by Sister M. Eresta Mayr
“Pilgrimage places are the hidden capitals of the world.”
Konrad Adenauer, first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany
Since 1849, School Sisters have lived and worked in Birkenstein, an important pilgrimage place in Bavaria, Germany. Mother Theresa herself founded this mission. Education of girls was her concern, and for 117 years, School Sisters taught girls in Birkenstein. When the grade school was transferred to a larger town in 1966, the mission of Birkenstein changed.
Since then, pilgrimages are our focus. Our ministry now is that of sacristan. A priest cares for the pilgrims pastorally. We sisters are responsible for the chapel and the environment of the pilgrimage place.
Where and how do the sisters fulfill their service?
We manage the daily schedule, the celebration of masses, prayer services, rosaries, and explanations of the chapel. Every year, about 50 pilgrim groups arrive in Birkenstein; many masses for anniversaries and Jubilees are celebrated as well as baptisms. Up to 800 masses are celebrated each year.
What is unique about our service as sisters? Where and how are we “in the heart of the world”?
With our religious habit, we are known immediately as sisters. We are approachable “all the time”, not only during “office hours”. For the people here and beyond, Birkenstein and the sisters belong together, are one. In the sacristy and at the door of our convent, people register for masses. This is often only a pretext for emptying their hearts to the sisters. Their concerns include health issues, family situations, inheritance disputes, financial problems, and much more. It is helpful that for difficult cases a priest is available. We are asked to pray for all intentions. People expect our contact with God to be closer than their own. Often we receive letters, telephone calls and emails with requests for prayer. However, not only petitions come to us; we also hear about answers to prayer. Pilgrims feel the need to share and speak about what they have experienced.
Another graced time is daily Eucharistic Adoration from 7:30 to 10:00. After years of interacting with pilgrims, we have a good sense of whether to approach a person or respect the need for quiet prayer in the chapel.
During my 30 years as sacristan, my service has included the chapel tour. People often ask for an explanation; they leave with an understanding of the theological and spiritual richness of our chapel. It is our hope that the pilgrims go home from this wonderful place with increased spiritual strength and confidence.
I say to those who want to know why Birkenstein is so beautiful: “Come and see!”
It is the best service that the congregation could have given me: to be sacristan at Birkenstein, in the “heart of the world”.
Photo Credit: Sister M. Luzilla Klein, Birkenstein, Germany