A congregation founded at Aachen in 1844 for the support and education of poor, orphan, and destitute children, especially girls; approved by Pius IX in 1862 and 1869, and by Leo XIII in 1881 and 1888. Clara Fey, Leocadia Startz, Wilhelmina Istas, and Aloysia Vossen were at school together at Aachen ; they were the co-foundresses of the congregation. The home of Clara Fey was a rendezvous for priests and earnest-minded laity for the discussion of religious and social questions. In February, 1837, Clara and some companions rented a house, gathered together some children, fed, clothed, and taught them. Soon the old Dominican convent was secured and, with other houses, opened as schools. After seven years of rapid progress the four foundresses entered upon community life 2 Feb., 1844, under the rule and direction of Clara Fey (born 11 April, 1815; died 8 May, 1894). Fifty children were housed with the community, and several hundreds attended the day schools. In 1845 Card. Geissel of Cologne approved the rules and obtained recognition from the Holy See, whilst the Prussian Government also authorized the foundation. An old convent in Jakobstrasse became the first mother-house of the new order. The growth was rapid, and in quick succession houses were opened at Bonn, Derendorf, Düsseldorf, Neuss, Cologne, Coblenz, Landstuhl, Luxemburg, Stolberg, and Vienna.
The need of providing funds for the original work of rescue, as well as the entreaties of bishops, led to other activities being undertaken, e.g. high schools for girls, training of domestics, homes for girls in business, modelling of wax figures for statues, and notably church embroidery. For the latter, designs were furnished by Pugin at the instance of Mrs. Edgar, an English resident of Aachen, and the exquisite needle-painting of the sisters became famed throughout Germany and the neighbouring countries. The house at Burtscheid (Aachen) became, and still remains, the German secretariate of the society of the Holy Childhood. In twenty years the number of houses had grown to twenty-five, with 450 sisters. Invaluable advice and assistance were afforded the order by Bishop Laurent, Vicar Apostolic of Luxemburg, and by Pastor Sartorius of Aachen, who with Father Andreas Fey, a brother of Clara, acted as spiritual director and confessor. After the Franco-Prussian war, the devotion of the sisters in nursing the sick and wounded was rewarded by an autograph letter from the emperor and decorations for many sisters. The influence of the empress delayed the expulsion of the congregation during the Kulturkampf until 1875, when steps were taken to close the houses in Prussia ; but not until 1878 was the mother-house at Aachen transferred to Simpelveld, a few miles over the Dutch frontier. There Bishop Laurent, who had resigned his see, took up his residence, and remained as counsellor until his death in 1884. The exiles found refuge in Holland, Bavaria, Belgium, Luxemburg, and Austria. In England a house was established in 1876 at Southam, where an orphanage was immediately opened by the ten exiles who arrived there. This community now numbers over forty sisters with orphanage, day and boarding schools, and a school of embroidery.
The relaxation of the Falk Laws enabled the congregation in 1887 to regain many of its convents. At the present time (1911) the total number of houses is 38, with over 2000 sisters engaged in a variety of charitable and educational occupations, with thousands of children of every class.
The range of work is wide: seminaries for teachers as at Maastricht, Ehrenfeld, Brussels ; high schools (boarding and day), Godesberg, Düsseldorf, Vienna, Roermond, Maastricht, Brussels, Borsbeeck, Antwerp, Plappeville etc.; domestic training at many houses; embroidery at Simpelveld, Aachen, Brussels, Landstuhl, Southam, Vienna (Döbling); elementary schools and orphanages at most houses. The mother general resides at Simpelveld, the mother-house and chief novitiate, with provincials for Austria and Holland. The constitutions aim at promoting a simplicity of character and joyful spirit in imitation of the Child Jesus born in poverty. The twenty-fifth of each month is a day of special devotion before the Crib, the nineteenth in honour of St. Joseph, the chief patron, Guardian of the Poor Child; and the secondary patron is St. Dominic.
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