The fateful voyage
The five nuns who set out from Salzkotten were Henrica Fassbender, the leader of the party, along with Barbara Hültenschmidt, Norberta Reinkober, Aurea Badziura and Brigitta Dammhorst. They ranged in age from 23 to 32.
While the context of their mission was the mood of growing alarm in Germany over the Falk Laws, which placed restrictions on Catholic religious orders, their specific task to help run a hospital in St Louis, Missouri. Other nuns from their order had established a community there and the new recruits from Germany would boost their numbers.
The sisters set out on the Deutschland, one of the largest and most luxurious of the Norddeutscher Lloyd line’s Atlantic fleet, on
5 December 1875. The vessel was due to call at Southampton first before heading for New York, but it never got that far. It hit a sandbank outside the mouth of the Thames within hours of leaving Bremen.
It took 30 hours for help to arrive, during which time more than 50 passengers and crew died. The delay – and the lack of adequate lifeboat provision on the Essex coast – became a national scandal in Britain. The story dominated the papers for a week and The Times wrote on 10 December 1875:
“So far as the case stands at present, on the face of the evidence taken yesterday at Harwich, we are sorry to say that the loss of life would seem mainly attributable to gross neglect on the part of an important English seaport. Whether or not the appointments of the German vessel were in all respects adequate is a matter for further investigation; but it appears too evident than not a life need have been lost if the seamen of Harwich had been in a position to render assistance in time.”
An inquiry was held in London where the blame was ultimately laid squarely at the feet of the captain, who had let the ship get badly off course.