SR. M. FRUCTUOSA (MARIA) GERSTMAYER
Date of Birth: February 4, 1898
Birth Place: Weingarten, Germany
Date of First Profession: February 2, 1923 at Tutzing Mother House
Date of Missioning: September 4, 1926 to Korea
Date of Death: September 16, 1952 at Oksadok labor camp
Sister Fruktuosa came from a very devout Catholic family. She was one of ten children who grew up together in a very lively and happy manner. She had a very open, helpful and beautiful character. She was tall and large and had a very clear, beautiful voice. Naturally she was always in charge of the small choir. As soon as she arrived in Korea, she became the head nurse of the “Mary’s Help” Clinic in lieu of Sr. Hermetis who was sent to the Philippines on account of her failing health. Sr. Fruktuosa served and cared for the poor and the sick with all her zeal for twenty-three years.
Sr. Fruktuosa not only took care of the poor sick but she also was a fervent missionary who conditionally baptized over 5,000 infants. Near and around Wonsan, she visited almost all the families and houses and took care of the poor sick people. On Sundays, she was in front of the Blessed Sacrament praying and entreating for her extremely poor people and for the pagans and the atheists. Even then, whenever called, she dashed out to take care of the emergency cases as best as she could without any complaints or reluctance. She seemed to be happy with the poor and the sick who were waiting for her care.
After the clinic was closed by the communists, she was imprisoned and then sent with the other sisters to do heavy work in the labor camp at Oksadok. But she would not take care of herself and so health-wise she suffered greatly in the prison and at Oksadok. The following is Sr. Diomedes’ description of Sr. Fruktuosa’s last days:
Sr. Fruktuosa suffered with diarrhea and dropsy from the time of imprisonment in Pyongyang. Since then, she never recovered from her sickness but only got worse in Oksadok. Nevertheless, she helped daily in the labor camp kitchen and tried to make her companions happy by giving them encouragement. In August 1951, she suffered a stroke and received the Last Sacraments. After that, she seemed to get a bit better, but she was to spend her time lying in the sewing room. Even when lying down in the camp sewing room, she did more than her share of sewing. She mended her fellow companions’ socks and gloves till late at night. This caused her sickness to worsen and other infectious illnesses set in. So finally she became bedridden. Then, she had another stroke and became unconscious. She left this world for the better one during the night of September 15 and 16, 1952, still unconscious but peaceful. After Sr. Fruktuosa’s death, the camp guards loosened their grip somewhat and treated us a little bit better. We were almost sure that Sr. Fruktuosa interceded for us before the throne of God.
Sr. Frukctuosa was known to the people of Wonsan as “the renowned German doctor sister and the living saint.” Truly she lived as such; she was a perfect religious, a model sister. She led the life of a martyr with patience and love. And she died as a martyr.
SISTER M. FRUKTUOSA GERSTMAYER
Report of the camp doctor Sr. Diomedes Meffert OSB
Sr. M. Fruktuosa Gerstmayer, who was sent to Wonsan just one year after the Tutzing Sisters began there, was one of the most popular figures of the mission. For over twenty years she was “the Nurse”, who was known both in the huts of the poor and the poorest and in higher circles. There must have been up to five thousand children and seriously ill patients for whom she opened the gates to a blessed life in the other world by administering emergency baptism. When she was in prison, she suffered from diarrhea and edema and during our life in the camp was never up to her level. Nevertheless, in her courageous, self-forgetting manner she included herself in the kitchen work and brought much liveliness and cheerfulness into the group of the sisters.
After she had suffered from a small stroke in August 1951 and received the holy anointing, we could no longer take a chance and let her continue with the heavy work, in spite of a slow improvement. I was able to arrange it so that she was assigned to mending clothes and that way had a quiet job to be done while sitting. However, even here she did more than what was expected, patching up the tattered “gloves” of the charcoal and forest workers by the light of the pine chip fire until late at night. The hoped-for improvement to her health failed to materialize and the illness progressed with her as it had with the others. When she was already completely bedridden and when she had been prepared for death, she suffered another stroke and never regained consciousness again. She died very peacefully during the night of 15–16 September 1952. The priests and brothers whom she had habitually helped by patching up their gloves believed they could call on her and the gradual improvement of our situation that resulted may not have happened without her intercession.
