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Ferdinand/Indiana: German Nuns in a Benedictine Monastery

150 years ago a group of German nuns built a monastery in Ferdinand, Indiana. Sister Ildephonsa is the last of the nuns still living there today who was born in Germany.

Sister Ildephonsa arrived at the cloister in Ferdinand in 1923Image: DW

Rolling green fields, wooded hills, red-brick churches on village squares: The south of the US-state Indiana reminds many a visitor of a central German mountain region.

150 years ago, a group of German immigrants settled down on the banks of the Ohio River and founded the small town Ferdinand. The settlers were soon followed by Catholic nuns, who built a large Romanesque basilica on a hill above Ferdinand.

Every day at five in the afternoon, the cloister church bell calls the 150 nuns to evening prayer.

"I am now called Sister Ildephonsa, but my name was once Caroline Retzer. I came here in 1923, on the 16th of May."

Sister Ildephonsa left her Bavarian hometown Schwandorf 78 years ago. She is the last of the nuns in Ferdinand who was born in Germany. Originally, the 96-year-old wanted to join a convent in Germany - until the village pastor persuaded her to become a nun in America.

Ildephonsa still remembers the conversation vividly: "'You wish to become a nun,' he said. I replied yes, but that I wanted to join the Franciscans in the German village of Mahlersdorf. 'Oh no', he said, 'You will go to America.' 'Oh no,' I said, 'I don´t want to go to America, to the Red Indians.'

Eventually the pastor, whose brother was already a monk in America, got his way. Accompanied by three friends, sister Ildephonsa started her trip from Bavaria to far-away, foreign America. Here, at the Benedictine convent of Ferdinand / Indiana, the nuns worked as farmers, nurses and predominantly as teachers.

Schwester Ildephonsa
Sister Ildephonsa (left) and the convent's archivist Sister Mary Dominic Frederic (right)Image: DW

They were German speaking and they came here to teach the German immigrant students at the St. Ferdinand parish in the town. The town was founded in 1840 and we came here in 1867," the convent's archivist Sister Mary Dominic Frederic recalls. The sisters changed the official convent language from German to English during the First World War.

Today, they are eager to find out more about their German heritage. Some German phrases have still remained until today, as Sister Mary Dominic Frederic explains: Guten Morgen. Schlafen sie gut. Was ist los? Das ist richtig - and all that."

At present, the old convent diaries in the monastery archive are being translated. They will be put on the internet. Close ties still exist between the convent in Ferdinand / Indiana and its German roots in the Bavarian town of Eichstätt. Sister Mary Phillip Berger visited Eichstätt to study there, after having learnt German prior to her visit. ´

"My whole family is German, but they don´t speak the German language. I was in Germany and talked to the sisters there. I love Germany and the German culture."