The five German nuns immortalised by Gerard Manley Hopkins in his epic poem The Wreck of the Deutschland were Catholic emigrants. They were fleeing a climate of persecution unleashed by the German leader Otto von Bismarck and his policy of Kulturkampf, or ‘cultural struggle’.
European politics had been thrown into turmoil in 1870 when Pope Pius IX proclaimed the doctrine of papal infallibility. This was essentially a gambit in a domestic power struggle, as the Vatican faced a secular political challenge from Garibaldi’s Risorgimento movement. But beyond Italy’s borders, national governments expressed disquiet at the notion that the Pope’s authority trumped theirs among their own Catholic citizens.
Whether there was any real threat to their authority is a moot point. But it certainly suited Bismarck to spin it that way, because the supposed threat gave him an excuse to reinforce his own authority. His serious of restrictions on Catholic religious orders via the so-called Falk Laws fuelled the convenient political notion of an enemy within.
For figures such as the abbess of a Franciscan convent in Salzkotten, Westphalia, the threat felt dangerous enough to start thinking about rebuilding their communities in the relative safety of the New World.