Heroism and priesthood, Dachau and Amazonia

George Weigel

In late June, I visited the concentration camp at Dachau, located in a wooded suburb a few miles from downtown Munich. The camp site struck me as rather too neat: virtually all of the huts in which hundreds of thousands of prisoners lived, starved, and died are gone, and the atmosphere, despite a blistering hot afternoon, was antiseptic. There was little of the miasma of raw evil that remains at Auschwitz and Birkenau, even though Dachau was the prototype for those extermination factories. The Dachau camp site’s Chapel of the Agony of Christ, built after the war, is touching. But, to my mind at least, its stark modernism somehow fails to register the suffering it is intended to commemorate — and transfigure.

Dachau was, for years, the “world’s largest rectory” or “the world’s largest monastery,” for it was there that the Thousand Year Reich consigned more than 2,500 Catholic priests: almost 1,800 Poles, over 400 Germans, more than 150 Frenchmen, as well as Czechs, Slovaks, Dutchmen, Belgians, Italians, Luxemburgers, Yugoslavs, and clergymen from 10 other countries. That these men managed to maintain forms of sacramental life — celebrating clandestine Masses, distributing holy communion surreptitiously and hearing confessions — while nursing and otherwise comforting prisoners being worked and starved to death is a story that should be told time and again in every seminary in the world.

As should the story of Blessed Karl Leisner.

A candidate for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Muenster who worked with young people in defiance of the Nazis, Leisner had been ordained a transitional deacon before being arrested and consigned to Dachau in 1940. There, the tuberculosis he had contracted shortly after his diaconal ordination went active, and over the next four years he wasted away. Then, in late 1944, a new prisoner arrived at Dachau’s “priest barracks,” the French bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, Gabriel Piguet. A secret exchange of correspondence ensued between the Frenchman, Cardinal Michael Faulhaber of Munich, and Bishop Clemens von Galen of Muenster, with an eye to finding a way to ordain Karl Leisner a priest before he died.

The paperwork was completed and smuggled into the camp (along with the necessary holy oils) by Josefa Mack, the “Angel of Dachau,” who would later become Sister Maria Imma, SSND. The prisoners clandestinely fabricated everything else needed for the ordination, including the full (and complex) episcopal regalia of the time. The pectoral cross was made at the nearby Messerschmitt plant where Dachau prisoners worked as slave labor, and a beautiful wooden crozier was carved in the camp by a Trappist monk-prisoner.

Shortly before Christmas 1944, the priestly ordination of Karl Leisner was secretly conducted by Bishop Piguet, with a Jewish violinist in the camp providing music outside the hut-“chapel” to divert the attention of the camp guards. Father Leisner was too ill to celebrate a first Mass immediately after his ordination but managed to do so on the feast of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, December 26. A fellow priest who would later become auxiliary bishop of Munich, Johannes Neuhausler, later described the scene: “On this, the greatest day of his life, [Karl Leisner] stood at the altar [in the prison barracks], far from his mother and father, his brothers and sisters and his friends. He wept and we wept with him. Silently, behind closed doors, we took some photographs of this first Mass so that the parents could see at least the picture of their son celebrating his first Mass in the concentration camp at Dachau.”

Mortally ill when the Dachau camp was liberated by the U.S. Army on April 29, 1945, Karl Leisner died in a sanatorium outside Munich three months later. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1996, along with another priest-martyr, Bernhard Lichtenberg, the heroic, anti-Nazi provost of the Berlin cathedral.

Might that grainy picture of Father Hans Leisner, properly vested for Mass in a hellish death-factory on the outskirts of Munich, be displayed during October’s Special Synod for Amazonia, which will consider (among other things) the nature of the priesthood in the Catholic Church? Might the example of Blessed Karl Leisner inspire white, European-descended Latin American priests, historically reluctant to work with the indigenous peoples of the Amazon Basin, to transcend their racial and ethnic prejudices in order to evangelize, catechize, and bring the sacraments to native peoples?

The heroes of Dachau’s priest-barracks found a way to keep sacramental life alive, in full fidelity to the Church’s tradition. Is that impossible in Amazonia? Or elsewhere?

COMING UP: Machebeuf basketball star traded success playing hoops for a solitary life of prayer

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Shelly Pennefather led the Bishop Machebeuf High School girls’ basketball team to victory in every game she played in. It was not surprising to her friends and classmates that she would go on to play college ball for Villanova and then play professionally in Japan. It was not even surprising that she would have a religious vocation.

What was surprising was the order she chose. In 1991, Shelly Pennefather drove to Alexandria, Va., where she entered the Monastery of the Poor Clares. She would become a cloistered nun, living a radical life that included going barefoot out of penance and poverty and praying all of the hours of the Divine Office, even at 12:30 a.m.

