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Franz Jägerstätter was born on 20 May 1907 in St Radegund, Upper Austria, to his unmarried mother, Rosalia Huber, and to Franz Bachmeier, who was killed during World War I. After the death of his natural father, Rosalia married Heinrich Jägerstätter, who adopted Franz and gave the boy his surname of Jägerstätter in 1917.

Franz received a basic education in his village's one-room schoolhouse. His step-grandfather helped with his education and the boy became an avid reader.

It seems Franz was unruly in his younger years; he was, in fact, the first in his village to own a motorcycle. However, he is better known as an ordinary and humble Catholic who did not draw attention to himself.

After his marriage to Franziska in 1936 and their honeymoon in Rome, Franz grew in his faith but was not extreme in his piety.

Besides his farm work Franz became the local sexton in 1936 and began receiving the Eucharist daily. He was known to refuse the customary offering for his services at funerals, preferring the spiritual and corporal works of mercy over any remuneration.

In the mid to late 1930s, while much of Austria was beginning to follow the tide of Nazism, Franz became ever more rooted in his Catholic faith and placed his complete trust in God.

While carrying out his duties as husband and bread-winner for his wife and three daughters, this ordinary man began thinking deeply about obedience to legitimate authority and obedience to God, about mortal life and eternal life and about Jesus' suffering and Passion.

Franz was neither a revolutionary nor part of any resistance movement, but in 1938 he was the only local citizen to vote against the "Anschluss" (annexation of Austria by Germany), because his conscience prevailed over the path of least resistance.

Franz Jägerstätter was called up for military service and sworn in on 17 June 1940. Shortly thereafter, thanks to the intervention of his mayor, he was allowed to return to the farm. Later, he was in active service from October 1940 to April 1941, until the mayor's further intervention permitted his return home.

He became convinced that participation in the war was a serious sin and decided that any future call-up had to be met with his refusal to fight.

"It is very sad", he wrote, "to hear again and again from Catholics that this war waged by Germany is perhaps not so unjust because it will wipe out Bolshevism.... But now a question: what are they fighting in this Country - Bolshevism or the Russian People?

"When our Catholic missionaries went to a pagan country to make them Christians, did they advance with machine guns and bombs in order to convert and improve them?... If adversaries wage war on another nation, they have usually invaded the country not to improve people or even perhaps to give them something, but usually to get something for themselves.... If we were merely fighting Bolshevism, these other things - minerals, oil wells or good farmland - would not be a factor".

Jägerstätter was at peace with himself despite the alarm he could have experienced witnessing the masses' capitulation to Hitler. Mesmerized by the National Socialist propaganda machine, many people knelt when Hitler made his entrance into Vienna. Catholic Churches were forced to fly the swastika flag and subjected to other abusive laws.

In February 1943 Franz was called up again for military service. He presented himself at the induction centre on 1 March 1943 and announced his refusal to fight, offering to carry out non-violent services: this was denied him.

He was held in custody at Linz in March and April, transferred to Berlin-Tegel in May and subject to trial on 6 July 1943 when he was condemned to death for sedition. The prison chaplain was struck by the man's tranquil character. On being offered the New Testament, he replied: "I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord, and any reading would only interrupt my communication with my God".

On 9 August, before being executed, Franz wrote: "If I must write... with my hands in chains, I find that much better than if my will were in chains. Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith and his free will. God gives so much strength that it is possible to bear any suffering.... People worry about the obligations of conscience as they concern my wife and children.

But I cannot believe that, just because one has a wife and children, a man is free to offend God".

Franz Jägerstätter, who would not bow his head to Hitler, bowed his head to God, and the guillotine took care of the rest. He was obviously called up to serve a higher order.

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Bl. Franz Jägerstätter (1907-1943)

Layman and martyr

Franziska  Jägerstätter

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Franziska Jägerstätter

Franziska Jägerstätter, the widow of Austrian conscientious objector and martyr Franz Jägerstätter, died March 16, two weeks after celebrating her 100th birthday.

