Interview with Sister M. Eileen Johannsen,
who witnessed Father Kentenich’s time in Milwaukee.
On January 23, 2023, the day of her 86th birthday, Sister M. Eileen arrived at Schoenstatt. Since then, she has traveled to various places in Germany, Austria, Hungary and Switzerland, talking about her encounters and experiences with Father Kentenich. Before returning to the USA on March 18, we asked her a few questions.
Sister M. Eileen was born in Milwaukee; her father was a native of northern Germany and at the age of 17 emigrated to the U.S. Her mother was born in the U.S., shortly after her family, originally from Graz, Austria, had emigrated to the U.S. At the age of 16, Sister M. Eileen met Father Kentenich, who was then living in the Pallottine house in the vicinity of the Johannsen family.
What was your impression of Father Kentenich when you met him as a 16-year-old teenager?
I must say first of all that I went to see him to discuss my vocation, knowing that he did not speak English (he learned it later, but at that time he had only recently moved to the USA) and I did not speak German. His secretary had to translate; that was uncomfortable for me. But my parish priest, Father Haas, a Pallottine priest, had said that Father Kentenich was very experienced with regard to vocations. So, I wanted to visit him at least once.
When I went to see him, he was very kind and empathetic, interested in my daily activities and speaking to me in a very straightforward manner. I immediately felt at ease. So, after school I used to visit him, because the Pallottines’ house was on the way home. That was in 1953. He would ask me questions and I would tell him all about my daily life: my family, school matters, my interests and friends, my fondness for travel and adventures. He showed a sincere interest in everything. I felt that he was getting to know me even better, but it was months before I asked him my big question about my vocation. He respected my time and never imposed anything on me, for which I am grateful.
As a Sister of Mary, depending on your assignment, you can live in community or out in the world. In your case, you have been living alone in Milwaukee for more than 60 years as an “extern”.
How did Father Kentenich prepare you for this when you were young?
Father Kentenich wanted to help people not to simply be swept along in the midst of modern life, but to make a personal decision, from within themselves. He saw that today’s life was in constant motion and that what was right in one situation today could be wrong tomorrow. That is why he so strongly emphasized the value of the free personality, capable of making his or her own decisions.
Very simply, he taught me to make decisions based on clear principles. I always had to ask myself: Why am I doing this, what are the pros and what are the cons? That made it easier to make the decision with greater composure, avoiding making it based on mere feelings.
He would usually ask me first about the principles that would serve as a starting point for me to approach the problem. Then we would discuss the matter. He always respected my freedom to try out whatever solution I came up with; I felt free to do so. Having his support encouraged me to take risks.
What was your strongest impression of Father Kentenich’s personality?
His inner peace and stability. In him this peace came from the unshakable certainty that, whatever happened, his life was in the hands of a loving God. This is exactly what we experienced during the years of exile, when great injustices were committed against him, lies were told or measures were taken against him and the Family based on false information. His strength was in his continuous loving relationship with God. And through his actions and words, that peace from this encounter was transmitted to us.
How did you experience it?
When I was in his presence, not even a minute passed without experiencing that encounter with God and its impact. The encounter with him would lead you directly to another reality. Often my questions and problems were solved spontaneously without having to verbalize them; just by being in his proximity and because his intimate communication with the Father in Heaven was poured over me through his attitude, his words. When I was with him, I felt integrated into the harmony and balance that radiated from him and that seemed to put all things in the right order.
I experienced the peace that radiated from him as a powerful force in my education.
And what was he like as a human being?
I experienced him as a truly human man, even in the smallest things. He radiated a sincerity, a kindness, a compassion, a joy of life that appealed to us. We could talk to him about any subject. He was a person who loved with a deep heart, who had a genuine concern for the needs, even the smallest needs, of the people who came to see him. Even in this respect he lived in perpetual and intimate dialogue with God, with the Blessed Virgin. He knew that it was she and not he who had to do the necessary work in people’s hearts.
Can you give us an example?
Once he told us, after having worked for a long time with someone: “Now I can’t do anything else. We have to ask our Father in Heaven to take care of what will follow, if it is in His plan.” His main desire was to discover God’s plan for the particular person, and to help that person develop according to that plan.
In Milwaukee Father Kentenich provided pastoral care to the German-speaking community. Can you briefly tell us something about that?
It was a task to which he devoted himself with great affection and enthusiasm. Every afternoon he would set aside time for the members of his parish community. They could simply come to see him and talk to him about personal or parish matters.
Parents would come to see him to talk about their children’s education and children would come to see him to talk about their parents. Father Kentenich listened to them all and welcomed them all into his heart. He wanted to help everyone in their personal development. For example, one mother sent her son to him because he was misbehaving in the family. She wanted Father Kentenich to speak to him with great seriousness. Instead, Father Kentenich asked him, “-What do you want to be when you grow up?” “-Architect,” the boy answered proudly. To which Father Kentenich replied, “-You will be a great architect one day, but first you have to build the house inside yourself.” Those words sufficed; they had struck the boy’s longing, and he positively changed his behavior and became a great architect as well.