In Memory of Abbot Francis Pfanner (1825-1909) by Sr. M. Annette Buschgerd CPS
We owe the most comprehensive account of Abbot Francis Pfanner’s last days, death, and burial to Fr. Joseph Biegner OCR, his companion and medical assistant at Emaus from 1905 to his death, 24 May 1909. Fr. Joseph writes:
The Emaus Stone
It was perhaps three weeks before Rev. Father’s death when a huge rock broke away from the Hill of Calvary and rolled down with deafening noise towards the station. There it stopped close to our chapel. A brother witnessed the event, and soon everyone
rushed outside to see the strange sight. What we found impossible to explain was how this rock, almost a ton heavy and resting in a level place, came loose. Rev. Father also wondered about it but did not comment. Many of us could not help thinking that this was an omen, a warning from above, to prepare us for something serious. Since then the rock has been lying beside the chapel as a constant reminder of our dear Rev. Father who, touched by God’s hand after the incident, also began to decline. Meanwhile,
we hope that he has safely reached his eternal destination.1
Last Days and Death
Fr. Joseph continues: Shortly after this event a man came from Rhodesia [modern Zimbabwe] on his way to Natal 2 and stayed for two days at Emaus. He practiced all sorts of cures and promised Rev. Father another ten to fifteen years of life, thereby gaining his trust. The cure he administered seemed effective enough, because Rev. Father was able again to walk unaided in his room. However, what we saw was only a last flaring up of his vital energy. As soon as the traveler left, Rev. Father’s condition deteriorated and he had to take to his bed. – Fr. Francis in bed! – Whoever knew him, a man of energy and iron will, knew what that meant. Though he had been ill and physically broken already for several years, our good Rev. Father had tried hard not to be confined to bed. However, this time his condition seemed to be serious, his days obviously counted.
On Friday, 14 May, I heard his Confession, administered the Anointing of the Sick, and read to him the well known “Prayer for the Hour of Death” enriched with a plenary indulgence by Pius X, as well as the “Prayer for Surrender to God’s Will”. He was fully conscious, repeated every word I said with fervent devotion, and received Holy Communion the following morning. On Sunday, May, I once more gave him Holy Communion as Viaticum. It was to be his last. His tongue was already paralyzed,
and only with effort could he open his mouth wide enough to receive a small particle of the Sacred Host.
The agony of death commenced on the same day. He still had to suffer a lot, and it was painful for us to watch him agonize hour after hour. But he was tough and endowed with an exceptionally strong constitution. His vital organs – heart, lungs, etc. – were
still intact and despite his 84 years he still had all his teeth. What
finally put an end to his life was the calcification of the arteries,
nothing else. 3 I again gave him general absolution and recited the customary “Prayers for the Dying” for him, but he seemed not to understand me anymore. 4
Fr. Joseph supplemented the above account in a letter he wrote to the superior of the Red Sisters at Mariannhill:
Trappist Mission Emaus – Umzimkulu, Griqualand 3 June 1909 Rev.
Sr. Bertilla, Superior,
The telegram I sent to Holland was not sent on account of the address being incomplete. Therefore, I asked Father Prior to send another telegram. Everything will be all right now. You will already have received plenty of news from Sr. Angela about the last days of dear Rev. Fr. Francis; so I simply add my bit here. I was not able to see you, because time was too short before I rushed back to Emaus.
During the four years [Fr. Joseph was stationed at Emaus] I have administered the Anointing of the Sick to Rev. Father several times, but 14 May was destined to be the last. I also gave him general absolution, enriched with the “Indulgence for the Dying”, after he had received the Sacrament of Confession, and at three o’clock the following morning I took Holy Communion to him as Viaticum. He continued to receive Holy Communion
every day during the early hours of the morning until Sunday [23 May] before he died. On that Sunday I again brought him Holy Communion as Viaticum. His tongue was paralyzed and he gritted his teeth so that I could only give him a third part of the Host.
It was 1:30 am. When I returned to say the “Prayers for the Dying” for him, I heard the death rattle, which I took as a sign of imminent death. I stayed with him for a long time, invoked the Holy Names and recited the “Penitential Psalms” as well as other psalms.
