The first half of the 20th century produced incredible amounts of bloodshed, warfare and social unrest: of the hapless nations visited by these plagues, Austria was among the foremost. Yet the Catholic empire-turned-rump-republic also produced some of the brightest lights during that dark time, and one of these was Hildegard Burjan (1883-1933).
She was born Hildegard Freund to non-observant Jewish parents in Saxony. Thanks to her family’s movements her college education – focusing on German literature, philosophy, sociology and economics – led the young Hildegard from Berlin to Zurich and then back to Berlin.
Having married an Hungarian businessman named Alexander Burjan in 1907, she received her doctorate the following year. Life seemed bright.
In October of that year, however, an acute renal colic landed her in Berlin’s St Hedwig’s hospital, and over the course of several months she failed to respond to a number of operations. But the care given her by the Borromean Sisters who staffed the facility interested her in the religion that motivated their work and life. The doctors gave up on her recovery at one point, but Hildegard was well by Easter of 1909.
Her experience led to her conversion in the following August; Alexander followed her example a year later. The couple had by then moved to Vienna, and just before her husband’s reception into the Church she gave birth to a daughter, despite grave risk to herself – and the illicit medical advice that she should have an abortion, to which she replied, “That would be murder!”
With her educational background and inspired by Leo XIII’s social teachings, Hildegard threw herself into working for the betterment of poor Austrian women – and the poor in general.
In addition to founding several organisations for women, she rallied women in the workplace behind the Austro-Hungarian war effort and was the first woman to enter the Austrian parliament in 1919.
The same year, she founded the Sisterhood of Caritas Socialis to work with the poor and the rejected, especially women and children. Dying a holy death, she was beatified in 2011.
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