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Fr. Joseph Kentenich: Founder of Schoenstatt Movement the Church's next saint? Print
Guest column
Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 -- 12:00 AM

Consider a newly ordained Pallottine priest whom skeptics thought would never make it to the priesthood. This same man, a kindly looking person with a flowing white beard, within a century established a Marian renewal movement in the Church that touches all continents.

He spent time in a Nazi concentration camp as well as 14 years of exile, not only from his native land but also separation from the Marian movement he founded.

These are the facts, and this is the story of Fr. Joseph Kentenich, founder of the Schoenstatt Movement in the centennial of its founding on October 18, 1914.

Born in poverty

Joseph Kentenich was born November 16, 1885, at Gymnich, a small rural community near Cologne, Germany. Due to the poverty of the family, he was placed in an orphanage at the age of nine. There he spent the next five years, coping with the discipline and learning methods customary of the times.

Joseph had a desire for the priesthood from the time he was a child. Not yet 14, his excellent school record pointed him toward the Pallottine Mission House at Ehrenbreitstein near Koblenz on the Rhine River.

His thoughts at the time were toward becoming a missionary priest in the Cameroons of equatorial Africa.

Entered the seminary

At the end of his secondary education, he entered the novitiate in the town of Limburg. Joseph Kentenich spent seven years in this Pallottine seminary.

Evidence suggests that during the early years of his novitiate he was quite ill. In spite of his brilliance, there was some question among his superiors about allowing him to continue priestly studies. The missionary work of the Pallottines required individuals of rugged health.

The panel voting on continuation of young men to the priesthood at first voted against his ordination. Thanks to the conviction of his rector, Fr. Michael Kolb, a second vote was taken permitting Joseph to be ordained.

Ordination as Pallottine priest

Not long after his ordination in July of 1910, he was sent as a German and Latin teacher to the Pallottine House where he had completed his secondary education a few years earlier.

It was evident early on that this man had a remarkable gift as an educator. His organizational skills and rapport with the students were noticed by his superiors.

Shortly thereafter, he was appointed spiritual director of the new Pallottine College near the small town of Vallendar in the picturesque Schoenstatt Valley.

Seeds of Schoenstatt Movement

There the seeds of what was to become the Schoenstatt Movement were planted in the minds of the young seminarians. His way of motivating the students to be intellectually free but under the firm protection of Mary was innovative for the time.

During this period, 1912 to 1914, Father Kentenich set up a missionary club among the young men and later, a Marian sodality. This was to give additional purpose and direction to their lives.

The medieval chapel of St. Michael, located on the grounds of the Pallottine College, was used as a gathering place. The chapel was dedicated to the Blessed Mother and here, on October 18, 1914, amid the world crisis brought on by World War I, the Schoenstatt Movement was born.

Covenant of love

Father Kentenich and his seminarians were alert to the chaos of the time and saw the need for a covenant, a bond between Our Lady and Christians. Out of this covenant of love grew a world-wide movement of faith renewal based on the love and trust in Mary.

After the war, Father Kentenich's popularity as a retreat master grew. He conducted hundreds of retreats for both Religious and laity throughout Germany and Switzerland.

The interest in expanding his renewal ideals saw him instrumental in the founding of communities for priests, families, women, and youth. For example, in October 1926, he founded the Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary. By 1933, the first contingent of Sisters set off for South Africa. Today, these Sisters carry on apostolic works on all continents.

Trouble with the Nazis

At about the time that the Schoenstatt Movement was expanding outside of Germany, another kind of renewal was happening in Germany: National Socialism. The Nazis seized power in 1933.

The Gestapo, the police arm of Hitler's government, began tracking Father Kentenich and his followers. By April 1939, the Nazis seized the House of Studies in Schoenstatt.

In September 1941, Father Kentenich was forced to present himself to the Gestapo at Koblenz for interrogation. After five months in prison in Koblenz, including four weeks of solitary confinement, Father Kentenich was sent to the Dachau concentration camp, arriving on Friday, March 13, 1942.