Sunday afternoon I was called to baptize a child that had badly burnt itself with hot water and lived approximately an hour and a quarter from Emaus. I could not very well let it die without Baptism, could I? And because it was [only] 1:30 pm, I hoped to return in time. [Before leaving] I wanted to see Rev. Father once more, but the door was barred. Two times I tried to open it [but failed], and so I left. At 5:00 pm I was finished with the sick child. However, because it was getting darker by the hour I was unable to find my way home, though I tried several times to get back to Emaus. Instead, I strayed about in the hills around Shimper’s Nek and returned only at 3:30 am (Monday 24 May). Rev. Father had already died at 1:30 am. Most of the sisters were with him and prayed for him, more than enough. Br. Leo 5 had also been called and was present when he died. It had to be that way. God wanted it so, and we must be content. We hope that Rev. Father is done with suffering and need not suffer more in Purgatory. However, if he should have to, an entire army of people stands by his side, praying; those who have not left him in death will also not leave him after death.
We, including the sisters, must now stand on our own feet. The sisters are established now and consider it an honor to have Abbot Francis as their founder.
Greetings in the Lord,
In his account for the Vergissmeinnicht, Fr. Joseph tells what was done next at Emaus:
I performed the first exequies 6 for Rev. Father in the room where he had died, and I said Mass for him at 4:00 am. [24 May] Afterwards, various preparations had to be made for the transfer of the body to Mariannhill, since he had said that he wished to be buried at the motherhouse he had founded.
NB. Abbot Francis had written in an article titled “My Resolutions”: “When later, in the ‘garden colony’ of Natal, I laid the foundations of the present Mariannhill, I was already 57, i.e., at an age when one does not take great leaps anymore. At that time I found it most natural to also select my burial site…. I chose the shady little place beneath the broad branches of the wild fig tree growing between the sisters’ convent and the monastery. There I resolved to meet my dear Lord and Savior on the day of the resurrection, even if, like Zacchaeus, I might have to climb the tall sycamore tree.7
Fr. Joseph’s account continues:
For quite some time a nice coffin stood ready in neighboring Lourdes, where our brothers had also made a second one, a tin coffin. The body was placed in this one and after it had been well sealed and soldered, this tin coffin was lifted into the richly carved wooden coffin and placed in our small chapel, where I Last Rites. Abbot Francis, My Resolutions (Vergissmeinnicht 1910) A tin coffin was stipulated by the Railway Authority immediately performed the second exequies. After all preparations had been made we took the body to Lourdes. It was a sad farewell! Who can count all the tears shed particularly by the good sisters for their beloved “Rev. Father”, the highly revered Founder of their Congregation, who spent fully fifteen years – the entire quiet evening of his life – with them at Emaus? At Lourdes the body was first taken to the church where the third exequies were performed. Then the entire Lourdes community accompanied it part of the way to Riverside, the train station on the Natal boundary. We left Lourdes at 3:30 pm and arrived at Riverside at 11:00 pm. The following morning, May 26, the coffin was taken by train to Pinetown via Maritzburg, where the Rt. Rev. Bishop Dr. Henry Delalle and two Oblate priests joined us.
We reached Mariannhill at 11:00 pm.
Abbot Gerard [Wolpert] 9 had already arrived the day before from Centocow. Our present superior, Rev. Fr. Isembard Leyendecker, accompanied by Fr. Salesius [Esser] and several lay brothers, received the coffin at Pinetown. 10 It was kept overnight in one of the rooms of our new gatehouse, where two brothers continuously held the wake. At 8:00 am the following morning [27 May], in the presence of all choir monks, brothers, sisters, and school children … under the presidency of Rev. Fr. Isembard it was solemnly taken to the Monastery church.… Meanwhile, more Oblate priests and sisters arrived from Durban on the morning train. The governor [general], too, Sir Matthew Nathan, sent a representative in the person of Major Molyneux, a Catholic, who presented a magnificent wreath for the coffin. It was a moving sight as the beautiful coffin, fitted with six silver handles and richly decorated with precious wreaths, stood beneath the archway of the new gate. After all, the one resting in it was the Founder of Mariannhill and of the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood, the spiritual father of all of us. Without him there would be, humanly speaking, no Mariannhill, and so our neophytes at Mariannhill and in the stations rightly concluded, “If this man had not existed, we might not have attained the grace of the true
Amid the chanting of the choir and the ringing of bells our brothers carried the coffin in the procession that was now proceeding towards the Monastery church. There the casket of our father, surrounded by six lighted candles, was first placed in the monks’ choir, so that the pontifical High Mass which was about to begin could be celebrated in the sanctuary where Abbot Gerard Wolpert with miter and crosier and numerous Oblate priests in urplices had assembled, while Major Molyneux…in splendid uniform, occupied a special kneeler placed near the altar of St. Joseph in the monks’ choir.
