Groundbreaking Biographies of “German martyrs”, Who Were “violently killed” in Africa

Catholic Bishops in Germany have compiled biographies of over 30 German “martyrs”, who were reportedly “victims of violence in Africa” to ensure that their testimonies are not lost.

In a note he sent to ACI Africa, Mons. Helmut Moll, the representative of the German Catholic Bishops' Conference for the Martyrology of the 20th Century, said that the list includes missionaries who died in violent uprisings and political unrests in African communities.

“I would like to draw your attention to Christian missionaries as victims of violence in Africa who were violently killed in the last century and who should be saved from oblivion,” Mons. Moll said.

Bishop Adolph Schmitt in Rhodesia 1976

He added that publication of testimonies of the German martyrs, who played a significant role in evangelizing the continent would go a long way in “rescuing” the Christian victims of violence associated with Africa “from oblivion.”


The German martyrs whose profiles have been documented include Fr. Franz Jäger, a member of the Oblates, who was killed in 1905 in South West Africa during the Herero uprising. South West Africa was a territory under South African administration from 1915 to 1990; it became the present-day Namibia.

Others are the three Dominican missionaries, who lost their lives in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) in 1977. They include Sr. Magdala (Christa Elisabeth) Lewandowski from Kiel, Sr. Epiphany (Berta) Schneider from Munich, and Sr. Ceslaus (Anna) Stiegler from the Upper Palatinate.

Bruder Heinz vom Kreuz (Heinz) Eberlein

For decades now, the documentation of German martyrs has found its inspiration in the November 1994 Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II on the preparation for the Jubilee of the Year 2000, Tertio Millennio Adveniente.

In the Apostolic Letter, Pope John Paul II said, "At the end of the second millennium, the Church has once again become the Church of martyrs. In our century, martyrs have returned, often unknown, akin to 'unknown soldiers' of the great cause of God."

More in Africa

John Paul II emphasized the need to preserve the testimonies of the martyrs who he said had held on to their faith during the persecutions of the 20th century, and urged local churches to ensure that the memory of those who have suffered martyrdom is not lost by creating the necessary documentation.

Following the 10 November 1994 Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Archbishop of Cologne in Germany, Joachim Cardinal Meisner, initiated the project to collect testimonies of martyrdom.

Bischof Cassian (Franz Anton) Spiß

The German Bishops’ Conference entrusted Mons. Moll, a historian with prior experience working in the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the task. Mons. Moll also had prior involvement in the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

The first edition of the Martyrology was presented to Pope John Paul II on 18 November 1999, by Mons. Moll and Karl Cardinal Lehman, the then-President of the German Catholic Bishops' Conference.


A second edition came in 2000, followed by the third edition in 2001, the fourth in 2006, the fifth in 2010, the sixth in 2015, and the seventh in 2019. 

Bruder Bernhard Ignatius Sarnes

Currently, the Martyrology features nearly 1000 images of men and women who suffered and died for their faith.

Here is the list of martyrs of German descent who were martyred in various African countries:

Missionaries killed in Tanzania

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Sr. Avia Marschner from Schirgiswalde (Saxony), a missionary in Tanzania who died on September 15, 1905 in Daressalem in Tanzania.

During the popular Maji Maji uprising in Tanzania, the following Benedictine missionaries and St. Benedictus Missionary Sisters of St. Ottilien were violently killed in 1905: Bishop Cassian (Franz Anton) Spiß from Austria, Sr. M. Cordula (Regina) Ebert from Lower Franconia, Sr. M. Felicitas (Elisabeth) Hiltner from Bornholte, Br. Andreas (Hubert Hilarius) Scholzen from the Eifel, Br. Gabriel (Alois) Sonntag from Swabia, Sr. M. Walburga (Josefa) Diepolder, also from Swabia, and Fr. Franziskus (Karl) Leuthner from Baden.

Missionary killed in Namibia

Fr. Franz Jäger, an Oblate born in Eichsfeld in 1875, and killed in 1905 in South West Africa (Namibia) during the Herero uprising together with Christians of Protestant denomination.

Pater Karl Maria Weber

Missionaries killed in Congo

In the course of the political unrest in the Congo (present-day Democratic Republic of Congo) in the 1960s, the Sacred Heart Missionary Fr. Karl Maria Weber from Lower Bavaria was killed.

In 1964, the two Little Brothers of Charles de Foucauld, Bernhard Ignatius Sarnes from Upper Silesia and Heinz Eberlein from the Siegerland region, lost their lives together with Protestant Christians.

Dominican, Jesuit, Mariannhill missionaries killed in Zimbabwe

Three Dominican missionaries lost their lives in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) in 1977: Sr. Magdala (Christa Elisabeth) Lewandowski from Kiel, Sr. Epiphany (Berta) Schneider from Munich, and Sr. Ceslaus (Anna) Stiegler from the Upper Palatinate.

Sr. Magdala (Christa Elisabeth) Lewandowski

Still in Zimbabwe, three Jesuits died in 1977 due to the wave of political persecution: Br. Bernhard Lisson from Upper Silesia, Fr. Gregor Richert from Berlin-St. Adalbert, and Fr. Gerhard Pieper from Berlin-Wedding-St. Peter.

The following Mariannhill missionaries suffered martyrdom in Zimbabwe between 1976 and 1988: Sr. Francis (Elsbeth) van den Berg from the Bergisches Land, Bishop Adolph (Gregor) Schmitt from Würzburg, Fr. Possenti (Anton) Weggartner from Lower Bavaria, the Nuremberg missionary doctor Dr. Johanna Decker, Br. Peter (Edmund) Geyermann from the Moselle, Fr. Edmar (Georg) Sommerreiser from Schwaben, Br. Kilian (Valentin) Knörl from Heroldsberg in Upper Franconia,  and Sr. Ferdinanda Ploner from Carinthia.

In the note that Mons. Moll shared with ACI Africa, he said that the biographies of the German martyrs in Africa are currently being translated into Arabic.

Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya's Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.