Sisters Maria, Josepha and Mary Michael


The three co-foundresses of the Arnoldus Family
By Father Stanley Plutz SVD

The Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters, also known as the Pink Sisters, recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of their arrival in North America. To commemorate this event, Father Stanley Plutz recalls the founders of the religious order for women and their special connection with the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters and the Society of the Divine Word.

Although Father Arnold Janssen, founder of the Society of the Divine Word, realized the need for women to deal with the women and girls in the missions, he initially had no plan of founding a congregation of missionary sisters. He even wrote about this fact in his magazine, "The Little Messenger of the Sacred Heart."

However, God the Holy Spirit and some holy women led him to co-found two religious missionary congregations of sisters. And God gave him three good and holy women to collaborate with him to found and guide these religious missionary congregations: Helena Stollenwerk, Hendrina Stenmanns and Adolfine Tönnies.

The Women
All three women were born and raised in the same part of Germany as was Father Janssen. They had a strong faith in God, a love of the Catholic Church, plus similar religious customs and values.

They also firmly trusted Father Janssen. They shared the conviction that he was a man of God, and that God the Holy Spirit would inspire and direct him to found a congregation of missionary sisters as he had founded a society of missionary priests and brothers.

But Helena had to serve as a maid for ten years and Hendrina for eight years at the Divine Word seminary in Steyl, Holland, before they became postulants of a religious missionary congregation. Can you feel the anguish of waiting ten or even eight years before becoming postulants?

And then their achievement turned out to be different from that for which they had hoped. They wanted to become missionaries, go to a missionary land and bring the poor people in those lands to faith in Jesus; instead they became co-foundresses of missionary congregations. Adolfine entered later and had her own distinctive role.

There were temptations along the way for Helena. For example, the Sisters of Divine Providence who were managing the kitchen where she was a maid invited Helena to join them. But the greatest temptation for her was impatience for she wanted to go to China as a missionary. However, she remained faithful to Father Janssen and her hope of his founding a missionary congregation of sisters.

As a young woman, Helena’s mother married a widower with eight children, three of whom were girls close to Helena’s age. The new husband owned a farm and an inn. As a young girl, Helena pastured cows.

In school, she became a member of the Holy Childhood, made her monthly contribution and twice was recognized for her efforts. She eagerly read the Holy Childhood publication about the China mission.

As she grew older, she helped in the inn and calmed the anger of the young men when tempers flared up after they had been drinking and arguing. Receiving a vocation from God to the China mission, she sought a missionary congregation in Germany with posts in China, but she found none.

To keep herself ready for her missionary vocation and with the permission of her spiritual director and confessor, she took a vow of celibacy. Hearing of Father Janssen, his mission seminary and his sending missionaries to China, she hoped that he would eventually help her get to China as a missionary. But when she applied and he interviewed her, all he could offer was a position as a maid, working with the Divine Providence Sisters in the kitchen of the mission seminary.

He needed time, prayer, and advice to discern the will of God concerning his founding a congregation of missionary sisters. Against the opposition of her parents and spiritual director, she enthusiastically accepted the offer as a first step to realizing her dream of becoming a missionary and going to China.

Hendrina entered Steyl differently. Her father, a tailor, had a young apprentice named Lambert Welbers, who felt called to be a missionary. She financially helped him to enter the mission seminary at Steyl, Holland. When settled in the mission seminary, he invited her to visit.

There, she met the maids. After a second visit and talking with the maids, she wanted to become one of them. As she had promised her dying mother, she raised her brothers and sisters. She had excelled in her catechism classes, served the sick and poor of the town, and became a member of the Third Order of St. Francis.

On the recommendation of the parish priest who wrote that she was a daily Mass participant, Father Janssen accepted her as a maid.

Adolfine was a teacher for ten years in a one-room country school in the part of Germany called the Diaspora; she also served as sacristan and organist of the parish chapel. When making her annual retreat, she discerned that God was calling her to be a religious sister. Since her mother opposed the idea, she appealed to her uncle, Father Wagener, who persuaded his sister to let Adolfine enter the congregation of the newly founded Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters. She entered on May 1, 1891.