Next Bishop Dr. Delalle entered in a separate procession. After a brief adoration before the Blessed Sacrament he and his assistants proceeded to the throne, which was all decked out with palm fronds and numerous acolytes assembled around him. Rev. Fr. Chrysostomus Ruthig officiated as Master of Ceremonies for the solemn Mass for the Dead that followed, enriched with all the moving ceremonies of our Holy Catholic Church. After Mass the
coffin was brought into the sanctuary for the Rite of Absolution. The bishop took his place at the foot of the coffin, while four priests, dressed in surplices, stoles, and copes stood on his right and left side. The First Absolution was performed by the bishop himself, the Trappist choir rendering the customary Responsorial Psalms in beautiful Cistercian Chant. The Second Absolution was administered by Rev. Fr. Isembard in his capacity as superior
of the monastery; the Third Absolution by Abbot Gerard Wolpert; the Fourth Absolution by Fr. Chauvin, superior of the Oblates in Maritzburg, and the Fifth Absolution by our sub-prior. It was probably 10:00 am when the beautiful celebration concluded. Meanwhile, more guests had arrived: Rev. Fr. Matthew and two Dominican Nuns from Oakfort; the Mother Provincial of the Sisters of the Holy Family and some of her sisters from Durban and Bellair; the Mother Superior of Nazareth House, and others. Unable to attend the Mass for the Dead, they took part in the funeral celebration, scheduled for 2:00 pm. It too was strikingly beautiful despite its profound and moving nature. To begin with, Bishop Delalle, surrounded by his assistants and several priests, conducted the final exequies. Then six of our priests, all of them spiritual sons of the late Abbot Francis, lifted the coffin on their shoulders and carried it amid the chant “In exitu Israel de Aegypto” [Ps 113: When Israel came out of Egypt] by the Trappist choir. Gradually the funeral procession formed and reached the main entrance of our church, where it was met by six of our brothers. It was a long, colorful, and imposing procession, follwed by our schoolchildren with cross and banners, and followed by approximately eighty of our missionary sisters accompanied by the representatives of the Dominican Nuns, the Sisters of Nazareth, of the Holy Family, etc. The rear was brought up by our novices, professed monks, and priests. Their chant, however, was drowned out by the bells, for hardly had the bells of the abbey church rung their last, then the bells of the new St. Joseph’s Church began and continued tolling until the procession had reached the cemetery, close to the sisters’ convent. Directly in front of the coffin walked Abbot Gerard with miter and crozier, the Rt. Rev. Bishop with two assistants and Oblate priests dressed in surplices, Fr. Franz Mayr,11 missionary in Maritzburg,
and Fr. Hartmann SJ, 12 who was conducting a retreat at Mariannhill. Six local African boys carrying wreaths accompanied the coffin on either side. Then came Major Molyneux, the delegate of the governor general. His wreath was so large that it had to be carried by two additional boys. Our lay brothers with a large number of local converts to the faith brought in the rear of the cortege, that took about a quarter of an hour to pass. Entering the cemetery, six of our priests took up the casket once more and amid the strains of a solemn hymn intoned by our new music band carried the body to its final resting place.
The grave of our late abbot is situated to the right of Abbot Amandus’s last resting place under the well-known fig tree that gives shade to a large section of the cemetery. While the bishop performed the customary ceremonies according of the Cistercian Book of Rites, our local schoolchildren sang Zulu songs to the accompaniment of the band. Next, the Trappist choir chanted the moving “Chorus Angelorum” [May the Choir of Angels]. At the conclusion of the ceremony all knelt down and sang three times the “Domine, miserere super peccatore” [Lord, have mercy on the sinner], customary in our Order, after which all returned to the monastery amid the chanting of the Seven Penitential Psalms by the choir.
It was a truly beautiful and deeply moving celebration, which no one will ever forget.
We wish to express our sincere appreciation to Rt. Rev. Bishop Dr.
Delalle, His Excellency the Governor General, and all visiting priests and religious sisters, some of whom came a considerable distance to show their love and respects to our Very Reverend Father and Founder, Abbot Francis Pfanner.
The Witness of Sr. Angela Michel CPS
Sr. Angela Michel (1849-1935) knew Father Founder as only very few people did. For fifteen years (1894-1909) she was close to him in good days and bad, in health and sickness, until death put an end to his suffering. After his death she wrote a detailed report
for the sisters at Mariannhill:
Praised be Jesus Christ! Emaus, Umzimkulu 30.05.1909
My Dear Fellow Sisters at Mariannhill,
Our Rev. Father Founder may say: “I have fought the good fight, I have won the race, I have kept the faith. Therefore, the crown of glory is being kept for me.” [2 Tim 4:7-8]
Father Founder’s death was heroic. He died in my arms. His death was like that of Our Lord – abandoned by all except a few sisters. Not a single priest was present, because Rev. Fr. Joseph had been called to baptize a sick child, and afterwards had lost his direction. He only returned at 3:30 am [May 24] instead of 8:00 pm [May 23]. However, everything [the rites of the Church] had been administered to Father Founder already. He received Communion every day, and Fr. Joseph had already said the “Prayers for the Dying” at his bedside the previous night.
