From her office in Waldbreitbach, a small village situated in the Westerwald mountains of western Germany, Edith-Maria Magar has a breathtaking view across the Wiedtal valley. Her spacious workplace is suffused with light and belongs to a sprawling abbey that sits on top of the Klosterberg, or Cloister hill. It has been the home of the 67-year-old Franciscan nun since 1977.
Since 2012, Magar has run a small empire of 300 nuns and nonaffiliated employees as “mother superior,” the official name for her position in the terminology of the Roman Catholic Church’s Franciscan order to which she belongs.
“Sometimes I’m still surprised how I ended up here,” the Franciscan nun told DW, making clear that she doesn’t mean her religious calling, but her numerous responsibilities as someone effectively running a mid-sized business.
The Catholic and Protestant churches are powerful forces in Germany, despite losing members in recent years. Still for Magar the reason for her call of duty in the commercial corners of the Catholic Church lies in her past as a business manager. Her resume includes positions such as vice president of the Caritas Association — which is Germany’s largest religious charity — and head of the supervisory board of Marienhaus, the country’s biggest church-based social employer with a staff of 13,000.
Marienhaus Abbey is the home of the Waldbreitbach order of the Franciscan Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Angels
Now, apart from running the commercial activities of Marienhaus Abbey, she is also deputy chairwoman of the board of trustees of the Marienhaus Stiftung, a charitable foundation that runs numerous hospitals, nursing homes and other social facilities.
Over all those years in management, sister Edith-Maria said she has learned how to deal with people, and how to remain faithful to her values even in the face of commercial pressures resulting from the need to make a profit.
She’s soft-spoken and chooses her words carefully. And although she’s not wearing the habit of a nun, but a business outfit instead, a necklace with a wooden cross betrays the foundation of her convictions.
Some call her a “feel-good manager,” she said, rushing to explain that actually it was a different logic in her approach that would make her stand apart from “conventional managers.” Leadership is what matters more to her than managerial skills, she said, because her attitude would “train the focus on the human being.”
Being mindful of human interaction has remained a hallmark of her outlook on life ever since she graduated from high school and joined the Franciscan order and trained to be a nurse. “It was a calling,” she explained, that guided her through careers as a teacher and later as principal of a nursing school, as well as a university course in sociology she did while she was already working.
The Franciscan nuns of the Waldbreitbach order are very active in caring for the elderly in Germany
A few years later, she took a course in management in Berlin to become a business advisor. For her, a proper understanding derives from the term “management” itself, which she said is rooted in the Latin words “manus” for hand and “agere” meaning actively doing. That’s what she’s seeking — to create, to act, to shape and finally do something meaningful.
“An [religious] order, just like economies, can never be an end in itself,” she insisted, adding, “It’s the human being who must be at the center of all commercial activity.”
Maintaining close relations with her staff is, of course, time-consuming, Magar admitted, which is why the days at work can sometimes stretch well into 9 p.m. in the evening. “But if I wouldn’t find the time for prayers and the congregation anymore, I’d know something is going wrong,” she said.
As environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns have become the new mantra of modern-day managers, sister Edith-Maria said that all three tenets of sustainability have long been enshrined in Franciscan nuns’ self-conception. The abbey’s cattle herds are all made up of endangered races, and they graze on the organic pastures of Cloister hill.
What bothers her a bit, though, is her car that’s a hybrid and not fully electric, because she can’t afford to waste any time for recharging, she said, due to her tight daily schedule.
What may also sound a bit surprising is the fact that she’s never run into career obstacles in the male-dominated Catholic Church. Quite the contrary, she said, as strict gender separation there has avoided her hitting the proverbial “glass ceiling” — an invisible barrier set by men that prevents women from being promoted to managerial positions within an organization.
As a member of an all-female congregation of nuns, she was democratically elected by her fellow sisters for a term of 12 years. An open voting system is also what she said she would prefer to see installed in choosing other top positions within the Catholic Church, but for now she will keep focusing on her many responsibilities.
It’s not that easy to capture the twin spires of this symbol of Cologne in one picture. At a height of 157 meters (515 ft), Cologne Cathedral is the world’s third-tallest church. It took more than 500 years to build, but it was worth it. This magnificent Gothic structure is one of the most popular sights in Germany.
A cupola that weighs tons but still seems to float: the Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, in Dresden was rebuilt with donations from around the world after it was destroyed in World War II. Just as it did when it was first opened in 1743, it is once again part of the skyline of the Baroque city on the River Elbe.
The distinctive steeple with the copper top has pointed mariners the way up the Elbe to Hamburg since the 17th century. St. Michael’s Church, which the locals simply call “Michel,” is considered the most beautiful Baroque church in northern Germany.
Small city, big church! At a height of 161.5 meters (530 ft), Ulm Minster’s tower is the tallest in the world. Visitors have to be in good shape to climb the 768 steps to the observation platform. They’ll be rewarded with a view that, in good weather, reaches all the way to the Alps.
The old church tower is a reminder of the destruction in World War II, the new tower a reminder of the exertions of rebuilding. “Lipstick and powder compact” — that’s the nickname Berliners gave the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church when it was reconsecrated in 1961. It’s now one of the landmarks in the western part of central Berlin.
Charlemagne laid the foundation stone for the cathedral in 800 AD and made it the heart of his empire. As the place where German kings were once crowned, it is one of the most important churches in the Western world. In 1978, Aachen Cathedral was the first building in Germany to be made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Munich’s Frauenkirche, the Cathedral of Our Blessed Lady, stands in the heart of the Bavarian city and can be seen from far away. No neighboring building is allowed to be more than 100 meters (328 ft) in height, so that Munich’s skyline remains intact. The church’s distinctive towers with their bulbous domes are modeled on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
Palm-topped columns adorn the interior of St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, but there is also a column in front of it, to commemorate the Peaceful Revolution in autumn 1989. At the time, the Nikolaikirche was the starting point for the Leipzig Monday demonstrations that heralded the end of East Germany (GDR) and the division of Germany.
Hildesheim in Lower Saxony is home to some 40 churches. The Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary is 1,200 years old and a jewel of Romanesque architecture. What is known as the “Thousand-Year Rose” grows in the courtyard of its cloisters. Researchers now think it may be a mere 700 years old, but with dimensions like these, who would bother to be so petty?
A Baroque gem on the shores of Lake Constance: The exterior of the church is fairly simple, but inside, its full splendor is revealed, with countless sculpted figures of angels, ceiling frescoes and opulent ornamentation. Incidentally, the tower clock dates from 1750 and is the oldest working clock in Germany.
To the left, St. Mary’s Cathedral and to the right, the Church of St. Severus: This imposing ensemble rises over Erfurt’s Old Town. Perhaps the residents of Erfurt were especially devout, or had too much money. In any case, the result is impressive: two examples of the finest Gothic architecture right next to each other.
The article has been translated from German.