This also meant she would not see her family except for twice a year from behind a transparent screen. She would not hug them until 25 years after her profession.

“I was shocked that she chose a cloistered order,” said Annie Mcbournie, graduate of Machebeuf in 1984 and a friend of Pennefather’s. “I was not at all shocked that she chose a vocation.”

Her story was recently featured on ESPN, who recounted how Pennefather gave up being the highest-paid women’s basketball player in the world in 1991 to live a life in service to the Lord as a Poor Clare.

Pennefather took the name Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. This past June, Sister Rose Marie celebrated her 25th anniversary of her solemn profession: the long-awaited moment to greet her family from outside the screen, not to happen again for another 25 years.

Villanova teammates, friends, Machebeuf classmates, and family were all in attendance. She hugged her 78-year-old mom for what will probably be the last time.

Mcbournie was not able to make it but will visit Sister Rose Marie this fall. Since she’s kept up with her via letters, she is permitted to visit the monastery.

Pennefather attended Bishop Machebeuf High School in Denver from 1980 to 1983 before transferring for her senior year due to her dad’s military job. She left Machebeuf with a 70-0 record.

“Her entire high school career, she never lost a basketball game,” Mcbournie said.

Mcbournie was a cheerleader and friend of Sister Rose Marie in high school, but a deeper friendship began 10 years after graduation. Sister Rose Marie’s brother Dick called Mcbournie before World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 since Mcbournie was still in the area.

Sister Rose Marie had just joined the Poor Clares and Dick and McBournie met up and spoke about the mourning process the family was going through, McBournie said. Dick mentioned to her that they could write Sister Rose Marie as many letters as they wanted, and one day a year, on the Feast of the Epiphany, she could write back.

Shelly Pennefather, pictured here in this photo from the Archdiocese of Denver archives, always exuded a deep spiritual life, her former Bishop Machebeuf classmates said. (Photo by James Baca)

“From that year on, I have been writing her every year,” McBournie said. She gives Sister Rose Marie updates on life, pictures from their high school reunions, and prayer requests.

“I have witnessed her journey through these letters,” McBournie said.

When Sister Rose Marie’s dad passed away shortly after entering, she was not able to leave the monastery to go to the funeral. McBournie saw how difficult these sacrifices were for her, especially in the early years of her vocation. But the letters show Sister Rose Marie’s joy.

“The last 5 to 10 years, I could just see her say, ‘I’m so blessed to be able to do this’,” McBournie said. “She’s so joyful.”

A fellow Machebeuf classmate asked McBournie for Sister Rose Marie’s address in order to have a little fun. He sent her a $20 bill with a note saying he thought she could use a smoke and a bottle of wine.

Sister Rose Marie did not miss a beat and in her yearly letter, she responded, “I bought incense, and I drank from the chalice,” McBournie recounted.

Shelly Pennefather (#15) had a 70-0 record playing basketball for Bishop Machebeuf in the 1980s, and went on to play for Villanova and then professionally in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Villanova Athletics)

But this letter sparked a friendship. This classmate has continued to write letters and even attended the 25-anniversary jubilee.

“Her letters are still hilarious, still very sarcastic,” McBournie said.

She remembers Sister Rose Marie being reserved and quiet in high school, focused more on school and basketball than anything else. Her father was in the military and the family was very disciplined, but they had a good sense of humor and quick wit, McBournie said.
“Her spirituality permeated her existence from the time she was young,” McBournie said.

David Dominguez was a few years ahead of Sister Rose Marie at Machebeuf but remembers her discipline and her talent. He called himself her cheerleader.’

“If it was really tight, we would start yelling, ‘Shelly, Shelly!’” Dominguez said. “It was one of my favorite cheers.”

Dominguez exercised at the Air Force base gym where Sister Rose Marie would train and play basketball with her dad and brother.

“I knew she had incredible skills,” Dominguez said. “It was kind of magical to watch.”

Sister Rose Marie recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of her profession of vows with the Poor Clares. She was able to hug her friends and family for the first time in 25 years. ESPN was there to cover the occasion. (Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Bonacci)

Dominguez also knew she was different.

“She was living for a different purpose than everyone else,” he said.

Sister Rose Marie’s devotion and personality remain the same, though she has traded in her jersey for a habit.
Although Sister Rose Marie can only write one letter a year, and can seldom have visitors, her friendship and influence reach far beyond the monastery walls.

Mcbournie said that their yearly letters have brought them even closer than they were in high school.

“I look forward to her letter every year,” Mcbournie said.