Father Founder’s great patience deserves recognition but it is not easy to imitate. For the last fortnight he suffered unspeakably – yet with how much heavenly patience and resignation! He never opened his mouth to complain, something in which we recognized
as the fruit of his meditation. What serenity and contentment! For a long time unable to help himself, he remained lying where he was laid. He may be said to have suffered like a martyr; his thirst certainly was like that of Our Lord. His tongue turned quite brown after he was not able to swallow anything for several days. Oh, how I wished to have suffered in his place! What heavenly patience and perseverance! His breathing became weaker by the hour. We believed that [the death rattle] came from the mucus [he could not swallow], but it was caused by blood escaping from his calcified arteries. Thank God, Father Founder
was fully conscious until the end. His agony did not last a quarter of an hour. Five minutes before [his death] he looked once more at all the sisters, his eyes apparently searching for Fr. Joseph. However, there was no John [St. John under the Cross].
Oh, that strong, healthy heart! When it finally began to break forcefully while I held him in my arm, it lifted him three times with unusual force. Firmly grasping the candle of the dying, he groaned quietly three times. A final jolt – and he lay still. So still. The strong heart was broken. For a few moments he glanced up with clear eyes, eyes that had usually been closed. His glance was so devout and attentive that one could think the moment had come for the Queen of Heaven and all the souls he had helped to save to meet him. He bowed his head, took a last breath, and his great soul went heavenward, by all appearances disappearing away like light. Oh, I cannot tell you how I felt: This heroic act of dying will forever be imprinted on my memory.
After his death, Father Founder was very beautiful to see, like a saint. Having his body with us at Emaus for two days and nights we found nothing offensive or frightening about him. I myself laid it in the coffin, while the sisters could hardly take their eyes off
him. Our suffering was mixed with joy. Oh, if you had seen him only one more time! I thought for sure that Rev. Fr. Prior would have [the coffin] opened and a picture taken, because there was not a trace of deterioration or bad odor. Even today [after six days] he could safely be viewed.
NB. Rev. Father Founder died on 24 May, Our Lady, Help of Christians, and also in the octave of The Ascension of Our Lord, and, Monday which is traditionally dedicated to the Poor Souls. Father Founder is known to have done much for the poor souls, usually wearing a black vestment for Mass in order to gain an indulgence for them.
Who has fed more poor and clothed more naked people, or who has done more to announce the Gospel to the poor than our unforgettable Father Founder? Who has won more people for religious life than he? And last but not least: Who will die poorer than he?
A few sisters accompanied the coffin to Lourdes, two women going along part of the way. From Lourdes, only Fr. Joseph accompanied it to the station, by night. The Savior had no more, either.
Meanwhile, we are happy to have a good souvenir of Father Founder in Emaus, because we eviscerated 13 the body and kept part of his good heart. It now rests at the foot of the big cross in the cemetery. Given his strong heart, Father Founder could have lived to be a hundred. At the beginning of the year he said, “This is the year I die”. He learned to die, and so we too must bow under the hand of God. I hope to God that we have a good intercessor [in heaven].
I am already homesick for heaven, because earth is really only a
Father Founder suffered much from hardening of the arteries; blood was no longer able to pass through and so it escaped. You should have seen his back and especially his arms and left leg: these limbs were completely purplish red and swollen, a condition caused by the heart. It was the same inside. Oh, how Father Founder suffered! With what perseverance! Strong as was his nature, so strong was also his will in suffering and dying.
Dear sisters, let us pray fervently, that we may also attain the place where he is now.
Before Father Founder died I asked him to kindly pray for us at the throne of God. “Certainly,” he replied, “I will have nothing else to do. Now no one can separate us anymore from God and all suffering will have an end.”
Therefore, dear sisters, let us also die [to ourselves] every day and not waste a minute. Let us imitate Rev. Father Founder’s virtues: His love of silence, his heavenly patience, his obedience and detachment, his resignation and contentment, his charity and love of enemy, his contentedness with little, his genuine piety, his spirit of prayer and work – his mind was never idle – his human warmth and friendliness, his interior and exterior mortification, his recollection of spirit, his serenity when despised, his uprightness towards everyone, his zeal – all for the greater honor and glory of God – and his sense of justice; also, his fortitude in quietly carrying his cross, his remarkable peace of mind, his heroic spirit of sacrifice, and his abandonment to the will of God in his final illness. He was able to receive Holy Communion until the last day.
