History of the Congregation
In October 1844, a Swiss Capuchin pastor and social activist, Fr Theodosius Florentini, and Sr Bernarda Heimgartner, a young Swiss teacher with two young companions, founded the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross of Menzingen. They introduced a new type of religious life in Europe whereby the sisters lived in the villages among the people and taught in parish or community schools. Fr Theodosius wanted “Sisters who understand the Cross”. The founding sisters responded to the need which presented itself in the society of that time; namely the Catholic education of young girls who would be future mothers of families. Fr Theodosius understood that when the person is formed through a good Christian education, then the society can be transformed.
Mother Bernarda committed herself to promote the life of other people through education. She saw education and the formation of people as promoting the good already within them.
Our Founder, Fr Theodosius was a visionary and at the same time was practical and committed. He understood the distress of his time and intervened by setting up counter-measures. He saw the importance of Catholic schools among the people. He needed sisters “who can fit in anywhere”, who have the courage to walk new ways, women who lived by faith and were open to people and their needs. Mother Bernarda and her companions wanted to walk this new way, and were prepared to live and work among the people in the villages and thus respond to the needs of their times.
Within a short time the Congregation grew in numbers. The Menzingen Holy Cross Sisters were the first Swiss-founded Congregation to send out missionaries to four other continents including Africa. In 1883, four pioneer sisters, one novice and one candidate came to the small white garrison town of Umtata (now Mthatha) in South Africa. The local Bishop asked them to set up a school for Catholics – the children of settlers and soldiers. Here they started a little school and within a short space of time, they also took initiatives to evangelise the local Xhosa people. The sisters struggled to adjust to their new environment, contending with poverty and hardships. They realised the importance of the call of the gospel to serve the poor and the needy; especially women and children.
Gradually more missionary sisters came to respond to the needs of the surrounding countries of Southern Africa. The Holy Cross Sisters (mainly from Switzerland and Germany) arrived in Lesotho (1908), Namibia (1922), Ireland (1922), Zambia (1936) and Zimbabwe (1957). They worked in Botswana in the 1930’s. They came with the intention of responding to the “needs of the times” in whatever part of the world they went. Over the years, they established schools, training colleges, children’s homes, clinics and hospitals wherever there was a need to be answered. By the end of 2007, there were 2,013 sisters living and working in 259 communities in Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
In Africa the Congregation now has four Provinces: South Africa (Namibia, Zimbabwe and Ireland), Lesotho, Cape Province and the Zambian Province. Some 295 sisters are living and serving in the African Provinces. Holy Cross sisters gradually engaged in many different apostolates in the fields of education, health care, social work and pastoral work. Ministries are performed at parish, diocesan, national and international levels. Women who join the Congregation are trained to serve in these areas according to their abilities and the needs of the time.
During the 2007 Chapter, (this is where sisters from all the Provinces in the four continents come together to share and discuss) chose human dignity and human rights as the focus of the Congregation for the next 6 years:
Jesus came so that every person may have life and have it abundantly. Following Jesus and being true to the vision of our founders, we commit ourselves to respect, protect and promote life. We uphold the dignity and rights of every person. We stand in solidarity with the disadvantaged especially women and children”.
Members from Africa declared: “We want to highlight: Reaction to HIV/Aids; empowerment of women, to alleviate poverty, raising the voice – speaking up for victims, care of the environment”.
In 2013, the sisters met again to review life in the Provinces. The vision of the Congregational Leadership Team was the following”:
“We, the Sisters of the Holy Cross, believe that God calls us today: to be women of hope empowered by the Word”.
As Leaders of the Congregation, they stated:
We are committed to awaken new energies in the Congregation, so that every sister is passionate about a meaningful life and innovative ministries.
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope”. (Jer 29, 11)
A charism is an ongoing experience of the Holy Spirit who leads in the embodiment of a particular facet of the Risen Jesus, the Word incarnate among us. The richness of the Holy Cross charism and spirituality continues to deepen as the sisters live it out in various cultures and contexts. The most recent “official” written expression of the charism runs thus:
“The mystery of the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to our spirituality as Sisters of the Holy Cross. According to the Gospel and the challenges of our time, we risk new ways and commit ourselves to promote life. In a holistic approach to persons, we encourage them to recognise and use their gifts and talents. In collaboration with others we awaken hope and contribute to the transformation of society”.
Spirituality of the Holy Cross Sisters:
In the midst of limitations and needs, we commit ourselves to promote life:
The Sisters follow the Franciscan Rule and their full name is Sisters of the Holy Cross of the Third Order Regular of St Francis. Elements of the vision, spirituality and personality of Fr Theodosius and of Mother Bernarda and her first companions found their way into the lived charism of the Congregation.
The name “Holy Cross” was chosen by the three founding sisters to express their experience of sharing in the Cross of Jesus Christ; and through the Cross, in the victory of Jesus. Like the seedlings in the ground, we believe that new life springs from dying and death. The mystery of death and resurrection testifies that out of death new life can grow. Thus we have formulated in our motto: “In the Cross is Salvation” We sisters want to enter into this mystery personally and as community.
This spirituality is one of identification with the Paschal Mystery ; of trust in Divine Providence in the midst of all difficulties; of hope; of cheerful, practical, loving service to meet the needs of people especially of girls, women and children; of living community; of prayer, of meditation on the Gospels, of confidence in Mary, our Mother….
“In the Cross is Salvation”. This promise will become the experience of the people to whom we devote our energies: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and announce a year of favour of the Lord”. (Isaiah 61, 1ff) It is in this way we wish to continue the work of Jesus in the world today.
There were two fundamental , complementary directions exemplified in the lives of the founding generation of sisters: trust as if all depends on God, promote life in the midst of limits, as if all depends on us. (“Spirit of the Founding-Time – Heritage from Yesterday – Challenge for Today, Sr Finbarr Coffey)
The Founding sisters experienced God as a kind and loving Father who is always well disposed towards each person. This was the source of strength in her suffering and the spring from which all her activity flowed. She also believed in God’s Providence, meaning that God sees what is good for us in advance, and he leads us to that place which is good for us. In her understanding, God’s will is revealed to us in and through concrete situations. Through reflecting, thinking the matter through, the human being, by integrating faith and reason, can discover God’s design in the world.
Becoming a Holy Cross Sister
Young women from Africa who feel called by God and who wish to become Holy Cross Sisters are received in the respective Provinces and complete an orientation phase in Lesotho, Zambia or Cape town. If they wish to join the South African Province, they are admitted as candidates in Aliwal North, Windhoek or Bondolfi, Zimbabwe. At a certain stage these postulants (from South Africa) begin a two year novitiate at the Formation House in Johannesburg and they join the life of the Sisters in an ordinary community for two periods. After these two years, they make first Profession of vows which is normally for a period of six years.
Our call today:
Our being at the service of life is closely related to our life lived according to the evangelical counsels. The unchanging core activity of the Holy Cross sisters is to be on a spiritual journey with Jesus: commitment to prayer, living the vowed life of celibacy, poverty and obedience in line with our charism and in the context of time and place.
Like our founders, we are called to a profound trust in God our loving Father and in Divine Providence. God looks after and guides us to those places where we are needed. We need to be people who can respond in a practical, concrete way to the needs of our times, because in those needs we find the will of God for us. Our aim is to transform the society and community where we live and work. We seek to promote life-giving and self-reliant communities.