Living an Unofficial Consecrated Life
In December 1889, the maids numbered six because that was all the room that their little house under the linden trees could accommodate. The maids from the very beginning had been living the life like that of a religious sister, a life entirely dedicated to God and the mission seminary. They followed a daily order that included Mass, quarter hour prayer, work and recreation. The daily order was organized by the young women and approved by Father Janssen.

But then God in his gracious providence provided a larger house. The Capuchin friary located nearby became vacant when the friars went back to their own country. Father Janssen was able to rent the friary. On the eve of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of our Blessed Mother in 1889, the six maids, led in procession by Father Founder and two other priests, moved into their newly rented house. Almost immediately, more young ladies who were on the waiting list were accepted until their number soon reached 16. Father Janssen now called the former maids "postulants."

In beginning their postulancy, Father Janssen gave each sister a new name and a beautiful pastel blue habit. He gave Helena the name of Maria after our Blessed Mother Mary and Hendrina the name of Josepha after St. Joseph because in her humility; she always tried to take the second place in imitation of St. Joseph. Adolfine would become Sister Mary Michael.

Having a religious habit and a new name filled the hearts of these young ladies with joy. They had taken another step in officially becoming consecrated to Jesus as religious missionaries.

An interesting incident happened after the postulants moved into the former Capuchin friary. During the night, the sisters heard noises, and they began to imagine that the house was haunted by ghosts.

They grew afraid and could not sleep. Sister Maria and a companion (probably Sister Josepha) slept in the cell from which the noise came. They discovered that the sound of chains rattling came from inside the wall where a clock had been installed to give the friars a signal at about 2 a.m. to rise from sleep to go to the chapel and pray their night office of readings. Through the brave act of the two sisters, fear of imaginary ghosts disappeared and the nuns could sleep in peace.

A constitution for the sisters, following the rules laid down by the Church, was needed before they could begin their novitiate. They had, of course, a daily order almost from the beginning, one worked out by the maids themselves and approved by Father Janssen, but a more formal document was needed with a way of life spelled out in detail.

They had been living a life totally dedicated to God and the service of the mission seminary priests, brothers and students. They participated in daily Mass. They had their schedule of prayer, work, and recreation, although the work often took up part of their free time. They needed a more formal rule with details worked out in regard to acceptance, formation, community living, sickness, and death, and so forth.

So Father Janssen gathered the constitutions or rules of a number of communities of sisters. He also had at hand the constitution that he and his councilors drafted for the priests and brothers for the Society of the Divine Word.

When he had a rough draft, he had copies printed and a copy given to each sister for study and comments with a special copy for Sister Maria with a blank page for every printed page for her comments. He also asked for the comments of his councilors. When he had incorporated the meaningful comments into the rough draft, he had a clean copy made, which he presented to the bishop, who approved it for three years.

With this constitution, Father Janssen began the novitiate for the 16 postulants.

Father Founder, the Novice Director
Interestingly, Father Janssen became their novice master. The holy and wise religious sister whom Father Janssen had contacted from an established order of nuns to be the novice directress died shortly before the scheduled beginning of the novitiate. Instead of looking for another sister and postponing the start of the novitiate, he took over the novice directress task. Soon, however, he handed over the direction of the older novices to Sister Maria and the younger ones to Sister Mary Michael.

The profession of 12 novices took place on March 12, 1894. Among them were Sister Maria, Sister Josepha and Sister Mary Michael. They were now professed religious, belonging to a missionary congregation ready to be sent out to proclaim Jesus. What inner peace and joy filled their hearts!

What were the working relations of Father Janssen and Sister Maria? Sister Maria, as superior of the sisters, would consult Father Janssen on each detail of guiding the sisters, usually by writing until Father Janssen told her to make her own decisions in smaller everyday matters.

Sister Maria as superior and Sister Josepha as her assistant formed a perfect team. The former took care of the spiritual guidance of the sisters and the latter saw to the more practical matters of managing the house and directing the postulants. Along with managing their own needs, the sisters did the laundry and mending of the members of the fathers and brothers community. They also worked for the printing press, folding pages for the magazines.  

