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How a Polish countess became a Catholic Harriet Beecher Stowe

Marie Therese Ledóchowska (1863–1922), a lady-in-waiting writing mission tracts in secret in Salzburg, founded the Sodality of St. Peter Claver to free Africans from slavery.

Marie Therese Ledóchowska in a 1902 photo. (Image: Archiv des Missionshauses Maria Sorg/Wikipedia)

Countess Marie Therese Ledóchowska (1863–1922) began her professional life as a lady-in-waiting in Salzburg, writing mission tracts in secret. Growing more and more convinced that God was calling her to devote her entire life to Africa, she soon left the aristocratic milieu and founded the Sodality of St. Peter Claver to free Africans from slavery. The city of Salzburg, her place of work, was an unlikely place for anti-slavery activity, since the Austro-Hungarian Empire was not a significant colonial power, and the baroque city was predominantly Catholic, at a time when Catholic missionary activity was at a low.

Yet Ledóchowska’s heart burned for freeing slaves by spreading the word about the evils of human trafficking. The missionary field in which she labored was her desk: she wrote essays and plays for her cause. Pope Paul VI beatified Marie Therese Ledóchowska in 1975, during a Holy Year, and on the World Day for Missions. She never once set foot in Africa.

Marie Therese grew up in Lower Austria amid soon to be illustrious clerical relatives – her brother Vladimir became the Superior General of the Jesuits, her sister Ursula founded her own order and was later canonized, and her uncle Mieczysław was a cardinal – but it was another prince of the church who inspired the young woman’s literary vocation: Cardinal Charles Lavigerie. He had been Archbishop of Algiers since 1867 and used the French colony as a missionary point of entry into all of Africa. He had founded the White Fathers (and Sisters), a famous missionary order.

For two years starting in 1888, Lavigerie toured Europe and gave speeches, rallying all who would listen to the cause of abolishing slavery. During his speaking crusade through Europe’s capital cities, he had the slightly unusual idea of appealing to women, but this time not for donations or vocations as sisters (although he needed them, too). He sought writers. If a woman could write, he said, she should write about freeing slaves.

Lavigerie was looking for a Catholic Harriet Beecher Stowe, as he himself put it. Her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had been read all over the globe in dozens of languages. An Austrian newspaper ran it as a serial novel in German translation in 1853, and it  remained exceptionally popular over the generations, even being made into early silent films, with white actors appearing in blackface. If, as anecdotes claimed, Beecher Stowe had succeeded in launching the American Civil War to free American slaves, then Lavigerie found it reasonable to expect similarly grand results from popular fiction and stage performance, but about slaves in Africa, not the antebellum South.

Ledóchowska heard him and never turned back. At the time, she was a lady-in-waiting at the Court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany in Salzburg, where she had ended up after having to leave a novitiate of Dominican sisters because of weak health. The superficiality of court life exhausted her; after hearing Lavigerie’s message, she started writing novels and plays in secret, when she wasn’t needed at court. She published them under the pen name Halka, her uncle-cardinal’s middle name.

Soon, court life could no longer hold her. She founded antislavery committees in Austria with other aristocratic friends, but these initiatives moved too slowly for her, and they remained too marginal.

In 1889, Ledóchowska founded a magazine called Echo from Africa, which is still printed today, appearing in many languages and distributed the world over. She later launched a children’s version of the magazine. She published letters from missionaries, speeches about the missions held in Europe, pictures of African mission stations, plays, and stories, and she reported on the donations that increased from year to year.

In 1891, she left the Court of Tuscany after having served there (in Salzburg) for five years. She wanted to devote herself entirely to missionary work in ways beyond writing in her free time and serving on charity committees. She started out in a small office she rented from Catholic organizations in Salzburg. After four years, a friend joined her in her labors, and soon others followed. They considered themselves “mission helpers,” seeking to raise awareness of slavery in Africa among Westerners. The group, soon to be known as the “Peter Claver Sodality for African Missions,” grew into a full-fledged order and operates on three continents today. Peter Claver, a Jesuit priest, had been known since his death (1654) as the patron saint of slaves; he was canonized in 1888.

The sisters soon established their own publishing house on the outskirts of Salzburg, against opposition from many in a period when women did not yet have the right to vote. Ledóchowska had felt compelled to use a masculine pseudonym for her first mission plays, but soon mustered the courage to publish them under her own name. While her plays and writing did not reach the list of Great Books, they touched hearts and motivated people to act idealistically. (George Orwell – referring to Uncle Tom’s Cabin – identified this didactic genre of writing as an example of “good bad books.”)