I send my sincere thanks for all the prayers said by the sisters
and children; Rev. Father will bless you from his place in heaven.
Please, give my best regards also to Rev. Fr. Prior and kindly lethim read this letter, so that I do not need to write another one. – I am happy that our Father Founder is buried next to Abbot Amandus.
Greeting you all in the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus,
Yours very gratefully,
Sr. M. Angela CPS.
Thirty-three years later, on Father Founder’s birthday, Sr. Angela shared her memories of her Rev. Father Founder again. She did so in a letter to a sister at Heilig Blut. It is a precious document affirming the credibility of her earlier one. The following excerpts describe the last days of the Founder:
Sacred Heart Home 20.09.1932
My dear Sister Alicia,
I gratefully acknowledge your kind letter of August 1932! Greater joy than telling me about Rev. Father Founder you could not have given me, dear Sr. Alicia! May the Divine Heart of Jesus and our unforgettable Rev. Father Founder bless you from heaven! Yes, I am daily united [with him] in spirit.
It is only thanks to Father Founder that I have attained this old age – 84 years. When he was quite abandoned by everyone – even the brothers deserted him – I was the only one left to help him in his utter loneliness. However, Rev. Father did not lose courage or trust in God. This may be said even about the first day when Emaus consisted of nothing more than a canvass stretched across four poles. Under this cover Rev. Father celebrated Mass, said his prayers, and slept. He had only one intention – to save souls. He worked. It was he who constructed the 300-foot high Way of the Cross, that can still be seen to this day. He walked it every day; yes, he prayed and meditated on the Passion of Christ on a daily basis. Rev. Father was on good terms with Our Lord. The large cross on the summit was a gift from benefactors and so were the big statue of Our Lady and a whole library of exquisite books.
Only Rev. Father Abbot Amandus was good to Father Founder. When he was in Rome , he wrote to him that the unfortunate Visitation Card 14 was not to be read anymore but that it should be put aside. The Most Rev. Abbot General Sebastian also wrote to Rev. Father thanking him for accepting his removal from office so humbly.
At that time Emaus did not have a single Christian, but now it is so big that the church has already been extended. Rev. Father’s last wish – to build a church at Umzimkulu [district town of Emaus] – has been fulfilled. It is situated three hours distant from Emaus. On his deathbed Father Founder donated to it the last thing he still possessed – a small silver spoon he had been given for his First Mass –so that funds could be raised with it. 15 There
is also the vast land of Ibisi…where the missionaries will have much to do!
When Father Founder was no longer able to walk the Way of the Cross, I helped him up the hill. He also attended Mass every day because he was a man of prayer who followed Our Savior literally, and when later he was completely unable to walk he asked to be carried on a chair. How he thanked God for his sufferings – removal from office, calumnies, in short, everything evil people did to him. With uplifted hands he thanked God for allowing him to suffer. Only a saint can pray like that! I too thank God that I have been allowed to suffer with him. Rev. Father accepted everything from God’s hands. He did not keep a grudge against anyone but loved all. When things were very bad he calmly said, “Never mind, I can wait until the Last Day.” Oh, how his noble heart suffered! However, not a word of complaint escaped his lips. He was always friendly and kind.
Father Founder foretold the year he would die and that he would die without a priest. He said that he had prepared many for death but he himself would have no one to assist him. And so it was. Rev. Father still looked up and his eyes searched for Fr. Joseph. But Fr. Joseph was not around. He had gone to visit a sick child the evening before and had not returned, even though the house where he had to go was very close. Rev. Father’s eyes searched for him, but there was no priest, only a few sisters, as also there were only a few women present at Our Lord’s death. I put the candle of the dying in his hand and kept it steady. Rev. Father raised himself once more and looked up. At that moment his great soul went heavenward like a light, and the Mother of God, or so it seemed to me, took her servant home. He had loved her very much and dedicated all the stations, from Mariastern to Mariannhill, to her. He died on 24 May, when we honor Mary as Our Lady, Help of Christians.
Thought I had to die with him. The following morning a great brightness could be seen in the sky. All the Christians saw it too and shouted, “Look, the Inkosi!”16 A little white dove, which we had not been seen before, came flying and perched on the roof above the room where he had died. I had asked Rev. Father for a sign and regarded the dove as one. His features were so beautiful, his face so kind to look at. If only I could already be with him!!!
