Abbess Caritas Pirckheimer: A Crucial Witness In Times of Persecution

If religious differences are discussed at all today, they tend to be elided or celebrated.

Ecumenism has been the watchword among Catholics in recent decades; the Second Vatican Council’s On Ecumenism was one of the most-frequently mentioned documents in American newspapers. For the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity released a statement on the theological fruits of the Protestant Reformation, Pope Francis conducted outreach to Lutherans, and the Philatelic and Numismatic Office of the Vatican issued new stamps of Luther at the foot of Christ crucified.

It may therefore be appalling to modern ears to hear the words of a Catholic from only two hundred years ago:

Europe has one great enemy, which must be fought by all legal methods. It is a fatal ulcer that attaches itself to all sovereign powers and eats away at them. It is the son of pride, the father of anarchy, the universal solvent: Protestantism. What is Protestantism? It is the revolt of individual reason against general reason; consequently it is the worst thing possible. […] [I]t is antisovereign by nature, rebellious in essence, and the mortal enemy of all national reason.

 Joseph de Maistre, “Reflections on Protestantism in Its Relation to Sovereignty” (1798)

However, this rapid and dramatic shift toward ecumenism makes it unsurprising that one of Lutheranism’s most formidable foes has gone largely unacknowledged.

Memorial stone for Abbess Cariats Pirckheimer on the site of the former Poor Clare Monastery; Photo: Andreas Praefcke – CC BY 3.0



Considered by Erasmus to be the most learned woman in Germany, Caritas Pirckheimer (born Barbara) was elected Abbess of St. Klara’s in 1503 in Nuremberg, Germany. As a Catholic woman religious in a position of both power and esteem in an exceptionally turbulent time, she has garnered critical attention in the academic world. Pirckheimer has been the subject of several dissertations, and has earned not insignificant entries in numerous reference works.

By virtue of her birth, her education, and her talents, Pirckheimer was uniquely positioned to be a bastion for Bavarian Catholics against steadily increasing Lutheran influence, an influence that sought not only material repossession over the convent’s assets, but religious abolition of their way of life.

Pirckheimer kept a detailed journal from 1524-1528, only recently translated into English (Pirkheimer, C., and P.A. MacKenzie. Caritas Pirckheimer: A Journal of the Reformation Years, 1524-1528. D.S. Brewer, 2006). The abbess recorded ongoing events, and reproduced (frequently bitter) letters and conversations with the newly Lutheran Nuremberg city council.

The machinations against Pirckheimer and the sheer number of intersecting historical threads in this unique moment in history are fascinating (Nuremberg’s Catholic history, Protestant hatred of religious habits, theological disputes over the validity of vows, Pirckheimer’s brother’s prominence in Humanism), but regrettably we lack the space to do them justice. Instead, we will focus on the central conflict: the nuns’ desire to live their vocation, and to receive sacraments from Catholic priests.

The Franciscan priests that the sisters had long confessed to had either apostatized or been removed by the city council. The sisters refused to confess to any non-Catholic priest, to the great frustration of the city council. When a member of the council admitted that their latest suggestion would not be a Catholic priest, Abbess Pirckheimer replied: 

Then let death confess to him! Are we to confess to a faithless apostate? If he does not keep his faith with God, how is he to display faith to us?

The lack of confessors meant that the sisters had no access to the Mass and the Sacraments.

Then he wanted to argue for a considerable time that we should receive the Holy Sacrament in both kinds in addition to other ideas. But I would not accede to him. […] On the Friday of Easter Week all the priests were summoned to the city hall and forbidden to celebrate the Latin mass…All lay priests and the priests in the monasteries with the exception of those in the parishes were forbidden to hear confession and to dispense the sacraments.

Tensions escalated as several mothers demanded the “release” of their daughters from the convent. Pirckheimer had insisted for months, both to the council and the parents, that she had no authority to release vows made between her daughters and God – a theological parry that could not have been lost on the Lutherans.

