Katharina Stornig, Sisters Crossing Boundaries:German Missionary Nuns in Colonial Togo and New Guinea, 1897–1960 (Göttingen

: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht), 2013.
Specialized historical studies serve historians in ways which general overviews do not: they ‘fill in the gaps’ of our general knowledge with specific and tangible ‘proofs’ of general trends. Stornig’s meticulously researched volume illuminates the attempts of the Catholic Church to evangelize the inhabitants of Togo and New Guinea at a critical time in its history. It is, in point of fact, Stornig’s revised Doctoral dissertation. Stornig introduces her work, observing It was only in the last third of the nineteenth century that women were admitted to the Catholic mission fields in larger numbers. Yet, even though at that time many women, like Helena Stollenwerk, enthusiastically volunteered to serve the renascent Catholic missionary movement, they were considered as the subordinate assistants to men. The notion of the roles of nuns in missions as a function supplementing the proselytizing activities of priests also determined the ideas of founder Janssen, who in 1891 codified the Servants of the Holy Spirit’s »principle purpose« by the task »to aid the works of the Society of the Divine Word’s priests« in the fields »especially through those kinds of work that naturally better befit women than men« (p. 10). She then continues From this point of view, it is hard to imagine that the nuns formed an important part of (the organization of) Catholic life in German Togo and New Guinea and impacted on the social relations in both colonies more generally (ibid).

And then she goes on to show, in her study, exactly how significant the work of these women was, claiming The lack of attention paid to missionary nuns active in Togo and New Guinea mirrors three larger trends in colonial and mission historiography addressing both regions. First, most historians have focused on Protestant missionaries, a fact that can be explained by the better accessibility of Protestany missionary archives and their less complex, as compared with the Catholic case, institutional involvement. Second, it reflects the strikingly persistent perception of colonialism as a masculine undertaking which has shaped the analysis of empires for decades. Third, it relates to the type of archives that historians have consulted and the kind of evidence they have preferred. Women are under-represented both in colonial and Church archives. Unlike their husbands, the wives of Protestant missionaries had no obligation to write to institutions at home or journal editors. Nor were private letters to relatives recorded in archives or considered by researchers, who would examine the missions’ political and economic significance instead (pp. 1516). Stornig’s style is vivid, she’s a masterful storyteller. Her ability to relate events interestingly and effectively is the mark of both a good historian and good historical writing. Given the fact that her work, in over 400 pages, elevates the place of women in Catholic missionary work in one small corner of the world, it provides readers with an open window on that Church when it was more willing to embrace women in ministry than it presently is. Perhaps, if the Catholic Church one day wishes to be as open as it once was, it will be so because it has taken the time to understand its own history. Stornig commences her Conclusion thusly (after citing a letter from a missionary nun): On a steamship headed towards Togo, enterprising neo-missionary Sister Eulalia Hewing chose these words to open the letter she addressed to her fellow sisters, who had remained behind. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Catholic women in Germany (just as in other European countries) participated actively in the the revival of the Catholic missionary movement and responded enthusiastically to the growing admission of women to the mission fields. One important result of this was the foundation of several missionary congregations for nuns that, in the long run, caused the feminization of the Catholic missionary forces. In contrast to many priests and missiologists, however, who conceived of the nuns’ move abroad as contributing to the evangelizing work of priests, many of them, like Sister Eulalia, claimed to travel in an apostolic function. Missionary nuns in fact transcended the Catholic gendered notion of what it meant to be a disciple; for, they – as women religious – appropriated apostolic ideas to their own ministry (p. 381).

This rather extensive quote, in a series of extensive quotes, is included in hopes that potential readers, who are sometimes put off by specific sounding titles (and instead opt for more ‘exciting’ ones like ‘The Jesus Family Tomb’ or ‘The Wife of Jesus’) will realize how important this volume is (in contrast to the spectacular titles, which seldom turn out to be worthy of a hearing or reading) and will pick up a copy and work through it. Those who do will be richly rewarded and their appreciation for formerly unknown women will grow by leaps and bounds. We stand on the shoulders of giants. Some of them just happen to be women.

Jim West Quartz Hill School of Theology

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