Dear Sister Alicia, how I thank the good Lord that you regained your health at the intercession of our good Father Founder. He really accepted everything from God’s hands. He was a true monk in every respect, taking neither meat nor wine and still fasting on the last Good Friday by bread and water, not even taking his medicine. He usually ate only porridge, scrambled eggs, and mushrooms. When for the last two years he could not hold the spoon anymore because of his hands shaking too badly from the arteriosclerosis, I spoon-fed him. How quietly and contentedly he took his food! How strictly he kept to eating only three times a day! Indeed, he was a religious in the true sense of the word.
Rev. Father Founder was always kind and friendly, particularly towards his enemies. He let himself be stripped of everything. They emptied his room, refused him free correspondence, etc, and forbade him just about everything. I suffered with him and could write much. When they took his sisters away, he wept quietly, because he was proud of his Sisters of the Precious Blood and said that they were achieving a lot in the missions. He understood well how to suffer with our dear Savior. All he said was, “I can very well wait until the Last Day.” As Rev. Father was not allowed to do anything anymore he said under tears, “There are still so many millions to be saved and here I am unable to do anything.”…
Rev. Father knew how to unite himself with our dear Savior in order to become everything to everyone. He was a man of the spirit, and all he desired was to save souls.…
Please, excuse my poor handwriting, dear Sr. Alicia. I once more thank you most sincerely. Finally, I ask you sincerely to ask God to grant me, a poor sinner, a happy death.
United in prayer,
Yours very gratefully,
Sr. M. Angela
Still further details about the Founder’s last days are contained in a continuous record of events Sr. Angela confided to her Little Notebook for 1909. She writes:
Rev. Father Founder died a heroic death, without struggle. He did not break out into sweat nor did his eyes break… His body remained with us from Monday to Tuesday. The following morning [25 May] we sisters lifted it into a coffin, because no one else was around to do it. The coffin had been made several years before by order of Abbot Obrecht, Rev. Father suffered all this and much more with heroic patience and peace of soul…. Ten oxen, led by faithful Paul, pulled the wagon on which the body was taken to Lourdes, only a few sisters accompanying it…. It was an utterly sad procession! In Lourdes, Fr. Augustine finally came to perform the exequies, and at 4:00 pm the ox-wagon, again led by Paul and accompanied by Fr. Joseph, took the coffin to Riverside. On the way there they met Sr. Adelheid [Imholt], the vicaress, but she did not go down with them. The coffin was kept in the open overnight.
The Founder’s Heart
In her letter to the superiors and sisters at Mariannhill Sr. Angela wrote: …we eviscerated the body and retained part of his good heart, which now rests at the foot of the big cross in the cemetery. What are the facts concerning the Founder’s heart? Fortunately, there were others who asked the same question when eyewitnesses were still alive. In 1930 Sr. Edmunda Freundorfer gave a statement to Fr. Aloys Becker CMM which he recorded in shorthand as follows:
Sr. Edmunda of Citeaux Mission and Sr. Lidwina of Sacred Heart Home, Ixopo, in the presence of Fr. Joseph Biegner († 1923) and a local man, Paul, removed Abbot Francis’ heart…. Sr. Edmunda remarked, “Actually, we should possess something of our Father in Emaus” …. At noon, Sr. Edmunda opened the body, because neither Paul nor Fr. Joseph were ready to do so. At Fr. Joseph’s order she removed only half of the heart, because Mariannhill was also to have a share in it. This half was placed in a bottle of alcohol [probably methylated spirit] and was buried in the late afternoon in the cemetery at the foot end of the little “coffin.” a box the sisters had prepared to receive the eviscerated parts of the deceased, the liver, etc. 17 The remaining body was laid in a tin coffin which was covered with wood on the outside and sent on the following day to Mariannhill via Lourdes-Malenge.
NB. The body was covered with a white cloth and then eviscerated.
NB. It was filled with rosemary.
NB. The intention was to keep everything secret but word spread, though it was not clear.
NB. He (Abbot Francis) never complained during his illness. He died calmly, and his last word was “Light!”18
According to Fr. Aloys, who was stationed at Citeaux Mission while Sr. Edmunda was there, she gave the same statement to Fr. Severin Starchel CMM in the presence of other witnesses before she died at Ixopo.
In another account Sr. Edmunda gave to the superior general, Mother Ebba Tirpitz, she explained that the Founder’s body had to be embalmed for the simple reason that it was going to be transferred to Mariannhill and the date of the funeral was as yet uncertain.
