Wednesday, April 27, 2022

FIUV Heroes (1): Elisabeth de Saventhem


We intend to start a series of laypeople who contributed a lot to the aims of the Traditional Latin Mass. We start with an article about Elisabeth de Saventhem who died 22 years ago this month. She was the wife of the first President of FIUV. The article was written some time after her death by the second President of FIUV, the late Michael Davies.

(We are most grateful to all those who contributed to the completion and translation of this text)

Elisabeth de Saventhem was born in Bremen in 1911 as the eldest of seven children, five daughters and two sons, to Walther Clemens, Reichsgraf von Plettenberg-Lenhausen and his wife, Carmen Guillermina.  Her spiritual formation was strongly influenced by an aunt, and her father's cousin was Blessèd Maria Droste zu Vischering of the Divine Heart, who had entered the Order of the Good Shepherd in Munster in 1885.


The economic crisis in Germany forced Elisabeth to give up her language studies (French and Russian) in Leipzig and she found work in an office in Berlin, quickly being promoted to senior secretary and purchasing manager (the company produced silk for parachutes).


The publication, in March 1937, of Pius XI's Encyclica Mit brennender Sorge saw the first public confrontations between the National-socialist regime and the Catholic Church.  Contrary to the concordat which had been signed four years before, the government forbade any distribution of the Pope's text.  Nevertheless it was copied and circulated by the Plettenberg family and Elisabeth's parents were arrested and imprisoned in Bremen, accused of "malicious gossip endangering the State".  Elisabeth, as eldest child, undertook successfully the defence of her parents before the minions of the Gestapo, so that they were released three weeks later.  The Gestapo in Berlin continued to keep an eye on this courageous daughter and shortly afterwards, following a series of anonymous letters accusing Elisabeth herself of spying, they tried to incriminate her - after more than 20 cross-examinations.  The efforts came to nothing of course, for the whole scandal had come from the unfounded, sickly jealousy of the wife of Elisabeth's employer.  The affair reached the highest levels of the Gestapo and came to a conclusion only in December 1938 with Elisabeth's brilliant rehabilitation by the regular courts.


During these years Elisabeth was much sought after in Berlin society.  She impressed those who met her not only by her beauty, her great intelligence, her natural charm and her "Catholic at its best" humour, but also because of her extraordinary ability to listen.  She understood especially how to recognise the problems lying deeper than the questions actually raised, and would then reply with great conceptual precision.  Behind this unusual ability lay a faith matured by interior struggles, paired with the fruit of superb religious teaching which Elisabeth had received at school from a gifted priest, Pastor Franz Moschner.  Later, at his request, she translated Moschner's most important book "Christliches Gebetsleben" into English.  The MS was published in 1962 as "Christian Prayer" by Herder Book Co in the USA.


Elisabeth's knowledge of doctrine and theology was so extensive and sound that her bishop authorised her to instruct and prepare converts for reception.  The time that she devoted to this instruction, and she had many pupils, was never less than a year.    She once remarked that although God had not blessed her with children of her own, she considered these converts to be her children.


The fact that Elisabeth  believed in God  as the "iustus iudex"  (the « just judge ») , to whom,  throughout her life, she would address the question of the meaning or unavoidability of suffering and death, lent to her own witness that convincing, many-layered depth which rendered silent every sceptic.


It was during the Berlin years that the momentous meeting with Isa Vermehren and her younger brother Eric took place, as they sought the Truth, which led to their conversions in 1938 and 1939 respectively.  Early in 1939 Elisabeth returned to Bremen to help look after her youngest brother and sister, and in March 1941 she became engaged to Eric Vermehren.  A few weeks later, Elisabeth's eldest brother was killed in Russia whilst carrying a badly-injured soldier from his company back to their trenches.  Elisabeth's parents persuaded the young couple not to wait until the year of mourning was over and so, in October 1941, they were married quietly in the presence of the closest family members, at Schloss Hovestadt, the Plettenberg family seat.


