Born near Limburg, western Germany in 1935, and baptised Hildegard Magdalen Hohmann, Mother Francesca grew up under a totalitarian regime that did not even allow left-handers, like her, to use their dominant side. The Church was her home between air-raids.
She described it as follows.
“It was a time of great tension and anxiety, not only because of the intensified war situation, but, far worse, because of the increasing pressure of police supervision. Everyone watched everyone else. Teachers made it their business to find out what was talked about in the family and frequently mothers were warned and taken to task. One day it was my turn to tell my mother that she was sent for by the headmaster.
“When she came home she sat me on her knee and said: ‘You must not tell the teacher what Mummy has said at home.’ Next day, I conveyed to my teacher that Mamma was displeased for me to tell what she had said to Granny. Whereupon Mummy was invited to a second interview. She was ashen when she returned and from that time onward became very reticent in our presence. It is very hard to convey to those who have not experienced it what it feels like to be constantly watched.”
Mother Francesca’s father had been a court recorder. He was a too outspoken critic of the National Socialist Party and was unofficially warned that the only thing which would save him from arrest was immediate entry into the armed forces. He came home from prison camp in 1945 disillusioned and bitter; when his idealistic daughter told him she wanted to be a nun, he struck her.
One of the last things she said to her secretary was, “Never lose your first ideals!” At eighty-six they were still with her.
Forced to mark time until her twenty-first birthday, she studied German literature at Frankfurt University and worked in a Jewish restitution centre.
“There were celebrations for my 21st Birthday. My father said: ‘I know you are going to be a nun! Go your way!’ Previous to that I had been on retreat… I had a most extraordinary experience. In my mind’s eye, I saw before me a small sized man in a brown habit who beckoned me to follow him, we entered an underground passage and at times the heat seemed unbearable.
“When I felt almost unable to carry on the passage widened into a cave, lit up brightly by many candles, many people - men and women - were there who welcomed us. We were led to a seat and saw a majestic figure... then the picture vanished.”
Mother Francesca was not prone to visions. She entered the Sisters of Catholic Action (the Palottines) in 1956. The order despatched her to Hull University to get a degree in Latin and Greek. Her Latin was fine, but she had rapidly to augment her schoolgirl English. She got through Greek by memorising a random hundred lines of Euripides and by a miracle it happened to be the text on the paper.
Within a matter of weeks of what should have been her final profession, and already having her appointment to teach in a seminary in Belize, she accompanied a fellow student on a visit to the Poor Clare Colettines in Notting Hill. The friend went on to do something else, Sister Hildegard stayed to join the community.
Made Novice Mistress immediately after her Solemn Profession as a Poor Clare
, she later wrote: “As we are made in the image and likeness of God the aim of formation is to develop and bring to fruition the existing pattern with which every person is born. Sometimes parents try to create a child in their own image; the result can be really devastating.
“The whole purpose of educating is to lead out the existing gifts and talents which God has provided. ‘Talents’ are not only extraordinary gifts – ‘talents’ are all gifts that God has bestowed on us… Anybody can live our way of life. There is nothing in the gospel way of life that is beyond human reach. The basic requirement of our Poor Clare existence is the willingness to relate to God and to neighbour. Willingness to relate is to be open to another person and community life provides plenty of opportunities.”
God gave her a succession of people of widely differing backgrounds on whom to experiment. In 1982 she was asked to re-found the Poor Clare Colettine Community – Ty Mam Duw – in Hawarden, North Wales. She was willing to build up anew and the sisters fought their way through five acres of waist-high brambles and neglected infrastructure, taking care of six elderly sisters.
Creating one of the most media-friendly monasteries in Britain, she was induced to make twenty-two televised appearances, innumerable radio broadcasts, print articles and ten CDs. Like the music she and her sisters produced this was an intrinsic part of a life lived to the full.
“Enclosure provides an environment in which things begin to happen. One has to keep in mind that the community consists of strangers… Basically, one has to begin with a very simple, repetitive and predictable situation in order to arrive at a genuine willingness to share what is most precious in us – just as in family life, this will not happen overnight...One needs to understand that human relationships take time and effort. Not only praying together but also working together and sharing daily meals slowly provides a nurturing ground for human relationships.”
For over thirty years she gave days of recollection to the thousands of retreatants who came to Ty Mam Duw. Though she had a brilliant intellect, Mother Francesca was able to communicate with complete simplicity. Ordinary people quote back to the sisters decades later, things she said to Liverpool parishes, Franciscan tertiaries, women’s groups and ecumenical gatherings. A former Capuchin Provincial wrote: “She was my spiritual director when I was a novice, so I’m hoping she will remember me in her prayers from heaven!” He is one of many.
One of the language translators of her order’s international communications, she also worked for the German scholar, Hermann Schneider OFM, a personal friend, and the Swiss Capuchin, Niklaus Kuster. She even obliged the Irish Jesuits translating articles by Joseph Ratzinger!
In 2018, now, like Benedict XIV, an emeritus, she accepted the proposition to tear down what had taken thirty-six years to build, in order to move to an inner city monastery in Nottingham situated in a parish community as international as her own. Frailer now in health, she lived what she had written in commentary on the testament of St Colette.
As we grow older, this brings us to an unavoidable confrontation with the truth: we find, to our surprise, that the last part of our journey to God – insofar as letting go of so much – is not as easy as it appeared from the blush of youth. If we have equated our self-worth with what we do, rather than with what we are, the letting go will be a great trial filled with much pain, for we will find ourselves asking, inevitably, what there is left to live for? How wonderful to see in a mature person the sense of worth based on being and not on doing. This is attaining to wisdom. Surely the practice of material poverty has one, and only one aim: to assist us in learning to let go, and to learn to trust. A shroud has no pocket!”
Fully alive to the end, she formed a generation of Franciscan women and taught, wrote and prepared for a future that she knew she would not see; she was a game-changer in religious life and her witness touched and changed others.
An innocent victim of the Covid, she was taken to hospital for unconnected health issues, and caught the virus on the ward. Her standard reply was “nothing is impossible to God.”
Mother Francesca died in Queen’s hospital while Mother Damian and her infirmarians were praying the angelus around her bed, renewing their vows. Mother Francesca stopped breathing during the prayer.
Mother Francesca, born 17 August 1935, Limburg, Germany; died 13 March 2021, Nottingham, UK.
Sister Maria Juliana of Gethsemane is a member of the Marian House of the Holy Spirit Community of Poor Clare Colettines, in Bulwell, Nottingham
Mother Francesca’s funeral mass will be on facebook LIVE and will be posted later on YouTube. It starts at 9am of March 25, The Feast of the Annunciation.