desperately craving God.”

Three years ago, while living in St. Louis, Mo., Lempe google searched for a church to visit and ended up at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis.

“I was captivated by the beauty of the 40 million mosaic tiles,” he said.

Lempe is not exaggerating. This Cathedral is home to 41.5 million tiles that make up different mosaics around the sanctuary. Witnessing the beauty of this church is what sparked his conversion, he said, and was his first major attraction towards Catholicism.

Lempe continued on to become Catholic, then quit his job several months after joining the Church to dedicate himself completely to art. Most of his work post-conversion is religious art.

Lempe planned to display a non-religious body of artwork at a venue for a month when his contact at the venue saw some of Lempe’s pro-life posts on Facebook. Although none of the artwork Lempe planned to display was explicitly pro-life or religious, the venue cancelled the show.

“I was a little bit shocked at first,” he said. “Something like me being against abortion or being pro-life would get a whole art show cancelled.”

Lempe decided to counter with his own art show, one that would be explicitly pro-life.

On Sept. 7, seven Catholic artists displayed work that gave life at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Denver.

“Catholicism lends itself to being life-giving,” Lempe said.

The show included a variety of work from traditional sacred art, icons, landscapes, to even dresses.

Students for Life co-hosted the event, and 10 percent of proceeds benefited the cause. Lauren Castillo, Development director and faith-based program director at Students for Life America gave the keynote presentation.

Castillo spoke about the need to be the one pro-life person in each circle of influence, with coworkers, neighbors, family, or friends. The reality of how many post-abortive women are already in our circles is big, she said.

“Your friend circle will get smaller,” Castillo said. “If one life is saved, it’s worth it.”

Pro-Life Across Mediums

Brett Lempe’s Luke 1:35

“This painting is the first half at an attempt of displaying the intensity and mystical elements of Luke 1:35,” Lempe said. “This work is influenced somewhat by Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ painting as I try to capture the moment when the “New Adam” is conceived by Our Blessed Mother.”

Claire Woodbury’s icon of Christ Pantokrator

“I was having a difficult time making that icon,” she said. “I was thinking it would become a disaster.”

She felt Jesus saying to her, “This is your way of comforting me. Is that not important?”

“Icons are very important to me,” she said. “I guess they’re important to Him too.”

Katherine Muser’s “Goodnight Kisses”

“Kids naturally recognize the beauty of a baby and they just cherish it,” Muser said of her drawing of her and her sister as children.

Brie Shulze’s Annunciation

“There is so much to unpack in the Annunciation,” Schulze said. “I wanted to unpack that life-giving yes that our Blessed Mother made on behalf of all humanity.”

“Her yes to uncertainty, to sacrifice, to isolation, to public shame and to every other suffering that she would endure is what allowed us to inherit eternal life.”

“Her fiat was not made in full knowledge of all that would happen, but in love and total surrender to the will of God.”

All photos by Makena Clawson