A common expression summed up the place of women in German society in the 1900s: Kinder, Küche, Kirche or “Children, Kitchen, Church.” Such expectations did nothing to stop Hildegard Burjan, a laywoman with chronic health problems, from becoming socially and politically active during the World War I era. With God’s help, Hildegard saw what she called “the distress of the times” and responded with love.
Searching for Truth. Hildegard was born on January 30, 1883, the second daughter of Abraham and Berta Freund, a Jewish couple living in Prussian Silesia (an area on the border of modern-day Germany and Poland). Although her family was not religiously observant, spiritual questions simmered under the surface of Hildegard’s quick mind. Her curiosity was piqued by nuns walking in a garden and praying the psalms. Hildegard quizzed her agnostic mother about them, asking, What is a nun? Where is God? Why are they praying? As the story goes, when her mother couldn’t answer her questions, little Hildegard responded, “How good it must be to be able to pray to God.” She added, “My God, I also want to pray.” But throughout high school in Berlin, she concentrated on intellectual pursuits, more interested in becoming an “ethical person” than in clothing or parties.
Hildegard’s family encouraged her secular education, and she obtained a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Zurich—one of the few women to do so at the time. While there, she encountered the teachings of Protestant professors Robert Saitzchik and Friedrich Foerster, who explained that humans are capable of knowing God. While deeply attracted to the concept, she struggled with doubt. She begged, “My God, if you exist, let me find you!” But five years went by before she received an answer.
“Helpless” without God. In 1907, Hildegard returned to Berlin to study economics and social policy. There she met and married an engineer named Alexander Burjan, a fellow agnostic and seeker of truth. In their second year of marriage, Hildegard became debilitated with abdominal pain. Between October 1908 and the following spring, she endured several operations at St. Hedwig’s Catholic Hospital, run by the Sisters of Mercy of St. Borromeo.
Around Holy Week, Hildegard’s doctors gave up hope that she would survive. Then on Easter, with no explanation, she took a miraculous turn for the better. Over the next seven months, Hildegard received compassionate care from the Sisters of Mercy and came to believe in God. She wrote, “Only the Catholic Church can achieve this miracle of filling an entire community with such a spirit. . . . Man, left to only his natural faculties, cannot do what these Sisters do. In seeing them, I experienced the power of grace.”
Within a few months of returning to her home and her husband, Hildegard joined the Catholic Church—a minority church in Lutheran Germany. She had come to see the limits of intellectual knowledge. “It is not by human wisdom alone that we can do good,” she wrote, “but only in union with Christ. In him we can do all things; without him, we are completely helpless.”
A Growing Awareness. Hildegard accepted her physical recovery and subsequent spiritual rebirth as a gift from God and a turning point. She wrote, “This newly given life must belong totally to God and to all mankind.” Alexander and Hildegard soon relocated to Austria, a Catholic country, thanks to a prominent job opportunity that Alexander was offered.
In Vienna, Hildegard enrolled in “social courses” that graphically described the problems facing the city’s poor people. She learned about men, women, and children who worked fifteen hours a day in factories for pitiful wages. Domestic workers—young ladies who lacked education and social influence—were so underpaid that they prostituted themselves to make ends meet. Hildegard was appalled.
Activism had to take a back seat, however, when she became pregnant. The pregnancy was difficult, and doctors encouraged her to terminate it. She refused, saying, “That would be murder. If I die, I will then be a victim of my ‘profession’ of mother, but the child must live.” The delivery went well, and her daughter, Lisa, was born in August 1910. It was around the same time that Alexander entered the Catholic Church.
Hildegard continued to divide her time between charity work and family life. Alexander had quickly risen to become the cofounder of Austria’s first broadcasting company. This gave his wife an influential array of acquaintances, including prominent Catholics and clergymen. At an annual Catholic women’s league event, she charged the attendees to be thoughtful consumers, explaining to them how their desire for low-priced goods could, indirectly, pressure manufacturers to underpay their workers. “Let us examine if we are not complicit in the misery of the people,” she said.
