Paul Joseph Nardini was born on 25 July 1821 at Germersheim in the Palatinate to Margareta Lichtenberger. His father, an Austrian military engineer, disappeared without a trace before Paul Joseph was born; not even his name is known.
Already from his earliest childhood Paul Joseph experienced what it means to be unwanted and unloved. His mother lived with her family where the little boy was regarded an unwelcome burden. After two years of deprivation and misery, a great aunt, Barbara Nardini adopted Paul Joseph and treated him like her own child. It was from his foster parents that Paul Joseph received the name Nardini.
Despite a deprived early childhood, Paul Joseph grew into a cheerful, lively boy. Already at Primary School, Paul Joseph gave proof of his outstanding intelligence, diligence and kindheartedness.
Although his years of study were accompanied by poverty, Nardini passed all his exams with distinction. He had never any doubt regarding his vocation. His burning wish had always been to serve God and His people as a priest. After his outstanding final exam at the Theological Faculty at the University of Munich his professors pleaded with Bishop Nikolaus von Weis of Speyer that Nardini be given permission to spend another year at Munich in order to gain his doctorate. A year later, Nardini had achieved this goal and on 25 July 1846 the Doctor’s degree for his dissertation “The Demons in the New Testament” was solemnly conferred on him with Cum laude.
Regardless of all his successes, Nardini remained true to what he had written in his diary at the age of twenty: “Nothing shall separate me from Jesus, neither joy nor sorrow, neither fear nor pain. To HIM I want to cling with humble obedience, profound self-denial and with burning love…”
A month after receiving his Doctor’s degree, on 22 August 1846, Paul Joseph Nardini was ordained priest by Bishop Nikolaus von Weis in the Cathedra of Speyer. For a short period, Fr. Nardini worked as a chaplain in the small town of Frankenthal, after which the Bishop appointed him perfect to the diocesan major seminary. Since Fr. Nardini longed to do pastoral work, the Bishop put him in charge of the Parish of Geinsheim where he quickly endeared himself to the youth and gained the confidence of the parishioners.
A year later, in 1851, Fr. Nardini was assigned to St.Pirmin in Pirmasens, one of the most difficult parishes in the diocese of Speyer. The presence of Catholics and Protestants in the same area led to great tensions between the two groups. The situation was aggravated by the fact that the Catholics belonged to the poorest class. They suffered from increasing impoverishment and many of them, especially children, were forced to become beggars in the street.
Nardini, the Social Apostle of Pirmasens
It was in the Pirmasens where Nardini could fully utilize and develop his many talents and gifts. It was here that he fought for the rights of the underprivileged and became the social apostle of Pirmasens. It was here that he realized he needed helpers if he wanted to carry through the dictates of his social conscience and of his burnng heart. He knew that his efforts would never bear fruit if his words of love would not be followed by deeds of love. The best way of securing this goal was to obtain the services of a community of Sisters.
The Protestant Town Council of Pirmasens was fiercely against the presence of Catholic nuns, but Fr. Nardini was not easily intimidated. Despite threats to his life, he succeeded, in June 1853 to introduce three Sisters from Niederbronn in Alsac whose apostolate consisted maining in caring for the sick, the poor and deprived children.
A heavy task awaited the Sisters. Their rented modest home was soon filled with sick, neglected aged people and poverty-stricken street children. To make things worse, the following winter was extremely severe and accompanied by an outbreak of typhoid fever. Day and night the Sisters were at the bedside of the sick until they contracted the disease. The superiors at Niederbronn hinted at withdrawal of the Sisters. At this very time the government issued a decree forbidding foundations of Sisters whose Motherhouse was situated outside Germany. Niederbronn in Alsac was at the time French territory. Consequently, the sisters in Pirmasens were regarded as foreigners.
These new developments were a heavy blow to Fr. Nardini’s aspirations. He came to the conclusion that his charitable work needed to be built on a more solid foundation.
A Ray of Light in Darkness
It was on Christmas Eve 1854 while kneeling before the crib and praying for strength and insight that Fr. Nardini was given inner clarity and enlightenment. His heart was filled with deep joy and trust. The assurance that God world make everything well, gave him great inner peace. He was now absolutely certain that he had to go his own way, independent of Niederbronn.
A Decision with Far Reaching Consequences
When the Superior General from Niederbronn recalled one of the four Sisters from Pirmasens at a time when typhoid fever had broken out once again, Nardini knew he had to act there and then. He admitted to the Sisters Home two young, unmarried ladies. Barbara Schwarz and Julianne Michel, who were members of the secular Third Order of St. Francis, to help with the nursing of the sick and caring for the poor. At the same time, the Sisters from Niederbronn returned to their Motherhouse in Alsace.
On 2 March 1855 Nardini clothed Barbara Schwarz and Juliane Michel with a kind of religious habit and gave them new names: Sr. Agatha and Sr. Aloysia. This was the beginning of a new Community of Sisters whom Fr. Nardini named Poor Franciscans of the Holy Family (known in South Africa as Franciscan Nardini Sisters of the Holy Family.)
Fr. Nardini had himself belonged to the Secular Third Order of St. Francis and therefore gave the new community of sisters the Rule of St. Francis.
Initial Reactions, Difficulties and Hardships
The people of Pirmasens quietly accepted the fact that a Motherhouse for Nardini’s own Sisters was being established in their town. However, the broader public was furious and the articles in the press were malicious and hostile. Bishop Nikolause von Weis, perplexed by Nardini’s spontaneous action, left the letters in which Nardini tried to explain everything unanswered for some time.
Despite opposition and being left alone, Fr. Nardini felt an inner happiness and peace. It was his unshakable trust in God that carried him. The bitter poverty faced by his new foundation) was for Nardini a sure sign that his sisterhood was of God’s election and willed by Him. The fact that more and more young ladies joined his new Community of Sisters further reassured Nardini.
Gradually, those who had been doubtful and had stirred up hostility had to acknowledge that they were put to shame by the active charity that resulted from Nardini’s foundation.
Fr. Nardini fought for canonical recognition of his foundation and the Congregation’s Constitutionand Statutes which were eventually granted by Bishop von Weis in 1857. Official recognition of his Religious Congregation by the Government was not granted until 1864, after Nardini’s untimely death.