[Image]  The Rev. Dr. DANIEL HÖRNEMANN, OSB  

One Who Survived
Father Gerhard Eugen Oesterle, monk of Gerleve Abbey,
divisional military chaplain 1914-1918

Born in Rottweil (Southern Germany) 20.11.1879.  Died at Gerleve Abbey 04.09.1963

The Benedictine Abbey at Gerleve, Northern Germany

Father Gerhard as a young priest

Father Gerhard Eugen Oesterle

His parents died very early, also four of their ten children. The young orphan was taken into a friendly home. In 1895 he was able to join the school of Benedictine oblates at Emmaus/Prague and because of his good results the school at Seckau/Steiermark – Austria.

He entered Beuron Archabbey and in October 1898 he began his novitiate. He took his vows on October 5th 1899, then studied philosophy at Maria Laach and theology at Beuron.

On September 10th 1904 he was ordained priest. On March 10th 1905 he was sent to the new monastic foundation at Gerleve in Northern Germany. In Rome he studied for the Doctorate in Canon Law which he took in 1909.

The Great War called him to new duties. Berlin asked Beuron Archabbey and the other monasteries for field-curates. Gerleve sent two. Already in November 1914 Father Gerhard was Divisionspfarrer (division-curate) with the Garde-Kavallerie-Division at Ypres/Belgium, where his regiment suffered most severe losses (fallen and wounded).

The division was then sent to the Eastern front where Father Gerhard had to take on such a big work-load as curate for the division and the field-hospital at Pinsk that he got an additional priest as his helper. Father Gerhard was highly respected by the divisional staff to which officers of the highest Pommeranian and Silesian nobility belonged. He was even more appreciated and liked by officers and soldiers than the then famous protestant cathedral-preacher Vogel from Berlin. His personal modesty, convincing piousness and constant helpfulness was praised by all who got to know him. Non-catholics were amazed by his frugality. He always sent his earnings to his monastery. He used to say “I’m the poorest man on earth. I only own what I’m wearing.”

Father Gerhard (wearing a stole around his neck and reading the burial service) performing a field-burial at the front

It was his duty to learn to ride. But soon he gave that up and used a sleigh nailed together from rough boards. In that vehicle he drove from one base to another to celebrate a divine service or hear confession, more often that not in a barn, even in the grimmest cold of the winter 1915/16. In 1918 he had to go to the Western front, then the war was finally over for him. He was decorated with the Iron Cross First and Second class for his courage during heavy shellfire in 1915.

As a highly decorated officer he returned to the monastic life at Gerleve abbey which he lived faithfully and naturally as before the war. He wrote a very exact diary about his experiences of being a field-curate during the whole four years of the Great War. This book though seems to be lost after all these years (the monastery being forcefully dissolved by the Gestapo in the summer of 1941 is one reason for the loss of documents). For 28 years he went to Rome to be Professor of Canon Law at the Benedictine University Collegio S. Anselmo. But besides his academic duties he always saw his main duty in the pastoral care for the men and women he got to know. When he went back to Gerleve abbey a railway-van full of his books followed him. For his 75th birthday he was presented with the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. At the age of 84 he died peacefully. He had intended, though, to reach the age of 100…

Father Gerhard with his Order of Merit
round his neck and his two Iron Crosses

For a direct link to the author of this article, email Daniel Hörnemann

Copyright ©  The Rev. Dr. Daniel Hörnemann, OSB, May, 2008

All photographs Copyright © The Archive of Gerleve Benedictine Abbey, Germany

Return to the Hellfire Corner Contents Section