Vienna’s Conscience. Hildegard’s drive toward social activism took a major step forward in 1912. That year she founded an association to advocate for struggling female workers without political influence to receive “equal pay for equal work,” legal assistance, and education. Hildegard also drew attention to the fact that one-third of Vienna’s children (as young as age six) were forced to work in factories. She wrote a pamphlet about this injustice and sparked a public debate.
In November of 1918, World War I ended, and Austria formed a new, independent government. Hildegard was nominated and elected as the only female member of the Christian Socialist Party. She became a confident and influential presence in Parliament. During a two-year term, Hildegard helped secure funding for young women’s education. She introduced legal protections for children, expectant and nursing mothers, and underpaid domestic workers. The head of her party said he had never met a wiser politician, and the archbishop of Vienna called Hildegard the “conscience of Parliament.”
In fact, Hildegard saw that it was exactly that—her conscience, shaped by the gospel—that compelled her to engage in social action. She had long been thinking about gathering together a community of consecrated Catholic women who would help the poor and downtrodden because they were compelled by God’s love, as she was. So Hildegard began pursuing this dream while still serving in office and declined to pursue reelection, citing ill health and family duties. She successfully won the archbishop’s support for her order, called Caritas Socialis, and found ten women willing to live in community in the inner city. Her sisters located and supported homeless women, prostitutes, and single women tempted to abort their children by relieving their destitution and inviting them to “new life in Christ.”
Hildegard served as its superior, despite the fact that she remained a married woman in her own home. This unorthodox arrangement brought criticism from some fellow Catholics. But Hildegard was defended by the archbishop, who called her presence in his diocese “a grace.”
Battling Personal Flaws. Balancing the needs of her community with her role as wife and mother was never easy for Hildegard. At times she said that she felt like a failure to her only daughter, with whom she had a contentious relationship. But despite her familial duties—and developing diabetes—Hildegard kept an exhausting schedule as the head of Caritas.
By now in her forties, Hildegard saw these ongoing difficulties as a battleground for virtue. She wrote to one of her sisters, “Believe me, for everyone life is a battle. Aware of it or not, each of us advances slowly on the rocky road to Calvary. Let us thank God for giving us the opportunity to climb it and, by his light, to enable us to see our faults.”
Hildegard said her secret to accomplishing all that she did was prayer. Every morning she observed a Eucharistic fast while keeping Alexander company at the breakfast table so that she could receive Communion at Mass after he went to work. At the time, the fast started at midnight and included both food and water, but Hildegard never asked for a dispensation. “I will rest and sleep only when I am underground,” she said.
Hildegard did, in fact, die prematurely at the age of fifty. Before her death, she thanked Alexander for their “beautiful years” together, saying, “I have been very happy with you.”
Consoling the Distressed. Blessed Hildegard Burjan dedicated her life to the truth, which she came to believe was most profoundly expressed by acts of Christian charity. As she herself explained, “Over the course of the centuries . . . in the face of each distress that has presented itself, the Catholic Church has sent forth men filled with the Holy Spirit to remedy it. Perhaps in its turn, our Caritas might, in the midst of modern paganism, appear as its own branch on the trunk of the Church.”
Indeed, Hildegard’s small branch of Caritas Socialis in Austria has grown to become nine hundred sisters and lay associates around the world. Their apostolates include care of pregnant women and the elderly, especially those in hospice and those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. “At the beginning and end of life,” Hildegard perceptively pointed out, “people need special care.”
Blessed Hildegard Burjan’s motivation to care for people in need didn’t grow weak even when her own body did. Although she retired from political office, she never retired from a life of service. Hildegard’s pursuit of the truth, from childhood onward, had led her to the reality that God is love. And just like the Sisters of Mercy at St. Hedwig’s Hospital, she brought the “heaven” of this truth down to earth by the way she treated people who were struggling.
Woodeene Koenig-Bricker lives in Eugene, Oregon.