A native of Upper Austria, Franziska Jägerstätter gained a certain international renown nearly six years ago when her husband, who was beheaded in 1943 for refusing to join the Nazi cause on religious grounds, was beatified in an elaborate ceremony in St. Mary's Cathedral in Linz, Austria.

During the October 2007 ceremony, Franziska, then 94, was introduced to a sustained standing ovation. At one point in the ceremony, she walked to the sanctuary where she kissed an urn containing a bone fragment of her husband before turning it over for preservation in the cathedral.

Her funeral was held March 23 in her home village of St. Radegund. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn and several other bishops officiated at an outdoor Mass.

Author Erna Putz, a longtime friend of the family, explained at the time of the beatification that while the honor was an acknowledgment of Franz Jägerstätter's courage and conviction, it was also a vindication of Franziska, who had been the target of resentment among those in the farming village of St. Radegund, where the Jägerstätters lived. Some blamed her for influencing her husband's outlook and thus, ultimately, the path he took to his death.

It is clear from a biography, In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter, written by the late Catholic peace activist Gordon Zahn, that the devout resister was a somewhat wild young man who had a reputation as a womanizer. According to the later Putz biography, Franz Jägerstätter Martyr: A Shining Example in Dark Times, he questioned his faith and stopped attending church during the period of 1927-30 while working in the iron ore industry in Eisenerz. Putz said he eventually returned to his home village "a stronger believer than ever." The faith apparently continued to grow and deepen throughout the rest of his life. At one point, he considered religious life but was discouraged from it by a parish priest. He married Franziska in 1936. The abundant correspondence between the two during the slightly more than three months Jägerstätter spent in prison before his death show that she actually had tried to change his mind at the start of his imprisonment, but came to an understanding of his deep convictions during his prison stay.

Jesuit Fr. John Dear, a peace activist who said that Jägerstätter's life was one of the influences that convinced him to go into the seminary, once wrote of a chance meeting with Franziska in St. Radegund. He had gone there to look for the homestead and came upon an elderly woman eating plums from a tree outside a residence. When he asked if she knew where the Jägerstätters lived, she responded, "I am Frau Jägerstätter."

"She looks like Georgia O'Keefe," Dear wrote, "has the sparkling eyes of Mother Teresa, a warm, gentle soul with an infectious joy and loving kindness. She carries herself with humility, a hint of shyness. But beneath lies strength, a solid faith, deep peace, towering Gospel conviction. She stands, to my mind, as much a saint as her martyred husband. After Franz died, she took up his job as sacristan and set about to raise their three girls and keep his memory alive.

"She offered words of welcome and showed me around," Dear continued. "Our first stop, the old family home, where Franz lived and worked, now a national museum. I ambled through the rooms and gazed upon the displays. I examined Franz's letters and his belongings, while Franziska and one of her daughters offered commentary, bringing Franz alive. During the evening, Franziska opened her photo albums and we gathered around, and the family conjured precious memories, warm and worn, story upon story."

It is unusual for Catholics on the path to sainthood to have been married, and a rather endearing moment occurred during the beatification, the second step to sainthood between being declared "venerable" and being canonized. Some 5,000 people crowded into the cathedral broke into sustained applause when Jägerstätter's four daughters, all of whom attended the ceremony, were acknowledged. He had three with Franziska -- Maria, Rosalia and Aloisa. A fourth, Hildegard, was born out of wedlock to another woman before his marriage to Franziska.

The evening of the beatification, a public official in that region of Austria hosted a large reception and buffet for those attending the ceremony. Franziska could be seen at a table, raising a glass of wine and greeting a steady stream of visitors.

Author Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. He attended the beatification ceremony for Franz Jägerstätter.

This story appeared in the April 12-25, 2013 print issue of National Catholic Reporter under the headline: Widow of beatified Austrian dies at 100 .

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