Sr. Edmunda Freundorfer (1865-1938) was 44 and Sr. Lidwina Löwen (1853-1937) 56 years old when they removed half of the Founder’s heart to bury at Emaus. They had been Red Sisters for 19 and 20 years respectively. and finally professed since 1907. Both sisters acted with reverence and from true devotion towards Abbot Francis and the Congregation, no less than for love of Emaus.
The customs had different logics. Egyptians believed that the preservation of a man’s identity required the preservation of the entire body. Because the viscera were difficult to preserve in situ [in the body] the Egyptians lifted them out, put the heart…in one jar…[that] rested in the tomb with the embalmed body…. Until at least 1926 the ruling house of Saxony followed something of the same procedure. As soon as death was certain, the heart and entrails were removed. The heart, in a casket, was placed on a white satin pillow at one side of the coffin, the entrails in a white satincovered jar, at the other side. When the coffin went to its vault the heart-casket and entrails-jar went onto a bracket alongside…. The Saxon princelings followed not religion like the Egyptians,
but sanitation and sentiment, which Christianity was obliged to salute as soon as the sensibilities of churchgoers objected to the smell of corporeal corruption within churches. The hearts of the Popes from Sixtus V (1590) to Benedict XV (1922) are in the church of Sts. Vincent & Anastasius in Rome. (Charles Angell Bradford, Heart Burial. Allen & Unwin). Bl. Brother André’s heart is preserved in a glass case in Montreal. The most spectacular incidence of this custom was the symbolic re-burial of the heart of Louis XVII, son of the last king and queen of France (guillotined during the French Revolution), at Saint Denis Basilica, Paris, on 8 June 2004, in the presence of the European royalty
– after the heir apparent’s heart had been preserved for two hundred years.
The Founder’s Grave
At first a plain white wooden cross marked the Founder’s grave. However, a week after the burial Prior Isembard wrote that the Founder’s importance, not only for the monks and sisters, but also for the people of the mission, required a monument worthy
of him. Therefore, everybody was invited to make a contribution towards such a monument by 1 October 1909. Meanwhile, Br. Nivard asked his brother, Matthias Streicher, sculptor in Aachen, Germany, to design either a bold stone relief or a bronze bust of Abbot Francis, and on 10 November 1909 he wrote to the Founder’s close friends, Josten, in Neuss, Germany, to advise his brother about the character of the peculiar man and assist him with modeling his head. In October 1912 a circular announced
the completion of the monument – a full-size bronze statue which had already been on view at a mission exhibition during the Catholic Convention in Aachen and which had meanwhile arrived in Durban Harbor. It is this monument that marks the Founder’s grave today.
The Historical Fig Tree
The huge fig tree which Abbot Francis had chosen as his last resting place already stood in the Zeekoegat Farm when the Trappists acquired that farm in December 1882 in order to build their monastery on it. Its destiny seems to have been mysteriously related to the Founder. We owe the story of its end to Mother Renata Krause, vicaress general and in 1949 accompanying Mother Ebba Tirpitz on visitation to Mariannhill. She wrote to Heilig Blut that on 18 November a cloudburst came down in the late afternoon. When it was over Sr. Nikasia Rieskamp passed the cemetery on her way to the convent and noticed a change in the position of the fig tree. On closer inspection she saw that its roots,
exposed by the downpour, were pulling and about to snap. They would not support the twenty-meter wide crown much longer but cause the tree to fall on the Founder’s grave. So she immediately alerted the Monastery. Brothers rushed to the scene and with a few skillful strokes of the axe succeeded in making the tree fall away from the grave. The sisters in the chapel heard the moaning and cracking of the branches as the mighty old landmark of Mariannhill came crashing down.
In His Memory
The Monastery Chronicle of Mariannhill remembers the Founder with the following words: We have buried a great man. Future generations will gratefully honor the memory of Fr. Francis when they pass his grave.
Otto Heberling RMM 19, in a first biography of the Founder, Abt Franz Pfanner [Abbot Francis Pfanner] (Reimlingen 1934) wrote:
In conclusion we may say of Abbot Francis, that “he has fought the good fight” and kept the faith in God and the mission given to him, by bringing it – despite all obstacles and opposition – to a happy end, to the honor of God and the salvation of souls.
