La Popessa. Many are not too familiar with this name. But it is quite possibly that this name is of incredibly great historical value in regards to the fall of the Third Reich and beyond. She served Nuncio Eugenio Pacelli, who later became Pope Pius XII, for 41 of her 67 years serving the Catholic Church. After becoming a Sister of the Holy Cross, Mother Pascalina Lehnert began her epic odyssey.
In 1917, Father Eugenio Pacelli was wounded by Communist Red Brigade members rioting in Munich. A young nun, who had recently joined the Nunciature of Munich, stepped forward to administer to his wounds. After doing this, Pacelli asked for her name and position. She answered “my name is Pascalina Lehnart and I am with the Sisters of the Holy Cross.” Impressed by her mannerisms and her dedication to duty at that time, when Sister Lehnart and two other nuns were assigned to assist Pacelli, who now had become the Vatican’s Nuncio (Ambassador) to Munich, with housekeeping details, Pacelli remembered what the young Sister Lehnart had done and almost immediately elevated her to the position of personal assistant, a decision that could and would change history for quite a long time.
At the age of 24 years, as a housekeeper and secretary to Pacelli, her influence was further elevated by another serious event. It was in Munich in 1919 when a short-lived, 27 days long, Leninist state known as the Bavarian Soviet Republic was formed. Help was needed in dismantling Leninist influence after 700 men and women were killed while fighting for the short-lived republic which existed in the Bavarian territories of the Weimar Republic. It was at this time that Pacelli fought against the Munich occult group known as The Thule Society, which fueled the failed coup against the short-lived Bavarian Republic and also led to Pacelli and Sister Lehnart’s meeting with a charismatic ex-German corporal who had served in the Bavarian Army during World War I, Adolf Hitler.
Keeping with Pope Benedict XV’s wish that Pacelli work closely in getting Catholic influence back into Germany, which had weakened since the German-inspired Sack of Rome by Italian nationalists in 1870 and earning Popes from that time on the nickname “Prisoner in the Vatican” , the Nuncio opened dialogue with the Soviet Foreign Minister Georgy Chicherin, who was homosexual, and his staff, many of whom were women and very common folk. In dealing with Minister Chicherin on matters of the Church and with Weimar Foreign Minister Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau on German Catholic relations and influence with the Vatican, one wonders how working with such a diverse group of people influenced Pacelli’s views of women in advisory positions, specifically Pascalina Lehnart, also known in later time as “La Popessa”.
After Pacelli, who was by now Nuncio of Berlin and basically all of Germany, advised the Vatican in 1923 on his findings of Soviet and German Church relations, the Vatican, now led by Pope Pius XI, did not agree with these findings and set up a clandestine hierarchy of bishops and priests with expressed interest of keeping the Roman Catholic Church alive in the Soviet Union. Three years later, Michele d’Herbigny, a prominent French Jesuit whom Pacelli secretly ordained as Titular Bishop of the see of Ilium, was sent to carry out this mission for the Vatican. Being a Titular Bishop, d’Herbigny was the leader of a Roman Catholic diocese which had no longer any existence, therefore he was a hired gun sent to resurrect a Catholic presence in the new Soviet Union, where priests and Catholic Bishops were persecuted, expelled and sometimes executed.
It was during this time that Sister Lehnart started a steady climb of influence with the future Pope, going on private visits with foreign dignitaries on behalf on the Nuncio, prepping him on her findings. Many of these visits consisted of negotiations with Soviet and Weimar officials and through this time, a strong bond was developing between Sister Lehnart and the future Pope regarding females in advisory posts, something that was frowned upon by most of society at this point in time.
It was about this time Adolf Hitler was slowly building his influence in the dissatisfied Weimar Republic. Knowing the gravity of the looming threat of Communism, the Vatican and Nuncio sought to use Hitler’s National Socialist Worker’s Party to undermine, harass and remove Left-leaning political parties, especially Communists. Sister Lehnart would be in charge of negotiating with Hitler over funding of his political party to achieve a Communist exit from the German political sphere. In the 1928 election, Hitler’s party only won 12 seats. Two years later, however, they suddenly won 107 seats and had second most members in the German Parliament. The Reichstag was changing fast and the Vatican was pleased up to this time, only to soon regret it.
It was in 1929 that the Vatican, under the guidance of the future Pope, along with Mother Lehnart and his brother, the prominent Papal lawyer Francesco Pacelli, convinced the atheist Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini to give them back some sovereign territories through the Lateran Treaty. The areas which were returned to the Papacy not only included the Vatican City, but also a small portion of areas which were once under Papal control during the existence of the Papal States. These areas would be very crucial to the Vatican in the coming rematch between Germany and the Free World.
