The Heroic Ordination at Dachau – UPDATED

Deacon Greg brings us a look at a secret ordination that took place at Dachau:

Leisner was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and in Dachau his condition began to deteriorate. Fearing that the great dream of his life — to be a priest — would never be realized, he and the priests in his cellblock secretly sent a petition to a local cardinal (aided here, and in so many areas, by a heroic nun known as the “Angel of Dachau,” Sister Imma Mack.) The cardinal granted permission for a French bishop detained in the camp to perform the ordination, and asked Sister Imma to deliver a ritual book and chrism needed for the rite; Sister Imma was told to return these items, along with written documentation of the ordination, if they were able to celebrate it.

A number of prisoners, including some non-Catholics who worked in different work areas of the camp, made full sets of vestments for the bishop and Deacon Leisner. The ordination was celebrated in 1944 in secret, and the documentation was smuggled to Sister Imma, who then delivered it all to the cardinal. (The photograph here shows the newly ordained Fr. Leisner moments after his ordination. It is one of the few taken to capture this incredible event.) But Fr. Leisner’s health was so weak, he was only able to celebrate mass, again in secret, once. Shortly after the camp was liberated, he was sent to a hospital for the terminally ill, where he died in the summer of 1945. He was 30 years old.

You’ll want to read it all, and send it around.

It is fascinating to consider the sort of co-operation that had to exist among prisoners–Catholic and non-Catholic–for this ordination to have happened. At any moment, anyone involved was exposing himself (or herself) to life-threatening risk.

Sr. Imma Mack, then-candidate to the convent

But then again, these people were all resisting an unambiguous evil, living in a place–and an era–where relativism did not have such primacy over our reason, as it does now.

No one living in a Nazi prison camp had difficult discerning good from evil. The “luxury” of being confused on something so basic only comes in times of “relative” peace and prosperity, when the focus is on things much less urgent than merely staying alive for another day, and we feel free to ponder our personal moralities to the nth degree.

I am inspired by this story–by Fr. Karl Leisner, and by Sister Imma Mack (who died in 2006, and of whom more may be read here [pdf])–but especially by all of the anonymous heroes who did what they could to enable this ordination, an act of unqualified good, unqualified hope and trust, to occur in a place of such desolation, because they understood that a Culture of Life was the only thing worth supporting, when faced with a Culture of Death.

Blessed Karl Leisner, pray for us

Excerpted from Sr. Imma Mack’s Why I Love Azaleas (pdf)

During the first week of Advent [1944] Father Schonwalder told me that he had a very important assignment for me from Father Pies. Then he handed me two unsealed letters from him. One was addressed to Cardinal Faulhaber, and the other to Johannes Zawackie, a Jesuit brother. I myself was to read them first before passing them on to the addresses, so that I would know precisely what they contained. Then Father Schonwalder told me that Karl Leisner, a deacon who had been imprisoned in the Dauchau Concentration Camp for a long time already, was seriously ill in the infirmary [. . .]

A French bishop had recently been put into the priest’s block. Father Pies, together with Karl Leisner and Bishop Gabriel Piguet, had considered the possibility of the bishop ordaining the terminally ill deacon in the camp chapel. Various things would be needed, however, and the details were given in two letters. Father Pies had told him that I, accompanied by Brother Johannes, was to deliver the letter to the Cardinal in person. I was to orally confirm Father Pies’ written request for the approval of Karl Leisner’s ordination, and Brother Johannes could support my statement. I was to bring the written permission to Dachau the next week.

As we approach our own first week of Advent, in a world that is very different from Sr. Imma Mack’s but still roiling in amidst this eternal, supernatural fight between light and darkness, let us remember these heroes, and consider our own offerings.

Deacon Bill gives us more, including this bit of video (subtitled)

Matt from sends along this story of Chaplain CDR Dennis Rocheford. I don’t think anyone would argue that we should pray more than we do for our priests, or for those who are thinking about the priesthood.

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  • Leticia Velasquez

    The cooperation of so many believers of all stripes is an enduring testimony to their faith in the power of the priesthood.
    They leave a legacy which poses quite a challenge to those of us living in gentler times.

  • Greta

    On the military chaplain, I recently heard a disucssion on the situation in the military if dont ask dont tell is taken away. One of the parts of the legislation is that there can be no open discussion in a negative way abour gays which could include the chaplains in any way infering catholic teaching on the matter. If this indeed happens, there has been discussion that the catholic church would have to stop serving the military. Has anyone else heard this.

  • F

    I did not know that the camp had a chapel. To me that was the most extraordinary tidbit. Why would the Nazis allow that?

  • Rick

    A “Culture of Life” versus a “Culture of Death”.
    Isn’t that what we’re facing today with the West versus Islam. Muslims have repeatedly said they love death more that we love life.

  • J.

    Found this information under Dachau Scrapbook website:

    The following quote is from the book entitled “Zeugen des Abendlandes,”(means Witnesses of the West or Western Witnesses in German) written by Father Franz Goldschmitt:

    “Our poor chapel was converted into a worthy house of God as time passed. The imprisoned priests “organized” an altar with tabernacle, a beautiful figure of Christ, candles, statues and finally even an artistic set of stations. In addition to our simple wooden monstrance, we had another one for important feasts. It sparkled like real silver, yet it had been made from empty tin boxes. An Austrian communist prided himself, and quite rightly too, on the fact that he made this monstrance secretly in the workshop under the eyes of the SS men.