As Prisoner 29392, he spent the next three years in a camp built in 1933 to hold about 7,000 prisoners. Dachau was soon overcrowded and home to nearly 40,000 inmates.

Extensive correspondence

Although imprisoned, Father Kentenich carried on an extensive correspondence with the outside world through an ingenious but dangerous communication network through a greenhouse and garden salesroom.

There were those who were willing to pass letters to the outside into the hands of Schoenstatt contacts. Some items used to celebrate Mass came through regular package service, and some were disguised in clever ways, such as concealed in false bottoms of packages.

During this time, Father Kentenich founded the Schoenstatt Brothers of Mary and the family branches of the Movement.

It was also during his time in Dachau that Father Kentenich received word that the Schoenstatt Sisters in Uruguay had built an exact replica of the shrine in Schoenstatt. Father Kentenich saw this as an open door to expanding what today is called the Schoenstatt network of shrines.

In the spring of 1945, the U.S. Army liberated Dachau. Father Kentenich was released and free to return to the Schoenstatt Valley. With great joy, he returned to Schoenstatt on May 20, 1945. Even after such a difficult time, he immediately continued his work with no thought of an extended recuperation.

Expansion of Schoenstatt

From 1947 to 1950, Father Kentenich traveled the world encouraging the Marian renewal he had begun before the war. He set out for South America, visiting Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile and encouraged the building of replica shrines, today called "Daughter Shrines," and strengthening the movement's mission wherever he travelled.

He spent several months in South Africa, then returned to South America. He came to the United States in June of 1948 and visited a number of cities, including Madison and Milwaukee. He made contacts in Texas. All of this was in preparation for establishing a branch of the Sisters of Mary in the United States.

Always, Father Kentenich's message was one of renewal, hope, and promise with faith in the intercessory power of the Blessed Mother, the Mother Thrice Admirable.

Separation, exile from movement

Back in Germany, trouble was brewing that would eventually cause Father Kentenich to be separated from his work for 14 years.

There was a concern that Father Kentenich was too influential over those in the Schoenstatt ministry. The result of an investigation was the issuing of a series of decrees by Vatican representatives directing Father Kentenich to separate himself from all Schoenstatt activities. In October 1951, Father Kentenich was ordered to leave Europe. This he did, not questioning the higher authorities.

He arrived in Milwaukee in June of 1952, where the Pallottine Fathers had established their provincial house. He was eventually assigned to minister to immigrant Germans at St. Michael Parish in Milwaukee.

He also traveled periodically to the Pallottine seminary in Madison, which for a time also served as the diocesan seminary. There he met American families, often giving pastoral talks on family life and Marian devotion.

The Schoenstatt Chapel in Madison, built in 1953 as the first Schoenstatt Daughter Shrine in the USA, would eventually be known as the Founder Shrine.

His devotion to the Blessed Mother remained strong throughout this time of trial. Father Kentenich never doubted that the Church would eventually see his work as a service to the Church.


Efforts were being made in Germany and in the Vatican to bring an end to his exile. This finally came in October of 1965 during the final session of Vatican II. Father Kentenich was called to Rome. Pope Paul VI reinstated him with the Schoenstatt Movement. He was now 80 years old. His return to Schoenstatt, Germany, occurred in time for him to celebrate Christmas Midnight Mass in the historic chapel of St. Michael -- now the shrine of the MTA -- begun 51 years earlier.

Vatican II brought together what Father Kentenich was trying to teach concerning the importance of Mary in the Christian tradition.

Father Kentenich's last years were ministering to the Schoenstatt mission, now a Marian renewal movement of worldwide dimensions. Today, Schoenstatt Shrines are located on all continents and number more than 200, including 10 in the United States.

This man of God, a priest nearly 60 years, died September 15, 1968, upon completion of his first celebrated Mass in the newly completed Adoration Church on Mount Schoenstatt. His remains rest in that church. Inscribed on his tombstone are the words: DILEXIT ECCLESIAM (He loved the Church).

His beatification process was opened February 10, 1975. Perhaps Father Kentenich will indeed be the Church's next saint.

Ray McCool and his wife, Mary, have been members of a Schoenstatt couples group in Madison since 1982.