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Franz Hengsbach – Polish Pastor, Bishop and Cardinal

Besuch von Kardinal Wojtyla bei Bischof Hengsbach in Essen (September 1978)

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  • In Nowa Huta -
  • Bishop Hengsbach with Solidarność sticker - April 1982
  • With the Archbishop of Wrocław Bolesław Kominek in Rome - Bolesław Kominek was the initiator of the Polish-German correspondence of 1965
  • In the camp for Polish DPs in Augustdorf - Welcome greetings to the Auxiliary Bishop Hengsbach, may 1955
  • Franz Hengsbach - Hörspiel von "COSMO Radio po polsku" - In Zusammenarbeit mit "COSMO Radio po polsku" präsentieren wir Hörspiele zu ausgewählten Themen unseres Portals.

    Franz Hengsbach - Hörspiel von "COSMO Radio po polsku"

    In Zusammenarbeit mit "COSMO Radio po polsku" präsentieren wir Hörspiele zu ausgewählten Themen unseres Portals.
Besuch von Kardinal Wojtyla bei Bischof Hengsbach in Essen (September 1978)
Besuch von Kardinal Wojtyla bei Bischof Hengsbach in Essen (September 1978)

For this reason it is almost inevitable for us to be interested in the activities of Polish priests at the turn of the 20th century, and the difficulties and conflicts they faced in carrying out their duties. This was particularly the case because the Prussian state had an inherent distrust of Polish immigrants and introduced underhand means to make life difficult for them. The most prominent Polish priests were Josef Szotowski und Franz Liss who not only provided spiritual care but were also concerned with upholding Polish customs and consciousness amongst the “Ruhr Poles”. By contrast very little attention has been given to those German priests who came from the ranks of local dioceses, although they were also responsible for providing pastoral care. After the Second World War, not least because of their pastoral experiences, these priests were often mouthpieces and active campaigners in reconciling the German and Polish sections of the community.

In order to guarantee pastoral care for the ever increasing amount of Catholic Polish immigrants in central and west Germany several German dioceses set up courses in Polish in their theological colleges. Alongside the dioceses in the provinces of East Prussia it was principally the diocese of Paderborn which prepared its students to provide spiritual care to Polish-speaking members of the faith. This was mainly because local churches in and around Paderborn had been greatly affected by Polish immigration into the Westphalian part of the Ruhrgebiet and because of the seasonal influx of Polish workers into farms in central Germany. At the same time efforts were made to prevent any Polish national agitation on the part of Polish pastors. Even when budding priests from Paderborn regarded their additional studies and Polish lessons mostly as a burden which they did not always take seriously, it was nonetheless possible to train a remarkable number of local pastors right up to the end of the 1930s. These were responsible for the pastoral care (full-time and part-time) of Polish Catholics in the various parishes. At the start the circle of pastors included young chaplains, a few of whom later became leading representatives of the Catholic Church in Germany. One of these was the later Bishop of Essen, Franz Hengsbach.

Franz Hengsbach’s first meeting with “Ruhr Poles” must have been at the beginning of the 1920s in the Gelsenkirchen suburb of Schalke where his uncle Konrad Hengsbach was the priest of the parish of St Joseph which contained a large proportion of Polish-speaking Catholics. Franz Hengsbach followed his uncle’s calling and also became a priest in 1937. In the theological college in Paderborn Hengsbach took the opportunity to learn Polish in order to be able to care for Polish Catholics in the working class parishes of the Ruhr. This was the case in his very first parish in the Herne suburb of Baukau where he was given the responsibility of caring for Polish Catholics. Sometime later Hengsbach wrote the following about his time there: “Since I had learnt a little Polish in my studies I was appointed as a part-time pastor for Polish speaking citizens. My main duty was to hold church services for the Polish speaking members of the parish in their mother tongue, and help them feel at home in the church”. [1] That said, his activities as a pastor to the Poles soon came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the Second World War on 1st September 1939 when pastoral care for the Polish was forbidden. “It goes without saying that the personal contacts I had built up till then were broken. Nonetheless during the war I was also able to provide a lot of personal pastoral care to the Poles in our parish“.[2] In doing so Hengsbach was not only able to maintain and improve his knowledge of Polish but also came into contact with the specific features and forms of Polish Catholic religious practices. This knowledge was later to prove extremely helpful.

Many years later Hengsbach’s contemporaries from his time in Herne still associated him with his pastoral duties and linked their reminiscences with “the young vicar who provided pastoral care and church services to the Poles – with Polish hymns and sermons – even under Hitler’s Nazi regime after such duties had clearly been abolished.”[3] After the Second World War Hengsbach was appointed to the Archiepiscopal Curia in Paderborn and was subsequently entrusted with many leading duties, above all with the post of head of the office for pastoral care. In 1953 he was consecrated as a suffragan Bishop, where he was also responsible for pastoral care amongst the Poles in his diocese. As part of his responsibilities he also visited the camp for Polish displaced persons in Augustdorf in 1955.

Franz Hengsbach was appointed to the office of the first Bishop of Essen on 1st January 1958, and later his experience in providing pastoral care to Poles proved to be of great benefit. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) brought German and Polish bishops together. Hengsbach made contact with his Polish counterparts right at the start of the Council. When he returned back home he reported that “in the following weeks of the Council my initial contacts led to many meetings between Polish and German bishops”. The personal meetings between the Bishops in Rome were one of the “special fruits of the Council” which ripened and found its most visible expression in the correspondence between the Polish and German episcopates. Because of Hengsbach’s experience in providing pastoral care for Polish citizens he quickly won the trust of his Polish counterparts. He also belonged to the narrow circle of Bishops whom the Archbishop of Breslau, Bolesław Kominek, had introduced to the proceedings of the Polish episcopate, and was one of the German bishops invited to Częstochowa in May 1966 to celebrate the millennium of the conversion of Poland to Christianity.


[1] Diocesan archive Essen (further BAE), NL 1/1560, Talk by Bischof Hengsbach „Auf Schalke“ dated 25.07.1985, o.S.

[2] BAE, NL 1/1454, Interview given by Bishop Hengsbach to Krystyna Grzybowska for Radio Free Europe (Transcript), not dated (probably around 1988), o.S.

[3] Schüppen, Franz: Kardinal Franz Hengsbach (1910-1991). Ein Bürger des Ruhrgebiets mit Herner Hintergrund, in: Binder, Bücher und ein Bischof. Streifzüge durch die Geschichte und Gegenwart von Wanne-Eickel und Herne (= Der Emscherbrücher, vol 14), ed. Gesellschaft für Heimatkunde Wanne-Eickel, Herne 2008, p. 131.