It was soon afterwards that the Nuncio was recalled to Rome to become Cardinal Secretary of State, and with him would come La Popessa. It was here that Sister Lehnart truly gained power and earned her moniker. Traveling the world with now Cardinal Pacelli, she controlled his daily meetings, giving access to the Cardinal by some officials while blocking access of others. During the next ten years, Sister Lehnart and Cardinal Pacelli worked in concert through the Vatican to strengthen Papal influence throughout the world, creating an understanding and a need to let people know about the Communist ideals threatening world stability. On the Cardinal’s visit to the United States, Sister Lehnart secretly helped broker meetings with Joe Kennedy and people close to President Franklin Roosevelt. Through these efforts, an offer was made to silence influential Catholic radio preacher Father Charles Coughlin, a strong, anti Semitic critic of President Roosevelt and whose radio sermons resembled Nazi propaganda, in return for a stronger American stance towards Communism while recognizing the Vatican as a sovereign state with an American diplomatic representative.
Not long after returning to the Vatican, the decision to back Hitler in 1929 was now starting to haunt it. Now Mother Pascalina truly came into her own. While the Pope was the official head of the Church, Cardinal Pacelli was now running most the operation at the Vatican. On February 10, 1939, Pope Pius XI died. While the Papal Conclave to announce the new Pope was gathered, La Popessa was locked in the same cell as Cardinal Pacelli, as all potential Popes are required to do before the election of a new Pope, further enhancing La Popessa’s influence in the Vatican by keeping her out of the way of the Cardinals voting for the new Pope. On March 2, 1939, Cardinal Pacelli was elected Pope Pius XII. Now was La Popessa’s true time to shine.
While Pope Pius XII was the de jure Pope and the face of the Vatican, Mother Pascalina worked feverishly behind the scenes to alert the outside world that Hitler had not met the Vatican’s expectations, going as far as condemning Hitler’s ethnic cleansing. While many Catholics had long sought to convert Jews with things such as the controversial Good Friday Prayer, most Catholics had no idea what heinous atrocities Hitler was doing to the Jews in Europe and how the unpopularity of Jewish intellectuals who fueled unpopular ideas such Communism was working to his advantage to achieve greater influence in Germany. As the American 5th Army and the British 8th Army were progressing up the Boot of Italy, the thought of Hitler wanting to sack Rome, and the Vatican with it, out of desperation to weaken morale in Catholic Italy was now clear.
Mother Pascalina, being the nun who was in charge of the Vatican household, would now make the decision that would save the lives of 15,000 Jews by issuing false identification papers stating that these Jews were Catholic and thus were allowed into the Vatican. She also advised Pope Pius XII in trying to increase the Papal Guard from 575 to 4,000 to protect the Vatican and the nearby Jewish ghetto, along with Papal properties which the Pope had help bring back to Vatican control in 1929. These properties, by the end of World War II, housed over 200,000 Jewish refugees and in this regard, the Vatican was actually helped by German Wehrmacht officers of Catholic faith. As allied armies fought a retreating German Army, the Pope and staff refused relocation, instead staying with and bringing in as many Jews as possible. By 1944, the tide had turned and Southern Italy, which had once brought Mussolini to power, was now helping the Allied war efforts. It was now that Pope Pius XII turned to Mother Pascalina to head up relief organizations for Italians and, to a greater extent, Catholic throughout Europe. La Popessa now headed the Pontifical Relief Committee, overseeing the greatest aid program in the history of the Church, eventually housing 200,000 Jews throughout the Holy City. She also organized and led the Maggazino, a private papal charity office which employed up to 40 people. Through these groups, La Popessa and the Vatican relief efforts which she managed continued until just after Pope Pius XII died on October 9, 1958.
Given a two day notice to leave the Vatican minutes after the internment of Pius XII, Mother Lehnart would not maintain the influence she once had, but in reading memoirs and various archives, it seems she was lifted of certain burdens that could have developed the way personal burdens are developed after world changing events. The following year, Mother Pascalina was sent to the Pontifical North American College in Rome, serving the Church and students for ten years until 1969, when she was then given her last assignment, running the Casa Pastor Angelicus, a residential home for elderly Catholics some 134 miles north of Rome.
Some think that women and power don’t mix. Some think that they do. However, some are willing to compromise to get things done and to also survive in times of great crisis. It takes extraordinary valor and courage to make these difficult, life-or-death decisions, compromising one’s principals of thought. Among the Catholics at the time, nuns represented the gender role of house-mothers, held down to do menial tasks of nursery, cooking and teaching, whilst priests benefited with a rising hierarchy and the potential to become the Pope. Mother Pascalina, “La Popessa,” broke molds in a great crisis for the Church and Vatican, benefiting from a more open-minded Nuncio, Cardinal and Pope, Eugenio Pacelli. We can only hope our current Pope Francis will provide the same influence and acceptance of women of the church like how Nuncio Pacelli had given Mother Lehnart, “La Popessa.”
Bibliography and Sources
Book: Pius XII, Hound of Hitler, Gerard Noel
Book: The Diplomats 1919-1939, Gordon Craig, Felix Gilbert
Book: His Humble Servant, Autobiographical Notes recorded by Susan Johnson
Book: La Popessa, Paul Murphy
Book: Hitler’s Pope, John Cromwell
Website: Institute of Religion and Public Life-First Things-Pope Pius XII
Website: La Popessa.com
Website: Find a Grave-Sr Pascalina Josefina Lehnert
Website: Catholic Journal- Pope Pius XII’s “Silent” War
Photos: Getty Images, Photo Buckets, Stewards Blog, History Today.com, Ambrosius007