Serving refugees in Austria

Three School Sisters of Notre Dame volunteered to teach English and German to refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and countries in Africa, who were living at a refugee camp in Eggenberg, Austria, from 2016-2018. Sisters Helen Plum and Jean Greenwald came from the United States and Sister Martha Bertsch, an Austria native, came from her ministry in Israel. In addition to teaching language skills so refugees could begin to assimilate to their new culture, sisters offered their assistance to the families any way they could. Following the two-year mission, Sisters Helen Plum and Jean Greenwald said good-bye to the refugee families and Austria and headed home.

Sisters, Helen, Jean and Martha with three students at their going away party.Every day Sisters Helen, Jean and Martha would go into the refugee camp to teach, visit and offer any support families needed. Sister Helen says, “We were teaching, but also helping the families find and set up housing, taking children to government agencies and doctors’ appointments, and shopping for groceries. You name it, we were helping them with it.” Sister Helen grew up bilingual, having parents who were German immigrants. She also received her bachelor of arts in German. While Sister Helen taught for many years, she officially retired after 12 years as a pastoral leader in two Wisconsin parishes. She then volunteered to go to Austria. “Going to Austria was both a grace and a challenge,” says Sister Helen. She had to adapt her first grade teaching skills to fit with teenagers who understood little German or English. Sister Helen recalls, “My phone was a lifesaver. I used my phone for pictures on the internet and translation. I would translate from English to German and German to Italian or Arabic. Needless to say, sometimes the words did not come out right. The students would tell me ‘No, Sister, that can’t be right,’ so I’m not sure what was said.”

Sister Jean says, “Our main goal was to help these families become as independent as possible. Whether it be their banking, doctor appointments - anything they can take ownership over. This required working knowledge of the German language.” When Sister Jean arrived in Austria, she did not know German. She spent a month at the province offices in Vienna, Austria, in an effort to learn as much German as possible. She found it very challenging to teach the boys, because when they did not understand something, they would go back to speaking Arabic or German. When the ministry was coming to an end, Sister Jean encouraged the refugees to do whatever they could to be involved and to learn from Austria. She said, “I pray, they can go back home and rebuild their country.”

Sisters Helen, Jean and Martha on a river cruise down the Danube. When the refugee camp closed in April 2018, there were still families in the area; Sisters Helen, Jean and Martha continued to encourage their education by actively working with them in their day-to-day lives. Sisters Helen and Jean found it difficult to leave, especially when a student told Sister Helen, “I don’t have a mother in Afghanistan, but you are like my mother in Austria.”

Sister Helen returned to Wisconsin and is volunteering her pastoral experience in the Green Bay Diocese. Sister Jean returned to the Sancta Maria in Ripa campus in St. Louis and is looking forward to her next ministry. “I’ve heard of a need for sisters by the border to help immigrants and also of a need for sisters in Africa. I am currently discerning on my next step.” Sister Martha continues to live in Austria with the refugee families and is helping wherever she is needed.

Before Sisters Helen and Jean left Austria, the five Syrian refugee families they bonded with and supported threw them a going-away party. Sister Jean says, “It was very emotional, especially since three little ones were born in the time I was there. I am so glad we still keep in touch.”

You may also be interested in:
  • Across provinces and around the world Sister Leetta Hammack’s story of becoming a sister is similar to many, but a tragedy, a dream and God’s call made her story one of hope, excitement and internationality. She is from St. Louis, but followed a calling to Latin America and currently serves in Paraguay.
  • Germany trip creates international connections Notre Dame High School students and their SSND teachers visited the birthplace of the congregation in Germany. The students traveled to Notre Dame sister-schools in Bavaria to meet fellow German students and experience the SSND mission in another culture.
  • Sister furthers SSND mission in Nepal Sister Barbara Soete’s work in Bandipur, Nepal, transcends cultural, religious and gender boundaries. She and other School Sisters of Notre Dame from Japan and the United States teach students at SSND’s school there to give children the skills they need to reach their full potential.

Want to learn more?


School Sisters of Notre Dame

320 East Ripa Avenue

St. Louis, MO 63125

Phone: 314-561-4100


© 2017 School Sisters of Notre Dame