Accepting Retreatants
On occasion, the seminarians were requested to leave their dormitories during days when there were no classes and during long vacations to make room for men retreatants; so too the sisters were asked to give up their beds for the women and girl retreatants.

During the first year of this practice, four courses of retreats were held in the convent with about 100 ladies in each retreat. Father Janssen himself preached the retreats. This apostolate, of course, entailed sacrifice on the part of the sisters, so the superiors, such as Sister Maria and Sister Josepha, had to motivate the other sisters.         

The Sisters, a Source of Joy
The sisters proved to be joy for Father Janssen. He would ask for their prayers before undertaking a particular project or before traveling, for example, going to Rome on a special mission. During his absence, they prayed for God’s blessing on and for the success of his efforts. And for his return, they would post a welcome sign. Father Janssen responded by offering Mass for them and taking breakfast with them in their dining room shortly after his return and reporting on his trip.

Even before the beginning of their novitiate, Father Founder started preparing the sisters for the missions. He and some sisters who entered as teachers, plus a few priests, were giving classes to selected sisters.

Father Janssen, however, had a further vision. In his way of thinking, the sisters sent to the missions would be most effective if they were teachers in the parish, so he established a school for training teachers at the convent. Spanish was the first course given and then English. More regular courses for preparing teachers followed. Knowledge that they would need in the missions was stressed.

Since it was too dangerous to send sisters to China at that time, Father Janssen sent the first sisters to Argentina where the priests and brothers were already working. Before he sent them, he confirmed with the priest in charge of the missions in Argentina that the sisters would have a decent place to live. The first four sisters left the mother convent for Argentina on Sept. 11, 1895.                                                      

Adoration Sisters
In 1896, Father Janssen realized his aim of also founding a community of Adoration Sisters, who would pray day and night for the active priests, brothers, and sisters, especially those in the missions.

He realized the success of all the preaching, teaching, and all the other activities of his missionaries depended on the grace of God and that his active sons and daughter often did not have much time for prayer besides praying the prescribed prayers. Father Janssen wanted prayer to reach Jesus day and night to obtain all the graces possible for his active members. How did he go about obtaining members to form a congregation of contemplative Adoration Sisters?

He asked for volunteers from among the Mission Sisters.  Seven of the volunteers were chosen to form the nucleus of the cloistered branch of sisters. They were given a beautiful rose colored habit because they were to be roses kneeling in adoration before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

Trouble broke out early among the two branches of sisters, but the three co-foundresses, Sisters Maria, Josepha and Mary Michael, helped Father Janssen solve the problem. When first established, the Adoration Sisters were allowed to elect their own superior. They chose Sister Seraphim, a sister who came from a nearby castle in Holland. According to Church law in those days, when active and contemplative sisters formed one community, the superior of the contemplatives ranked higher than the superior of the active sisters.

This particular superior became domineering over Sister Maria, Sister Josepha and the sisters of the original congregation. This conduct caused hard feelings among the blue sisters (Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters). When Father Janssen became aware that a mistake had been made in electing Sister Seraphim, he approached the bishop, who cautioned him to proceed slowly in replacing her since the Adoration Sisters had elected her. So Father Janssen, in his conferences to the Adorations Sisters, began to mention the advantages of changing superiors from time to time. After about a year, Father Janssen appointed Sister Mary Michael as superior of the Adoration Sisters.

Sister Maria, Sister Josepha and the entire community of blue sisters felt great relief. The good relations, however, between the blue and pink sisters had been damaged. How to mend the harmony between the two congregations of sisters?

Healing Emotional Wounds
What did Father Janssen do? He asked Sister Maria to join the Adoration Sisters because all of the sisters loved her. He was asking a very great sacrifice of Sister Maria, namely, that she step down as superior of the active missionary sisters and become a novice again, a novice of the Adoration Sisters.

After a second request from Father Janssen and having consulted with her confessor, Sister Maria transferred to the Adoration Sisters. Good relations between the blue and pink sisters were restored. When giving Sister Maria the pink habit, Father Janssen added Virgo in honor of the Virgin Mary to her name. She became Sister Maria Virgo.

