St. Maria Crescentia Höss
Memorial: April 5
In the old days, nuns didn’t live by themselves in apartments. In fact, most of the time, they were completely cloistered. That meant once you entered, you were with the same group of women for the rest of your life.
Well, what if it had been your heart’s desire from the time you were a little child to enter a religious order, but once you did, you learned that most of those women with whom you were going to spend the rest of your life pretty much hated you and devoted their lives to making yours a living hell?
That is pretty much the story of St. Maria Crescentia Höss, a Bavarian religious who lived in the late 17th, early 18th centuries.
Given the name Anna at her birth on October 20, 1682, she was the seventh child of eight born to a weaver and his wife. Pope St. John Paul II said, “God gave her a beautiful voice. Already as a young lady she could sing a solo part, not to display herself but to sing and to play for Christ the King.”
Only two of her siblings reached adulthood with her. Life was hard for the poor, especially in cold countries like Germany where the winters are long and hard and where, back then, the housing was not always weather tight.
Indeed, although Anna was extremely devout, her family was so poor that it could not afford the expected dowry.
In our day, we can’t understand why anyone with a firm religious vocation would need a dowry to enter the monastery.
In Anna’s case the reason was simple. She wanted to join the Franciscan Third Order Sisters in her hometown. Because these Franciscans were under the local bishop’s authority and not that of the Order of the Friars Minor’s General, the regular Franciscans refused to take any responsibility for them.
That meant the Third Order houses had to fend for themselves. They either had to have land that produced an income or they had to produce something of value (beer, cheese, etc.), or they needed a wealthy patron or five. As you might imagine, finances with such institutions were thus always precarious.
And when someone came to live in the house, it wasn’t like they were going to do an outside job (although some did: sewing, laundry, etc.). Their “job” was to pray. The income was heavenly, but it didn’t pay the bills.
So women were expected to bring with them a dowry of a certain amount that would cover the cost of maintaining them over the course of their lives.
Anna’s dad was so poor, he couldn’t afford the dowry’s cost, and so the religious refused his daughter entry. It must have broken her heart. You see, she had received an interior locution as a child in the convent’s chapel. Praying before the crucifix, she heard the Lord say, “This shall be your dwelling place.” Had she misheard? Had she imagined it? Or did she trust in God and remain confident that everything would come to pass as He had said. Did she listen to His counsel, repeated often throughout the Gospels, of, “Be not afraid”?
In any event she maintained her dream and her faith in God. In the meantime, she worked in her father’s weaving shop.
At some point, the town’s Protestant mayor purchased a tavern situated next door to the Sister’s monastery. (NOTE: Sisters and brothers, equally, are said to live in an abbey, convent, or monastery. Very often the terms are used interchangeably.) It was a public nuisance and the racket coming from it often disturbed the nuns.
He offered to give it to the ladies free of charge. Wonderful, they said. There’s just one condition, he told them. What is that, they asked.
His Honor wanted them to admit the now 21-year-old Anna.
You can keep the tavern, was the reply.
Not really, but the Mother Superior was not happy. Nonetheless, Anna came in that June. What choice did Mother have? The new postulant took the name Maria Crescentia.
Mother and others called her a “parasite” and a beggar because they didn’t believe she contributed to the household in any way. They gave her the worst, lowest jobs. Cinderella was treated nicer than she. When a new postulant arrived whose family had paid the dowry, they kicked Crescentia out of her cell without giving her a new one. For the next while, she had to beg a corner in other Sisters’ cells in which to sleep. When she finally did get her own room, it was a dank tiny space.
Mother and these other Sisters were always bullying and abusing her in one way or another or, as St. John Paul put it, “mobbing” her.
One puzzles as to why. Franciscans are supposed to embrace poverty and the poor. Wasn’t this La Poverella in their midst? Even though, yes, Sr. Crescentia might be a financial burden, why didn’t the Superior conclude that this was God’s will? And what about treating people with Christian charity? Had she never heard St. Paul’s exhortation about doing all things in love (cf. 1 Cor 13)? Mother’s actions and those of her conspirators are hard to fathom. Really, when one considers their treatment of Sister, it really is reminiscent of how demons in hell treat the damned, with hatred and abuse.
As Fr. Robert McNamara notes in his Saints Alive entry about St. Crescentia, “She was already too advanced in the spiritual life to consider these trials as anything but gifts of God. When some more sympathetic nuns expressed their regrets at her treatment, she rejected their consolation. She would not allow herself the luxury of self-pity.”
It must have driven her persecutors crazy when, as John Paul said of her in his canonization homily, “This Franciscan [became] an esteemed adviser. To her convent came many visitors: both simple men and women, princes and empresses, priests and religious, abbots and bishops. In a certain way she became a kind of ‘midwife’ and helped those seeking counsel to bring forth the truth in their hearts.”
As one scholar notes, “Her letters reflect an intelligent, worldly-wise woman with common sense, who had the ability to quickly identify and practically and sensibly resolve problems.
Thus Höss persevered through it all and ultimately took her final vows. Thereafter she received duties in the kitchen and, like her father, as a weaver.
Then another woman became Superior, and she was much more kind to Sr. Crescentia. She made her portress and then, in 1717, novice mistress.
In 1741, despite poor health—including paralysis—the community named her Superior. She held this position until her death on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1744. Although she only served as the monastery’s leader for three years, she revitalized the place with the devotions she instituted to the crucified Jesus, the Blessed Sacrament, and Our Lady. Mother Crescentia also encouraged Scripture study for the Sisters as the foundation of their spiritual life, especially the Gospels.
Writes Fr. McNamara, “She taught them two lessons in particular. First: They should never criticize others unkindly, particularly in their absence. Second: God is most pleased by our acceptance of the trials that befall us, bearing ‘meekly and patiently the adversities that He sends or that our neighbors inflict.’ This is advice we can all profit by.”
When it came to accepting postulants, Mother was more concerned about the women’s character than their bank accounts. She said, “God wants the monastery rich in virtue, not in temporal goods.”
That’s not to say the house’s bank account suffered under her leadership. She was such a prudent steward of the Sisters’ money that their coffers were secure for a very long time. This meant the Sisters didn’t have to rely on finding outside work as much and could instead focus on prayer and spiritual works.
St. Crescenzia taught the Sisters that joy comes not in fulfilling our own desires but in prayerfully discerning and acting upon God’s will, and, indeed, the monastery was a very joyful place.
Her beatification process began 31 years after her death. Pope Leo XIII beatified her in 1900, whereas she received canonization from St. John Paul in 2001.