Fr. Theodosius Florentini OFM Cap. was an undefatigable social activist and advocate of the poor in Switzerland. Like St. Francis of Assisi he believed in the power of the Cross and committed himself to the upliftment of the poor. He believed that “The need of the time is the will of God”. This was the principle which in 1844 led Fr. Theodosius Florentini to call his institute of Sisters into existence. He says, “as long as there is a poor child in the world, I cannot think of myself”. He exhorted the sisters. “I need sisters who understand the Cross”.
Mother Bernarda Heimgartner was a prudent, courageous young woman religious with a great dream. She stood firm in her deepest convictions in the face of stiff male domination in a strongly patriarchal culture in the society and in the Church. Fr Theodosius and Mother Bernarda believed in the liberative and transforming power of Christian Education and they concentrated on mass education of the poor and the underprivileged girl children and young women in transforming the society as the Kingdom of God.
Fr. Theodosius Florentini
Father Theodosius was a great personality of the 19th century. He was well known and highly respected, feared and loved restlessly active to renew social work in the spirit of the Church. He recognized and understood the signs of his times. He made study possible for Maria Anna and he nurtured in her the vision for the future.
In one of his sermons on 31st December 1853 he spoke of the “universal sickness of the society”- namely the specific signs of the times- religious indifference, irreligiosity, lack of faith, immorality, materialism, an inner worldly humanity, a merely rational attention to the sick and the poor and the consequences of work in factories. In all these he recognized a challenge for the Church. And he believed that in the first place it should be religious who would agitate. They should walk ahead and prepare the way for the Church among the people. This they should through Christian education. Father Theodosius was urged on by an unheard of optimism. This optimism was grounded in an unlimited trust in God and trust in fellow human beings.
His wide vision, his organizational talents and his personal commitment gave rise to the titles:
The Spirituality of Mother Bernarda - Co - Foundress
Mother Bernarda formed the young congregation and influenced it by her Spirituality. Mother Bernarda's courageous commitment to the education of the young, her faithfulness for the work she had began and her determination for a new life-style of insertion in the midst of poor people occurred at a cost of high price.
Faith and Life form one United Whole
Lukas Businger writes in his diary about Mother Bernarda, 24 June 1863:
"The greatness of her soul shows itself more clearly in her life than in her words".
This lived Spirituality also becomes evident from Mother Bernarda's letters. They reveal a woman who is able to deal with concrete realities of life and is able to make decisions in the light of deep faith, e.g. Mother Bernarda resists to accept private teaching posts with rich and influential people. We especially meet this strong and courageous young woman in situations of crisis and opposition. She does not allow herself to be intimidated by her opponents. She does not allow the essentials of religious life to be watered down. Mother Bernarda is a woman with a clear-headed sense of duty, an ability to put up with injustice. She is always able to forgive.
Mother Bernarda lives out of the Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus
Her greatness lay in her steadfastness. Neither external opposition nor inner hurts could make her deviate from the good she recognized in the task undertaken. The adherence to this clarity in her direction caused her great suffering. "She chose the Cross, she bore the Cross she was victorious in the Cross."
In the Cross is Salvation
The young congregation grew rapidly after her early death (13 December 1863). Many young people, especially girls, were given the chance of good Christian education and were equipped with practical skills for life. Above all they received a clear orientation for life based on faith.
In hopeless situations Mother Bernarda put her trust in God
In Mother Bernarda's life one desperate situation and disappointment followed another with the exception of only a few years of quiet. With this dark background the brightness of her unshakeable trust in God shines out even more clearly. To burdensome situations she responded spontaneously with an act of trust in the "loving Father" and then continued her task with renewed energy.
Mother Bernarda loved her Sisters
At the age of 22 Mother Bernarda took responsibility for the steadily growing community of sisters. She loved the sisters and was very sensitive to the needs of each of them. In difficulties and dissensions she gave the sisters a sense of security through her clear orientation. At the same time she respected each one's decision made according to her conscience.
Mother Bernarda on her way
In order to enable them to do their training as teaching-sisters Maria Anna and her two companions had, for political reasons, already at an early age to leave their home-country. Because of the political upheaval in their own country they could only undertake their training outside Switzerland.
After their First Profession in Altdorf the three young sisters moved to Menzingen to open a school there. In the years to come the service to mission required the sisters to be frequently moving on and this mostly by foot. Between 1844 and 1863 Mother Bernarda opened 59 schools and homes.