She was known for her kindness and concern for others, despite suffering from heart problems that sometimes left her bedridden for periods of time.
She took a risk in sending religious sisters from Germany to northern Indiana, a land completely unknown to them, to help German immigrants trying to build lives here.
On Sunday, Mother Maria Theresia Bonzel will move one step closer to being the second Catholic woman saint with ties to the local Catholic diocese. Her order also continues to have a significant impact here and elsewhere in the United States in the fields of education and health care.
Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and four religious sisters from the University of Saint Francis are traveling to Paderborn, Germany, for the beatification Mass the Catholic Church will hold there Sunday for Bonzel.
The local sisters — all members of the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration order Bonzel founded in 1863 — planned to leave Wednesday for the ceremony. Rhoades will leave Friday. Both groups will be gone about a week.
Beatification is the third of four steps in the Catholic Church's process for declaring a person a saint. For Bonzel to reach beatification, Pope Francis had to decree — after church investigation — that a miracle had taken place after prayer asking her to intercede with God.
In her case, it involves a then-4-year-old, Colorado boy who was healed from an illness in 1999.
For her to become a saint, church investigators must determine her intercession with God resulted in a second miracle.
St. Mother Theodore Guerin went through a similar process before being declared a saint in 2006.
Guerin, a French nun, came to Indiana in 1840 and founded the Sisters of Providence religious order at St. Mary-of-the-Woods near Terre Haute. In 1846, she also helped found St. Augustine Academy, the first Catholic school in Fort Wayne.
The Rev. Solanus Casey, a member of the Capuchin order of friars who was stationed from 1946-1956 at St. Felix Friary in Huntington, also is going through the process toward sainthood. Casey, who died in 1957 in Detroit, was declared venerable in 1995, the second of the four steps to sainthood.
The Sisters of St. Francis members from University of Saint Francis who are attending Bonzel's beatification Mass are President Sister M. Elise Kriss, Sister Anita Holzmer, Sister Felicity Dorsett and Sister Mary Evelyn Govert.
The sisters also plan to attend another ceremony marking Bonzel's beatification on Monday in Olpe, Germany, where she was born Sept. 17, 1830, and later founded their religious order.
“She is the person I think we most try to emulate after Jesus,” Govert said Monday. “The more I read about her — she was a very caring person.
“For the order, some sisters, especially the older ones, they have been looking forward to this for a very long time,” she added.
Govert said Bonzel's beatification also represents an affirmation of her choice to found the order based on the model of St. Francis of Assisi, who practiced simplicity, humility and service to the church.
“In her writings, she continually offered praise and thanks to God for his kindness, goodness and mercy,” Rhoades said during his homily at an Oct. 13 Mass celebrating the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Sisters of St. Francis order. “She was much like St. Francis, who never tired of singing the glories of God.”
Life of service
The first Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration came to the United States and Indiana in 1875, Govert said.
At the time, the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne included the northern half of the state. Bishop Joseph Dwenger, who became the second bishop of the diocese in 1872, had traveled to Rome for a meeting with the Pope and stopped in Olpe, Germany, while overseas.
Dwenger was seeking German-speaking religious sisters to minister to the many German immigrants in his diocese, Govert said.
At the same time, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had been trying to suppress the Catholic Church, she said. The German government prevented religious orders such as Bonzel's from starting new ministries and from accepting more women into their ranks.
Bonzel sent several sisters to the Diocese of Fort Wayne, where they settled in Lafayette and founded a hospital to providing nursing care, a history on the University of Saint Francis website (www.sf.edu) said. The sisters also began educating the children of German families.
They also started a school in 1890 to train more sisters as teachers, the history said. The school continued to grow, eventually becoming Saint Francis College in 1940. Needing to expand, the college moved in 1944 to the former Bass Mansion and grounds in Fort Wayne, its current location.
Despite periodic ill health, Bonzel came to the diocese two or three times to see her order's sisters working here, Govert said.
It's not known if she ever came to Fort Wayne, Govert said. She also wouldn't have met the future St. Mother Theodore Guerin, who died in 1856.
Members of Bonzel's religious order have had significant impact in the Fort Wayne area, particularly in education.
Along with the University of Saint Francis, members of the order taught at the former St. Andrew Catholic Church, St. Therese Catholic School, Bishop Luers High School and the former Huntington Catholic High School.
They still teach at Marian High School in Mishawaka and St. Anthony Catholic School in South Bend.
The religious order also started a health care system now known as the Franciscan Alliance, which includes 13 hospitals and numerous medical practices in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan, the organization says on its website, www.franciscanalliance.org.
It is headquartered in Mishawaka, but it doesn't have any health-care facilities in the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese.
In addition, the beatification of Bonzel, who died Feb. 6, 1905, in Germany, and the sainthood of Guerin could provide inspiration for people in this diocese, Govert said.
Both women were strong in their faith, she said, and both started numerous ministries on very little money.
“It kind of draws people's attention to the commitments they made and the work they did,” she said.