SISTER FRUKTUOSA GERSTMAYER, OSB (1898-1952)
Priory of Wonsan, North Korea
Sr. Mary John Manazan, OSB
It could have been a nightmare or a thriller film: heavily booted soldiers marching into the convent, rounding up the sisters, herding them into a truck to an unknown destination. It was May 10, 1949 in Wonsan, Korea. Sr. Fruktuosa had no idea that such an experience awaited her when, twenty-eight years earlier, as the youngest of thirty-three candidates who entered that day, she stepped into the gates of Tutzing at 9:00 p.m. She had actually arrived in Munich earlier in the day, but she decided to have a “last fling,” making a thorough visit of the city. With three other latecomers, she found herself on the last train to Tutzing. Since they came so late there was no time to give them instructions, so the three newcomers still had a midnight picnic with the chocolates they had in their bags, and told each other their life stories until the wee hours of the morning of the new day which was to begin their convent life.
As a postulant, however, Sr. Fruktuosa had no trouble observing novitiate rules as soon as she put her mind to it. At the age of twenty-four she was invested. She was such a big, robust girl that she was nicknamed “Heaven’s Dragon” by the men at St. Gallen where she was assigned after her profession in 1923. She almost did not make it, due to an infection she contracted while working in the kitchen. A wound on her arm, which she left unattended, became so infected that the arm almost had to be amputated. With characteristic determination, Sister Fruktuosa fought to keep her arm by daily bathing it with herbal medicine until the danger was over. She feared less for her life than for the fact that a one-arm novice might not be allowed to make profession. So she was able to pronounce her vows on February 2, 1923.
Sister Fruktuosa studied nursing until her perpetual profession three years later. In August of the same year (1926), she and Sister Eva Schütz were sent to the Korean mission, arriving in Wonsan in October.
Foundations, especially in a foreign country, are always hard. Sister Fruktuosa was part of such a beginning in Korea: an unfurnished house, a difficult climate, new environment, new culture and different customs and way of life. The learning of the Korean language was especially hard for her, and even after more than 25 years there, she needed an interpreter to make herself understood. But this did not hamper her mission.
After spending some time in the kitchen, she had to exchange the ladle with the thermometer. She was assigned to put up a clinic. This consisted of a two-by-two meter room in a Korean house with a dark antechamber that always had to be heated because of its damp floor. This clinic later on extended to four rooms arranged according to European style and furnished with better facilities. There would be Sister Fruktuosa’s field of work for about twenty-six years.
She did not just wait for patients to come to the clinic. She sought them out in house visitations which brought her to all the nooks and corners of the town. She herself said that there was no part of the town unvisited by her. According to Sister Chrysostoma, everyone trusted in her healing powers more than in the skills of doctors. In spite of her language difficulty, she had a remarkable rapport with the people, communicating with gestures and gesticulations, accompanied by gales of spontaneous and infectious laughter. She was understood because she spoke in the language of love. She had a special love for children and with glee she called them by her accustomed German pet names. Many almond-eyed little tots answered to her Butzele, Ferkele, Dreckspätzle. The mothers of the children enjoyed the strange names which she gave to their children with obvious affection. She also took special care of the dying and, according to legend, was responsible for 5,000 deathbed baptisms.
This fruitful apostolate which Sister zealously did day after day for many years came to an abrupt stop when on February 25, 1949 the clinic was raided by the police and, for no reasonable cause, closed. Korea at that time was at a turning point in its history. The Japanese had been driven out and the Russians had taken over.
Sr. Fruktuosa went back to the kitchen as though nothing had happened. But something worse was in the offing. Two months later, on May 10, 1949, North Korean soldiers entered the Wonsan mission and took all the sisters away to the distant Pyongyang, where the Korean sisters were separated from the Europeans and detained in different prisons. The German sisters as well as the Benedictine monks were later taken to the concentration camp of Oksadok where they would be detained for five long years.