    At first only one Mass was allowed daily and it was always celebrated by the same priest, a former Polish army chaplain. The priests, all of whom held a small host in their hands, prayed in an undertone with the celebrating priest and at the Communion consumed the Body of their Lord. Solemn Divine Services were forbidden, as was also every form of religious activity outside the chapel. During the day, no one was permitted to enter the chapel.

    From the year 1942, the concelebration of Mass stopped, according to Dr. Johannes Neuhäusler’s book.

    Dr. Neuhäusler wrote the following in his book:

    We communicated as laymen. It was pathetic to see four confreres, clad in their scanty prison dress and often barefooted, pass from row to row with the ciborium. Every Sunday before roll call we had an early Mass, and at 8 a.m. a solemn High Mass with sermon. The great feasts of Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and All Saints were celebrated as worthily and as solemnly as in cathedral.”

    So the “chapel” had nothing to do with the Nazis; the guards were oblivious and the prisoners were ingenious. Here is a link to the website; I think you will find it interesting that this camp wasn’t set up for Jews but for those who resisted the Nazis. The majority of the 200,000 prisoners were Christians and Catholic. There were more Catholic priests (over 2500) then Jews in the camp—except in the last days as the Reich fell apart and Americans liberated the camp.

    Remember that Dachau is the place of the Carmel Convent–the Bishop who approved the convent is also buried there–he spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner, so I think he “earned” that “right.” He was Dr. Johannes Neuhäusler, an auxiliary Bishop from Munich.

    Here is a link to the site: link

  • ThePaganTemple

    F-If there was a chapel it was probably for the benefit of the guards, but it could have been a make-shift chapel, or it could even be that some of the guards were sympathetic to them and helped them. The main question I have is, how did they smuggle the camera in there? Cameras in those days were pretty big. There might have been a few models that one could fit in the palm of one’s hand, but I doubt it. It would certainly be a risk to try to take one in there. That might have even been the work of one of the officials. I just don’t see how this could have happened without some cooperation from somebody up the chain of command.

    Great story, regardless of how it happened.

  • DeLynn

    Thank you so much for writing this. Wow.

  • HeatherRadish

    I was able to visit Dachau KZ in September; one of the homemade wooden altars is on display in the bunker building (some priests were housed there with the “special” prisoners, apart from the barracks.) Unfortunately, I did not make a good picture of it.

  • Dino

    I was an Army chaplain assistant stationed in Munich during the early 60s. I was blessed by several opportunities to speak with Bp. Neuhäusler, including once in his office near the Frauenkirche, Munich’s cathedral. He said that many of the Nazi guards were superstitious to the point of fear and “I see nothing” in regard to bishops. He spoke English.
    The camp at Dachau now has a real chapel, dedicated to the memory of those who died there. It was completed, I think, in 1964, with local Catholic clergy including Bp. Neuhäusler, the head rabbi of Munich, and US military chaplains participating in the formal dedication.

  • Sister Vicki, Anchoress

    The suffering at the hands of Nazis was a horrid thing. I admire anyone who went through it and came out still with love in their hearts. God bless the survivors, and may all that died there rest in peace!

  • Pulchritudomusicae

    I’ve known of Bl. Karl Leisner for many years. He is actually my brother’s confirmation patron. I’ve seen his vestments (those in the picture) and the vessels that he used for his Holy Mass.

    Bl. Karl, pray for us!

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  • Kevin O’Connor

    There is a beautiful excerpt from “Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau” in the December issue of Catholic Digest. (In a 2008 review, First Things called the book a “gripping story of heroism and horror that must never be forgotten.”)

    This passage describes Fr. Bernard’s first Christmas imprisoned in the camp with fellow clergy.


    Christmas Eve in the concentration camp!

    We are allowed to stay up later than usual. From somewhere a pine bough has suddenly appeared. It is stuck in a tin can and decorated with two candles, which we light. Someone made them using his margarine ration from Thursday. Then the Poles sing melancholy songs.

    A man with a marvelous voice sings the Gloria to the tune of an old chorale. The Polish bishop gives commentary. We go to bed feeling sad and dream of home. May our sacrifice contribute to bringing peace to the world….

    “I’m on gate duty today,” my dear friend Cappy [Capuchin Father Heinrich Zöhen], whispers to me. We are returning from the assembly square on Christmas morning, and our column is marching alongside the German clergy’s column for a brief moment.

    When it is time to deliver the pails for the midday meal I exchange with a colleague assigned to go to Barrack 26 that day. I suspect that Cappy wants to give me something and am eager to find out what it is.

    He is standing at the entrance of the barbed-wire barrier around the barrack, as announced. We are not allowed to enter, but have to leave the pails in front of the “gate.” I set mine down next to Cappy, and as he bends down to pick it up he quickly presses a carefully folded piece of paper into my hand. Very softly he mouths the word “ichthys.”

    I have difficulty concealing my excitement. Swiftly I hide the precious gift in my glove. And as I hurry back home images from the time of the catacombs come to mind. Back then, as now, the Most Holy had to be preserved from desecration, and so the Greek term for “fish” ichthys, became a code word for the Eucharist, since it is composed of the initial letters of the phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”

    After the evening meal we Luxembourgers met a few friends inconspicuously in the darkness outside the barrack and carefully divided the precious Host into as many particles as humanly possible to share with one another. And then, as we tenderly partook of Him, the Christ Child entered our hearts…

    End quote.