Regardless, the nuns had no wish to leave the convent. Abbess Pirckheimer recorded the violent culmination of what had been until this point, mostly a cold war:

On Wednesday, the even of St. Vitus day…the wicked women [mothers of three of the nuns] sent word to me an hour before meal time that they would come before dinner and remove their children. […] Then the women used kind words and ordered the children to leave. If, however, they would not go willingly, they would be removed by force. Then the brave knights of Christ defended themselves by word and deed as much as they could with great weeping, screaming, pleading and begging, but there was less mercy there than in hell. […]

Katherina Ebner spoke very courageously and constantly supported all her words with the Holy Scripture. She found errors in all their statements and told them how much their actions ran contrary to the Holy Gospel. Afterwards outside the men said they had never heard anything like that their whole lives. She had just spoken the whole hour without interruption. Not a word was wasted. Each word was so well chosen that it carried the weight of several words. […]

Katharina Ebner said, “Here I stand and will not yield. No one shall be able to force me out. If I am removed by force, however, it shall never be by my will in eternity. I will appeal to God in heaven and to all the world on earth.” When she was speaking Held took her under his arms and began to pull and drag her away. Then I ran away with the other sisters, for I could not watch this misery. Some sisters stopped at the chapel door. They heard the quarreling, shouting and dragging away amid the great screaming and weeping of the children. Four people grabbed each one with two pulling in front and two pushing from behind. And so the dear sisters Ebner and Teztel fell over each other at the threshold. Poor sister Teztel almost had her foot severed. The wicked women stood there and blessed their daughters as they came out in accordance to all their rituals.

Frau Ebner threatened her daughter that if she did not walk before her she would push her down the stairs to the pulpit. She threatened to throw her on the floor so hard that she would bounce. When they broke into the church amid much cursing and swearing, an incredible screaming, shouting and weeping began before they tore off the old garments of our order and dressed them with worldly clothes…The poor children cried out loudly to the people and complained that they were suffering abuse and injustice and that they had been taken from the cloister by force. Clara Nutzel called out loudly, “O beautiful Mother of God, you know this is not my will.” As they rode away many hundreds of boys and other people ran after each coach. Our children screamed and wept loudly. Frau Ebner struck her little Katharina on the mouth so that it began to bleed. When each coach arrived at her father’s house, each child began to scream and weep all over again so that the people had great pity for them.

Pirckheimer kept the convent open under unbelievable pressure, but the convent was not allowed to take on any new vocations. The convent ceased to exist when the last nun died in 1596.

After a sojourn of several centuries in Protestant and commercial hands, St. Klara’s was reconsecrated as a Catholic church in 1854, bombed in World War II, rebuilt, and in 1979 transferred to the stewardship of the Jesuits. Described as an open church on its website, their calendar includes dance performances, poetry slams, services for pets, and in what would have been baffling to past Bavarians, events for Irish music and St. Patrick’s Day.

Although the calendar of events might be unrecognizable to Abbess Pirckheimer and her daughters (who do not appear to have merited a spot on the robust calendar themselves), Claresian austerity still lingers in the bones of this long-suffering church. Some of the artwork remains by the side altars. The architecture and the choir vaults are striking in their simplicity. At the back of the church is an enormous, still-intact crucifix from 1510/1515 that Abbess Pirckheimer may have seen many times.

It is curious that such a historically and culturally unique moment bears so many similarities to our own: violence against churches, lack of regular access to sacraments, and hostility to the habit and cloistered religious life. While Abbess Pirckheimer’s story may be what J. R. R. Tolkien would call “the long defeat,” her resistance was a crucial witness for Catholics during the Reformation, and may be a strong tonic for us.

And so we were in great fear and distress and every day we expected even more misfortune. We crouched down and bent down so much that we could hardly hold divine services or ring the bells in the choir. Whenever they heard anything from us, cursing, shouting and abuse would start up in the church. They threw stones into our choir and smashed the windows in the church and sang slanderous songs in the churchyard. They frequently threatened that if we rang for Matins one more night they would do something terrible to us.

But we risked it, trusting in the Grace of God, and not for one night did we stop ringing the bells or holding Matins.

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