One can imagine the anxiety and insecurity of the detainees. The sisters were forced to wear men’s clothes and to work in the fields along with the men, or in the kitchen to prepare the food for the other prisoners. They suffered from the cold in the damp, unheated barracks, especially during the bitter Korean winters. They saw their companions get sick and die in their midst, sometimes not being able to bury them at once.
When Sister Fruktuosa came into detention she was already sick from rheumatism and had twice suffered typhoid fever, which she had contracted from her patients. The fever had caused her to become hard of hearing, which—together with the language difficulty—made her feel acutely lonely and isolated. But she never lost her good humor. In fact, she tried to cheer up her cellmates from their depression by telling stories and cracking jokes, for which she had a unique knack.
In spite of her swollen legs, she worked in the kitchen until August 1951, when she suffered a mild brain stroke. After some time she rallied and wasted no time in gathering all her strength to make herself useful. By the dim light coming from the paper window of the barrack, she tried to patch the already overly-darned clothes of the monks and sisters, making them last until they almost fell apart by themselves. After some time her condition got worse. She was in such pain that no position, sitting or lying, could give her any relief. By the middle of August she could no longer get up. She was all swollen, and the skin of her legs became tough and leathery. While receiving the last sacraments, she offered her life for Korea.
She suffered a second stroke, from which she never regained consciousness until her death during the night of September 15, 1952. She died in detention, one of the sixteen who were not able to survive the life at the Oksadok concentration camp. Like them, she had no coffin. She was simply wrapped in a straw mat, but the sisters covered her body with all the flowers they could find in the mountain meadows.
Sr. Fruktuosa lies today, together with her companions, in the camp cemetery on the lonely mountainside of North Korea. In life and in death she was a real missionary.
“…AND IF YOU DO NOT HAVE LOVE…”
SIST ER FRUKTUOSA GERSTMAYER, OSB
Sr. Gertrude Link, OSB, Tutzing
You must wonder how the tall, energetic sister, who for more than twenty years in her small, ample primitive dispensary in Wonsan, North Korea was surrounded day after day by a swarm of poor sick people, managed to look after, to rub with ointment and to bandage up her sixty to eighty patients a day. She had never found the time to study the difficult language of the Koreans so that she would have a command of it. But she could make herself understood with that language that conquers all difficulties—with love. The strength she drew from her union with God made her face ever cheerful and kind so that the cries of little children and the many questions of inquiring mothers never appeared to fluster or tire her. It was precisely that that gave these women such confidence that they sought out the nurse with their bodily ailments as if she would understand everything. And when Sr. Fructuosa send a patient to a proper doctor, he would not turn them away.
Then there was always nice words to be heard when the mothers took their sick, often dirty children from their backs or their breasts and presented them to her. “Come here, you Ferkele!” she addressed one from whose ragged nappy some foul smelling odor was streaming. “You sweet, little Dreckspatz!” she said to one whose eyes and ears were oozing pus. “Do not be afraid, you Schmutzfinkele,…oh, your Rabbenmutter doesn’t know that you have to be washed…” And so it went on in light, genial tones. She picked them up, hugged them until the tears dried up and the little dark eyes in their slits became interested in the strange bright face that was gazing at them. But the mothers took the greatest delight in the “Ferkele,” (piglet) and “Dreckspatz,” (filthy little thing) and “Rabbenmutter” (uncaring mother) because they did not know any German…They only understood what was overflowing from the abundance of her heart united to God, what was revealed in the sound and word, in the look and gesture–the love!
How often Sr. Fructuosa suffered because she felt her knowledge was imperfect and her training for the task she saw before her appeared inadequate. And yet, she could say with the Apostle, “I have worked more than all the others,” at least when it concerned emergency baptism, which she administered in many cases with the greatest personal sacrifice. No one but God knows for how many souls she opened the door to God’s blessings—but one time in prison she herself estimated according to the annual statistics it was some five thousand. And that was certainly a modest count. It was thus that Sr. Fructuosa spent many years of her missionary life.