During during World War I, further political problems jeopardized Ledóchowska’s work. Was she using donations to support the work of “enemy” missionaries, that is, missionaries from European nations at war with Austria-Hungary? She refused to let herself be instrumentalized by the war effort, moved to Switzerland, and continued to support missionaries from many orders, regardless of nationality. She was mocked by anti-clerical journalists who made fun of her aristocratic manners and her kinship with high-ranking clerics in Rome.

No amount of controversy could stop the sickly ascetic woman from traveling around Europe and hosting various types of events, ranging from “mission evenings” in which eyewitnesses of slavery gave accounts to conferences with hundreds of participants that lasted several days. Her speeches were often multimedia events that used modern technology to make people’s hearts burn for spreading faith in Christ and freeing those in bondage. Together with missionaries, bishops, and aristocrats, great numbers of volunteers distributed periodicals, gathered funds, and hosted events in their parishes. Women and children did most of the work.

A special feature of these groups’ work was allowing donors to sponsor an abandoned baby for baptism. Throughout the nineteenth century, many Protestant and Catholic missionaries encouraged European and American children to save their allowances and then provide for a child on a distant continent over the course of several years. One of the privileges granted to the donors – themselves often children – was the choice of the African baby’s baptismal name. The Holy Childhood Association’s work in this area may well have served as an inspiration for Ledóchowska.

When Christians in the West named African babies after deceased loved ones, favorite saints, or even themselves, it was a way of connecting. While historians have criticized the practice for being patronizing or paternalistic, recent studies have suggested that the practice strengthened bonds across cultures. In a similar manner, Ledóchowska was devoted to missionary museums and ethnographic research. She founded a mission museum in Salzburg, just a stone’s throw away from the press that printed Bibles, pamphlets, dictionaries, and ethnographic studies. She regularly toured with exhibits from the museum, which still exists today.

Ledóchowska’s life’s work was about more than raising money. The countess insisted time and again that she wanted to raise awareness about missions. This was an important tenet of the missionary movement: if Christians were eager about spreading their faith, that meant that they loved their faith and worked and prayed sincerely. This kind of everyday witness for Christ, so went the reasoning, was bound to raise the quality of Catholic identity, no matter where.

Ledóchowska and her apostolic works were described in a 1919 article in the Jesuit weekly America as the “nursing mother of African missions.” She died in 1922, aged only 59, in Rome, in the generalate of the Sodality that had become an international force and freed thousands from slavery. Her sisters are still at work today, helping raise awareness for human trafficking in Africa.

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About Fr. Alkuin Schachenmayr 1 Article
Fr. Alkuin Schachenmayr is a monk in Salzburg and a seminary professor for Church History.


  1. As a child in Catholic school in NYC, we used to save money in order to “ransom a pagan baby.” There was still fervor in those days for the mission of the Church – evangelization.

  2. Austria might not have had as much dealings with colonial Africa and the slave trade but the Ottoman Empire next door sure did. Slavery was only abolished there in the 20th century.
    Ethiopia formally abolished slavery in the 1940s and Saudi Arabia in the 1960s.
    The Eastern slave trade was massive and trafficked more human beings than the Atlantic route. This is a part of the reason why sickle cell anemia is a serious problem in parts of the world once under the Ottoman Empire, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and even India. Compounded by cultural practices of marrying within close family groups.

  3. Of the many who wrote to the Sodality of St. Peter Claver about a favor received through the intercession of Blessed Mary Theresa Ledóchowska was Bishop Joseph James Byrne C.S.Sp. (1880-1961), Bishop of Moshi, Tanzania.

    ” . . . she worked what I considered a miracle for me. She helped me to get the funds to build our Senior Seminary here. I started the building in April, 1938, with just enough funds to pay for the foundations.. . . in spite of enormous difficulties — depression — unemployment — local needs of dioceses and parishes — I got enough to complete the work and some even to help build a novitiate and chapel for our native Sisters’ Novitiate.

    I put it altogether in her hands. I asked no angel or saint, but the venerable Mary Theresa herself and her alone and said that in my prayer at her grave in Rome.”

    The Servant of God Mary Theresa Countess Ledóchowska: Foundress of the Sodality of Saint Peter Claver, Valeria Bielak, publ. by The Sodality of Saint Peter Claver, St. Paul, Minn. 1944, p. 202

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