Decades later, during the beatification ceremony of Mother Maria Virgo, the Holy Father made special mention of this act of humility, namely her stepping down from being superior general to being a novice again.

Sister Mary Michael, the new superior of the Adoration Sisters, allowed the blue sisters to freely confer with Sister Maria Virgo. Sister Maria Virgo wanted nothing more than to have harmonious relations between the two branches of sisters; for this she prayed and worked.

Keeping Records
Father Janssen as founder made another helpful provision with regard to the blue sisters. Namely, he requested the superiors of the congregations to keep a record of each sister. These records enabled superiors later to choose who would study in the school for teachers, who would make good missionaries, and who would most likely become good superiors of the sisters in the missions. 

Making Appointments
In assigning sisters to the missions, Father Janssen asked for volunteers. Likewise, he would consult with the superiors of the sisters in Steyl.

God’s Plan
It may be asked how Sister Maria Virgo felt about never having been sent to China or to any mission. It may be presumed that she felt that vicariously she was going to the missions, such as Argentina, Togo or Africa, through each sister being sent there. After all, she had a part in their formation. Perhaps she felt that when conditions improved in China that she would be going in spirit with each sister being sent there to China.

Sickness and Death of Sister Maria and Sister Josepha
When Sister Maria Virgo fell sick and a sister would ask her how she felt, she would answer, "Well," meaning "I feel well." Father Janssen was in the mission seminary in Austria at the time he received the report of Mother Maria’s illness. He did not take the report too seriously for she had not been sick before. At being informed of her death, he praised her and declared her co-foundress of the sisters.

Sister Josepha, on the other hand, suffered for some time from various ailments, especially from asthma and dropsy, also known as edema. She suffered spells of asthma attacks during which she could hardly breathe.

Sometimes, her body filled with liquid and became so heavy that it took four sisters to move her. Were these diseases not painful? The dropsy caused the skin to burst open and liquid to ooze out.

Did she who had been so caring in helping her brothers and sisters at home, the town folk and the sisters in the convent, not feel humbled and helpless? She certainly prayed for the sisters in the convent and in the foreign missions as she lay on her sick bed.

Sister Josepha lived up to being a Holy Spirit Sister by practicing devotion to the Spirit of holiness, frequently invoking him and encouraging her sisters to do likewise.
She loved Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and asked permission to receive him daily, an exception in those days.

Father Janssen spent time with her, praying for her and with her. When she died, he declared her to be another co-foundress of the sisters.

Sister Mary Michael, who outlived Father Janssen by 25 years, earned the title of co-foundress of the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters by carrying on after Father Janssen’s death. As superior of the Adoration Sisters, she continued in his spirit and fostered the growth of the congregation.

As superior general of the Adoration Sisters, she established adoration convents in several other countries besides Holland, namely in Germany, United States, Philippines and China. She introduced the praying of the Church’s divine office with its regular cycle of seasons and feasts instead of always praying the little office of our Blessed Mother. The adoration, as she arranged it, took place before Jesus exposed in the monstrance. She guided her congregation for 36 years until her death in 1934.

The question may be asked: Did Mother Maria and Mother Josepha regret that they had not been appointed to the missions? They had gone to Steyl to prepare as missionaries and to be sent to the missions. Mother Maria had China in mind. I think, as Divine Providence arranged events, that as co-foundresses with Father Janssen they considered going out to the missions and being in the missions in each sister formed by them and sent to the missions. They realized that they had founded a missionary congregation that would form and send sisters out to the missions for a long time to come.

Editor’s Note: Father Stanley Plutz served as vice postulator for the Cause of the Canonization of St. Arnold Janssen. A native of Wisconsin and a missionary in the Philippines for decades, Father Plutz is the author of four books: "Our Founder: A glimpse into the Inner Working of Our Founder’s Mind" (2002), "The Sacred Heart of Jesus, Arnold Janssen Ardent Devotee" (2002), "Spirituality of Saint Arnold" (2004) and "St. Arnold Janssen Memories" (2004).