He was –
A unique man of action, endowed with a firm character from his youth
A capable thinker, no less a skillful speaker and tireless worker
A man with a rather rough shell but containing a golden kernel
A man who as a human being, Christian, and religious practiced heroic virtue until death
A man of faith and trust in God in all situations of life
A saintly priest of high moral integrity
A duty-conscious and caring superior who occasionally appeared strict
A fighter, endowed with courage, resolution, energy, and tenacious perseverance
A man, matured into a guide and leader during many years of practical experience on three continents
A fervent apostle of Jesus Christ and a priest zealous for souls
A generous and farseeing missionary superior
A man of prayer and vigorous, childlike piety
A heroic bearer of the cross who loved the Crucified Redeemer until death
A deeply devoted son of Mary and a true friend of Saint Joseph, helper in all his foundations
A man who with a father’s solicitude planned and cared for the civilization and religious-moral education of the local African people
A man who initiated the promotion of agricultural and in dustrial methods to improve the living standard of a needy local population
A man of Providence for the South African ethnic groups at a time when they were suddenly confronted with the Industrial Revolution
A runner of his Lord towards the eternal goal.
Abbot Francis translated his motto “Currite, ut comprehendatis!” into action.
Despite his frail health he worked tirelessly from his youth and lived to the age of eighty-four.
He remained faithful to his principles until the end.
His memory is held in honor by all, his monument dominates the hundred year-old burial ground of his spiritual sons and daughters.
His life’s work has been abundantly blessed and bears rich fruit on four continents. 20
1 Vergissmeinnicht 1909. 266-67. By another account the rock broke away from the top of the Hill of Calvary and came to rest just in front of the Lourdes Grotto. Sr. Angela writes: After Easter (11.04.1909) a huge rock came tumbling down the hill all by itself and, crossing two fences, stopped where Father Founder used to sit. (Sr. Angela Michel, Little Diary)
2 Emaus belonged to East Griqualand, the modern Eastern Cape, but in 2007 it was incorporated into the province of Natal.
3 On 26 May 1926 Fr. Joseph wrote to Fr. Albericus of Mariastern that the immediate cause of the Founder’s death was the rupture of a vein in his leg, which resulted in internal bleeding.
4 Timotheus Kempf, Herold Gottes in Südafrika [The Herald of God in South Africa] Part III, Vol. IV, 973: Josef Biegner, Letzte Lebenstage und Tod des Hochw. Abt Franz [Last Days and Death of Rev. Abbot Francis].
(Vergissmeinnicht 1909) 266-267
5 In 1905 Br. Leo Starke, who was known for his heavy hand, came to Emaus. Abbot Francis writes about him to Mother Paula, who knew the brother well from Helden-Panningen: A brother – probably the most crude and indigestible Mariannhill has to offer – will be the manager to comfort the old man. (LETTER 34) According to Sr. Angela, Br. Leo was given to the Founder by Abbot Obrecht for the Founder’s penance. (NOTES)
9 Abbot Gerard was the 2nd successor of Abbot Francis Pfanner. 10 Here the editor of the account in Der Herold Gottes in Südafrika [The Herald of God in South Africa] Part III, Vol. IV, 976 inserts the following: At this point the reporter [Fr. Joseph] mentions a small accident caused by shying horses, in which Br. Nivard’s left arm was badly hurt. But this could not keep him from carrying the coffin of the deceased Founder on the following day.
11 Fr. Mayr 11 had entered the Trappists at Mariannhill but had left again for health reasons and afterwards offered his services to the bishop
12 Fr. Hartmann was a member of the Jesuit Zambezi Mission in Rhodesia [Zimbabwe].
13 Removed the organs
14 The “Card” refers to the report written by Abbot F. Strunk at the end of his 1892 visitation in which he radically re-directed the Founder’s administration of the Monastery and its missions. 15 Abbot Francis gave the spoon to Mrs. Beykirch, ex-sister Clara Lassak, who was married to ex-brother Erich Beykirch. The couple lived at Umzimkulu where he was a builder. They promised to donate the land for the church and auction the precious spoon to raise funds for the building
16 Inkosi, the Zulu word for lord, ruler, superior
17 This is the true account of the burial of Father Founder’s heart and must be distinguished from the fictitous tale told by Michael Cawood Green in his For the Sake of Silence (Random House 2008, 9). A piece of the original bottle is kept in the Abbot Francis Museum at the generalate in Rome. 18 Cf. Herald. Part III, Vol. IV: Abt Franz unter dem Kreuz [Abbot Francis under the Cross] (Reimlingen 1983) 972.
19 RMM, Religious Missionaries of Mariannhill, was the new title Rome gave to the Trappist missionaries, who later called themselves CMM or Congregation of the Missionaries of Mariannhill.
20 Reimlingen 1934. Edited by T. Kempf CMM in Herald. Part III, Vol. IV: Abt Franz unter dem Kreuz [Abbot Francis under the Cross] (Reimlingen 1983) 979.