Did she give her possessions to the poor? Did she give her body to be burned? She did it literally. For she carried food and clothing, medicine and first-aid materials to the huts of the poor whom otherwise no one knew in the restricted area of the port city. But for them she was satisfied with the least and ceaselessly patched up their clothing. She did not spare her body. Trips to where the beggars hid out far outside in the mountainsides, where the castaways of life dug their hovels in the loess. Trips in the heavy heat of the Korean summer, trips in storm and rain, trips through snowdrifts and icy stretches were part of her usual rounds. When it concerned the dying, she asked nothing. This had to have been a severe test to her health. There were times when she just labored on, when her feet would not carry her and weakness overcame her on the way. Was her body not burnt, her vitality not burned out in these years of stress and strain so that she could no longer survive the imprisonment?
And yet that would all be nothing, says St. Paul, if you did not have love. But she had that. The love for God and from him drove her to make every sacrifice for the souls he was looking for and who were to honor him.
Then came imprisonment, the last great trial for Sr. Fructuosa. She found her work place in the camp kitchen. Not with the directors, organizers, supervisors,…not with those pushing along the often eighteen-hour work days. Her strength quickly declined when hunger and dysentery had sapped her last reserves. She washed beets and more beets and cut them into long or flat pieces. Depending on what she was supposed to prepare, she pounded the maize on the stone hand-mill, cleaned and washed the bunches of mountain herbs and wild onions that we stealthily carried back from all over when we returned from work and cleaned up the mushrooms that we gathered even though it was forbidden. These mushrooms, as often as they were there, meant something incredibly desired: satisfying our hunger. But they were dangerous, for only a few kinds resembled those from back home. Nevertheless we ate them. Sr. Fructuosa “tried” them when she was cleaning them and maintained she could distinguish the poisonous from the edible by taste.
It was supposed to be a light job for her there in the corner of the kitchen. But the amount of work exceed by far that for a healthy person—and it was too much for her. When the skin over her hard and tautly swollen legs had become glassy and leather-like because of the weakened heart, the edema mounted up to her breasts, her heart began to stop bearing and the notorious blue spots began to appear on her arms, she was relocated to the mending room as unable to work. Rest was a privilege for those in their graves. Sr. Fructuosa wanted no rest. She continued to work.
It was thus that we saw her the last two years; the image of her is unforgettable for all of us: her bloated legs stretched out, she sat on the floor, in summer by the open door, in winter close behind the drab paper screen in hergreenish soldier’s uniform. On her knees lay the open spectacles case inside of which she had glued a picture of the Sacred Heart. She quietly conversed with the Divine Master. The eyeglasses, whose arms were broken off, she had to balance on the front of her nose since her vision had become increasingly poor. Her needle was made from a piece of copper wire that the resourceful brothers had primitively devised. Scissors were unnecessary because the thread, a product of artificial silk, dissolved if it were moistened.
Sr. Fructuosa mended and mended: In summer pieces of undershirts, scorched by the sun, in winter mittens made from rags and wadding. She was the last hope for charcoal burners, waggoners and woodcutters when they returned from the outside after sunset with icicles on their beards, noses and feet. It was impossible to work more than ten minutes out of doors with uncovered hands, to put the stiff frozen sock material on your feet the next morning, as they would not dry the whole day wrapped with a straw cord over rice-straw sandals. Every evening at their return home they dreaded the cold of the next day. They knew there was no light. Even with the sisters only a pan of pine chips smoldered in the middle of the sleeping and living area. It was also known that there was no solid thread, no material for mending and no place to dry things out. But one was even more certain that there would be no mercy in the morning when the guards provoked them about their work and no one questioned whether there were socks for the feet and mittens for the hands. Once they had distributed these things at the beginning of winter, the case was finished for them.
A weak ray of light shimmered through the paper doors of the “sisters’ convent” (as even the police entitled our mud huts). Behind these doors sat Sr. Fructuosa,…sick, swollen, weary…Mostly you could hear from outside, “Sr. Fructuosa?”… “I’m here,” came the ready answer. “My gloves are worn out…!” “Yes, the patches were so ragged” “And the shreds were clinging to the socks”…“Of course, this thread cannot hold up in the snow melt.” “Tomorrow morning…?” “Sure, tomorrow morning you will have your things. Put them down there by the side door!” –One after the other they brought their tattered things; most of the time they lay there in a big heap next to sister, day after day for months on end. With like willingness, the kitchen provided a place to dry things out at night on the covers of kettles and on hot stones. What was still too damp in the evening, was sufficiently dried by early dawn. Many times the last stitches remained unsown because the guards were screaming so much. Love is kind, it does not become embittered; it is also not often utilized to its fullest limits. Love wants to be exercised to its fullest. Then it is happy.
