On a Former Nun

We aren’t sure about Katharina von Bora’s origins, and that includes who her parents were exactly. Best historians can tell, she was born in Germany about 1499. What can be shown beyond doubt is that her father (again, whoever he was) ordered his then nine-year-old daughter to be placed in a convent in Grimma, a town not too far from Leipzig.

Two things to note here. First, do you see that “von” in her name above? That means that her family was probably land-owning and had some money; they had enough money to pay a convent to take her in . The second thing to note is that convents, monasteries, and churches did a good job in the 16th Century of taking copious notes and keeping extensive records. That’s how we know what happened to Katharina beginning at that point in her life. Lucky for Katharina, one of her aunts was already at the convent as a nun.

The first half of the 16th Century in what is now Germany was filled with revolutionary thought and action in not only politics but also in religion. The young nun felt deeply in her heart that the traditions she’d been raised in her entire life and had been trained in at the nunnery and what the Bible was teaching about the concepts of salvation and grace did not match. She secretly joined the new Lutheran reform movement while still in the convent. Soon, Katharina and some of her religious sisters in the nunnery decided that they would renounce their holy orders and leave the convent. The small group contacted Martin Luther directly and asked him for advice and help.

The great religious reformer agreed to help, and he had operatives smuggle the women out of the convent in a fish wagon on the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday, 1523. Katharina and her friends were first hidden by Luther as he asked their respective families to take them back in. Almost all families refused. They either were angry that their daughters supported the Protestant Reform movement or they feared for their souls and also their lives if they were deemed to have offered support for Luther.

So, Luther did the next best thing. He found jobs, homes or husbands for the women so that they didn’t have to return to their homes. But, sadly, he could not find a placement for Katharina. We don’t know why for sure. Perhaps her family’s connections made her too prominent of a name for anyone to marry, help, or offer employment to her. And it wasn’t that the 25 year old woman didn’t want to marry. There was a man, albeit an older man, she had her eye on for some time. He was 41. And he, too, had been a member of a religious order. And, like Katharina, he, too, had left the service of the Catholic Church to join the reform movement.

However, he was somewhat reluctant to marry even though he was no longer a monk. Since he had become a protestant minister, he felt that his work was important, and he told her that God would have to come first. Katharina was fine with that. The pair married, and they moved into a former monastery that had been turned into a place of study and retreat for people trying to leave the Catholic Church.

Immediately after their marriage, Katharina assumed the role of managing the monastery’s resources and finances. She managed the land as well as bred and sold the livestock in order to make ends meet. She also ran the brewery. In a time when clean drinking water was scarce and food wasn’t always readily available, beer provided filling and nutritious drink for people. The former monastery housed many visitors and students, also. Later, Katharina ran a hospital there. Her husband referred to her lovingly as “The Boss,” while she always referred to him as, “Sir.” The former nun turned wife developed a well-founded reputation for hard work as well as a love for ministry.

She and her husband had 6 kids, and they also raised four orphans as their own at the monastery. He passed away after 21 years of married life, and Katharina was forced to move from the house where her family had been raised because of a pandemic and a war. She was injured in an accident in an oxcart and died at age 53 on December 20, 1552. That became her commemoration day in some Lutheran Churches even in modern times.

Her epitaph reads, “Here, fallen asleep in Christ, lies Martin Luther’s wife, Katharina.”

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