Hansen chronicles the sad fates of five nuns who perished on an ocean voyage to America in 1875, fleeing Chancellor Otto Bismarck’s anti-Catholic Second Reich. The nuns’ tragedy is commemorated in a lengthy poem written by a Jesuit seminarian in Wales, Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Reading the newspaper accounts about the ill-fated vessel, Deutschland, and its hapless passengers, Hopkins is inspired to pen a lengthy verse of the ordeal of the five young women, their attraction to the religious life, and the short journey before they are swallowed by the sea. Unfortunately, in hewing closely to the truth, the author sacrifices some of the passion that surrounds this truly tragic tale.
On the other hand, Hansen gives a rigorous accounting, an in-depth perspective of the changing political times, the deepening prejudices against the Roman Catholic Church and the eagerness with which these dedicated young nuns embrace their vocations. Each nun is remarkable in her own right, forsaking prosperity and family to join an order dedicated to the poor, having little to their names but the generosity of hearts devoted to God’s will: “Little birds must fly.”
Sister Barbara Hultenschmidt, 32; Sister Roberta Reinkober, 30; Sister Henrietta Fassbender, 28; Sister Brigitta Dammhorst, 27; and Sister Aurea Badziura, 23, have left their beloved motherhouse, traveling second class on the Deutschland. To avoid the chaos and potential dangers of steerage, the five young women enjoy their more expensive quarters, spirits high as a new adventure in America awaits. (Although others are saved, these brave nuns hold hands, praying until God delivers them to heaven, are not among those rescued.)
When the vessel is assailed by a terrible storm thirty miles off its charted course, the iron lifeboats are released, canvas lifejackets provided to passengers. The ordeal is harrowing, even in Hansen’s sterile prose. The ship takes on water, cargo is jettisoned, passengers and crew alike cooperating in their efforts to survive the storm. But lifeboats are swamped by gigantic waves, desperate people clinging to rigging only to lose purchase and fall into the waiting sea, fear naked in the eyes of terrified crew and travelers.
The first to be swept away is Sister Henrica, her heavy habit first an anchor then a shroud in the icy depths. Throughout the night of December 7th, iron lifeboats are torn away by a fierce wind, hope vanishing with them. The ship becomes “an island of affliction and torture.” Even the young Jesuit meets an early death, as though somehow tied to the sisters, a short chapter closed, the brief flame of five generous and enthusiastic nuns and the man who would memorialize their untimely deaths:
“No rescue, only rocket and lightship shone,
And lives at last were washing away.”