Because of a childhood injury, Eric was exempt from frontline service and served at first as a "Welfare Officer" in several camps for English and French prisoners of war.  In 1942 he was transferred to the Intelligence Service and sent to Istanbul as aide to the German military attaché there.  In this position he became aware, through freely available neutral reports, of the true extent of the dreadful deeds being done, especially in the occupied areas about which scarcely anything was known back in Germany.  This knowledge made him realise that, even as a subordinate,  his conscience would not allow him to serve the régime any longer.  During his first home leave in December 1943, Eric informed Elisabeth of his decision,  She was immediately ready to follow him into foreign exile.  In January 1944 they were "kidnapped" by the English Secret Services, in an action organised in the hope of protecting their families back in Germany.  English officers accompanied them via Izmir and Aleppo to Cairo and thence, via Gibraltar, to England.


The British Foreign Office had at that time adopted the Morgenthau-Plan.  Eric and Elisabeth tried, in many letters and interviews, to impress on the Foreign Office the advisability of allowing leading members of the inner German Opposition to help with the rebuilding of their ruined country, but to no avail.  They then asked that their status as "Guests of the Foreign Office" be annulled and they began to earn an independent living as assistant teachers in Worth Priory, a Benedictine preparatory school.  Elisabeth straightaway won the hearts of her pupils, despite, or perhaps precisely because of her original strictness in questions of discipline.   Among the anecdotes that she would relate of her time at Worth was that of finding one of her eight year old pupils crying bitterly one day.  She asked him the reason and he explained that it was because he liked her very much, so much in fact that he felt that she deserved to be English, and it was unfair that she was not.

For an "ex-enemy alien" it was well-nigh impossible to find a decent job in post-war England.  Eric founded a small export company  and Elisabeth helped in this effort despite her delicate health.  The early (unfortunately not long-lasting) success  of the company allowed them to leave Worth and move to the shadow of Brompton Oratory and a flat which was furnished with articles donated by friends.  Some five years passed before Eric found regular employment with a firm of Lloyds brokers.  He had by then adopted the surname Vermeeren de Saventhem, mainly for genealogical reasons.  In 1964 Eric became Director for Europe of the London firm.  The couple spent two years in Paris and in 1966 moved back to Switzerland, to settle in Clarens by Montreux.


From the moment that  Pope John XXIII's announced that he was con]vening a General Council of the Church,  all eyes were fixed upon that spectacular event - those of the de Saventhems with growing concern.  Elisabeth's religious life had always had its focus in Holy Mass which she attended daily with her husband.  In the accomplishment of the Sacrifice of the Mass she saw the definitive identity of the true Church of Christ and at the same time the reason for and the justification of the Catholic priesthood.  She knew - with all the Tradition of the Church - of the essential connexion between the Faith of the Church and its prayers:  as the Church prays, so it believes.  Thus it seemed to her presumptuous, nay dangerous, to question, even in Council, those forms of liturgy which have grown and proved themselves over the centuries.  The maintenance of the Mass as codified by St Pius V "with equal rights and equal honour" alongside any new forms became the main theme of her prayer, her thought and her actions, in close co-operation  with her husband, long-time President of the international Una Voce movement.


A first meeting with Monseigneur Lefebvre in Rome in 1962 sowed the seeds for over 25 years of cooperation, particularly vis-à-vis the Holy See.  This became intensified after the foundation of the Archbishop’s  International Seminary in Ecône, an hour's drive away from Clarens.  The Archbishop appreciated more than anything Elisabeth's ever acute sensus fidei et ecclesiae and her moral courage.  For over ten years the de Saventhems daily made the long drive from Clarens to Ecône to attend early Mass.  Later they were able to continue daily Mass attendance at a chapel in Lausanne and at the tiny Carmel of Marie Reine des Anges,  both served by priests from Ecône priests. The latter was situated on the slopes of the aptly-named Mont-Pèlerin just a short drive from home.


Elisabeth's life was filled with conscious and radiant gratitude towards the Church for the gift of faith.  It was however permanently overshadowed by a never-ending chain of physical suffering.  She accepted this with admirable discipline from her iron will which seemed to gain new strength at Mass each morning.


The end was not easy.  As the petals begin to curl inwards when a precious flower fades, so Elisabeth's mental elasticity, which had always been admired by all who met her, slowly diminished.  The interest was there, but ever more frequently the helpful replies did not  come.  Her physical frailty increased visibly, and for her  last journey from Switzerland to Bonn (the newly-chosen home, to be near the family again) a flying ambulance was necessary.  Elisabeth died a few weeks later in Cologne, in her sister's house, surrounded and comforted by the deep love of her husband and the devoted care of her sister and family. R.I.P.