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The Catholic Historical Review 87.2 (2001) 229-251

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New Institutions in the Village Kirdorf Endorse the Traditional Order:
The New Church, Workers' Insurance and Vereine, the Sisters, the Library, and Religious Practice

David Hertzel

In the center of the Protestant principality Hessen-Homburg in the nineteenth century lay the Catholic village parish Kirdorf. The village was about a half-hour's walk from its capital Homburg vor der Höhe. Kirdorf was home to around one thousand residents in the first half of the century, with 90% of all households supported by potato farming.

By the 1860's modernizing forces presented serious threats to the social order of Kirdorf. Industry grew rapidly in the region, and commercial and banking activity along with it. 1 Progress in transportation, communications, in electrical engineering, and other technologies brought Hessen-Homburg (and later Hessen-Nassau), including Kirdorf, into the modern national-industrial age. The region changed in a few decades from a place of quiet and isolated villages and small towns to a powerful commercial and industrial region whose center was Frankfurt. Homburg grew into a commercial satellite of Frankfurt, although it maintained a local economic base. 2 The influence on Kirdorf of Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, and Berlin, cities which early in the century had seemed distant, grew enormously in the second half of the century. In 1860 a rail line from Homburg to Frankfurt opened for passenger travel. This event was a milestone in the industrialization of the region, and it marked also an impetus in an increasing regionalization. [End Page 229]

The confrontation of the village with outside forces coincided with a struggle on a national scale within German Catholic society over the so-called "social question." 3 The "social question" referred broadly to the needs of an emerging working class in Germany. In the case of Catholics the social question also referred to the challenges modernization brought to traditional institutions and villages. How could Catholics protect the traditions of their church and their communities while participating in capitalist and industrial activities? On the other hand, if they resisted modern trends, might Catholic villagers not lose initiative in helping to shape the transforming world around them? Modern forces might overwhelm their traditions, ruin their institutions, their churches, and their communities, or move ahead without them, leaving Catholics in industrial Germany anachronistic and alienated. To participate or not to participate, that was the Catholic question.

To make matters worse, threats faced by Catholic Germans came primarily from non-Catholic institutions and trends. Since at least the 1840's Catholic religious leaders warned of dangers facing German Catholic society from "non-Christian" modernization. Many Catholics believed that capitalism, socialism, nationalism, and industrialization represented ideologies that were explicitly anti-Catholic. Catholic leaders during mid-century, therefore, were active in the development of social programs designed to aid Catholic workers to maintain a support system for Catholic communities without depending on ideologically anti-Catholic institutions.

Much of the incentive to protect the Catholic community as well as workers' rights came out of the work of Wilhelm Emanuel von Ketteler, bishop and archbishop of Mainz from 1850 until his death in 1877, and therefore also Kirdorf's bishop. Ketteler's work included the establishment of Catholic workers' groups, political parties, and lay organizations. 4 Ketteler visited Kirdorf on several occasions during his tenure, and Kirdorfers considered him a "friend" of their parish. 5 Ketteler had an important indirect influence on Kirdorf through the establishment of two institutions that appeared in Kirdorf in the 1860's, viz., the [End Page 230] Kranken-Unterstützungs-Verein (Workers' Health and Sickness Insurance Association) and the Schwestern von der Göttlichen Vorsehung ("Sisters of Divine Providence" 6 ). 7

A challenge to Catholic autonomy on a national scale mirrored a threat that modern trends posed to undermine the material self-sufficiency of the village Kirdorf. Modern threats to the village challenged Kirdorf at its social foundation, the village's household order, in two ways. First, during...


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