She experienced the first serious stroke and its consequences as a result of the sudden scare that a young policeman gave her in his high spirits. It took days until her mind became clear again. How much good she had done these people! How often they came with their torn belongings and Sr. Fructuosa had to put everything aside to fix up buttons and repair other damages. However, it was never observed that she was less friendly or reproachful toward that officer. She did not want anyone to speak of it; nothing was to change.
Even if she was once again in command of herself, her equilibrium was disturbed; she could hardly tolerate the course food and she visibly went down. The sick rations were hunger rations, scarcely two-thirds of the normal rations, which were already insufficient. However, Sr. Fructuosa was not able to take even this little for herself. She asked, at least once if not twice a day, to have her food given to someone who was starving. It was to be a priest for whom she wanted to sacrifice and pray that God would support him and uphold his strength for mission work. It was the same priest who administered the sacraments of the dying to her and who then expressed that he held this as a special grace in his priestly life.
After some months she had a second stroke, a short period of being bedridden under pitiable conditions—love bears everything. She not only bore it, she gave her very last strength in order to give a break for the overworked sisters in the kitchen until she collapsed. Half propped up she painstakingly cleaned the beans with the last bit of her strength. Even so her sense of humor had not left her even up to the end…“Stiefele muss sterben…ist noch so jung”… you could hear her singing. She never thought of herself, she only thought how she could make others happy. After some difficult days, the night between the feast of the Mother of Sorrows and the Korean priest and martyr, Andrew Kim, brought her release. There is a small controversy whether one feast or the other ought to be considered the day of her death. But the question is unnecessary…love expresses itself in its purest form in both: in the Queen of Martyrs and in the martyr priest.
When Sr. Fructuosa and had died and when we had laid her to rest up on the mountainside beside our Sr. Eva and our priests and brothers, you heard it said time and again: “We should pray to her. She is surely with the dear Lord; her love has paved the way for her; her thousands of baptized children have certainly come to meet her with jubilation…She knows our troubles!…”And then they say many times, Sr. Fructuosa has helped! Certainly, she helped so that a good remnant returned home from the prison camp. Certainly, her hand or her heart is involved when several are allowed to work again in their beloved mission land…surely, she is standing there helping in our small new hospital; surely her love goes out again to the poorest among the poor Koreans, for God still fulfills all wishes if we are with him and she hardly had any other wish.
The gift of tongues? …They will cease.
Knowledge?…It will pass.
For everything earthly is imperfect.
But love never passes away, that we know!
A note on sources
The sources in English for the group of martyrs, Abbot-Bishop Boniface Sauer, OSB, Fr. Benedict Kim, OSB and their Companions, is rather meager. The Missionary Benedictine Sisters of Tutzing offer biographical sketches for their four martyrs on their website, www.osb-tutzing.pcn.net. In addition, a description of the whole period of trial from May 1949 to January 1954 along with the years preceding it, may be found in Sr. Gertrude Link’s autobiography, My Way with God; Experiences of a Missionary Benedictine Sister on Five Continents, trans. Sr. Matilda Handl (St. Ottilien: EOS Verlag, 1999) 111-180.
Other descriptions of the experience include that of Frideswide Sandeman, OSB, “Forced Labour in Korea,” The Way Supplement 40 (Spring 1981) 79–84. A longer first hand account based on the reports of several of the monks and sisters who survived the prison camp ordeal is found in “The Sufferings of the Benedictine Mission in North Korea,” in Catholic Korea: Yesterday and Today, comp. and ed., Joseph Chang-mun Kim and John Jae-sun Chung (Seoul: Catholic Korea Publishing Co., 1964) 433–472. The majority of this account comes from a report of Fr. Eligius Kohler, OSB.
A list of the martyrs may be found online at the website of “Hagiography Circle: an Online Resource on contemporary Hagiography,” ¬ see newsaints.faithweb.com/martyrs/Korea3.htm
Joel Macul, OSB