Two years ago, on the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, I posted a column on our website about one astounding miracle that occurred at the shrine of Our Lady there. You can read that story here In that account I noted the following about the Jewish author who wrote the beautiful book The Song of Bernadette:
“There are countless miraculous cures that have been given by the Mother of God at her shrine in Lourdes these past one hundred and fifty-six years. One of the most profound is that recorded by the German Jewish author of the book, The Song of Bernadette, a New York Times best seller in 1942. His name is Franz Victor Werfel, at the time of the writing a well-known novelist, playwright, and poet. I have it on second-hand authority that Werfel converted to the Catholic Faith before he died. A friend of Saint Benedict Center, Joseph Topalian, an Armenian Catholic, received this information from the abbot of a monastery in Austria where Mr. Topalian had studied in his youth. The abbot did not have documentation, but he stated as a fact that Franz Werfel was received into the Church at that monastery sometime before he died in 1945.”
This morning I received more information from our Third Order Prefect, Brother John Marie Vianney, about the Catholic influences that prepared the way for Werfel’s eleventh hour conversion to the Faith and his Baptism. It came by way of a Wikipedia article on the author and playwright. Here are some of the relevant highlights from that biographical sketch.
Wikipedia: “As a child, Werfel was raised by his Czech Catholic governess, Barbara Šimůnková, who often took him to mass in Prague’s main cathedral. Like the children of other progressive German-speaking Jews in Prague, Werfel was educated at a Catholic school run by the Piarists, a teaching order.”
The Catholic influence did not last long for the young man as he dabbled into non-Christian religions (besides the Jewish one) and even into occultish spiritism. Werfel also alienated some of his Jewish friends by his stand against Zionism and what they preceived as a certain “Christian bias” in his poetry. Having served as a telephone operator in the Austro-Hungarian army during WWI, Werfel found the time to develop his literary skills with copious works, so much so that by the end of the 1920s he had become “one of the most important and established writers in German and Austrian literature and had already merited one full-length critical biography.”
More from Wikipedia: “A journey in 1930 to the Middle East and encountering starving refugees inspired his novel ‘The Forty Days of Musa Dagh’ which drew world attention to the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Ottoman government. Werfel lectured on this subject across Germany.” This won him the enmity of the Nazi’s who were allied to Turkey and, consequently, all of his books were burnt in Germany. This explains why he was so esteemed by the Armenians and spent time at their Catholic monastery and seminary in Austria. (See paragraph two above)
In 1938, Werfel was living in Austria when the Germans invaded and he had to flee to France. I continue with the Wikipedia article:
“After the German invasion and occupation of France during World War II, and the deportation of French Jews to the Nazi concentration camps, Werfel had to flee again. With the assistance of Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee in Marseille, he and his wife narrowly escaped the Nazi regime, finding shelter for five weeks in the pilgrimage town of Lourdes. He also received much help and kindness from the Catholic orders that staffed the shrine. He vowed to write about the experience and, safe in America, he published ‘The Song of Bernadette’ in 1941.”
From occupied France, a friend managed to whisk Werfel and his family away, crossing the Pyrennes by foot into Spain. From here, in 1940. he moved to California where he died in 1945. His body was transferred back to Vienna where he rests in a cemetery there.
Interesting note here (as well as other facts not included in this brief column) that would give support to the testimony of his conversion: The Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles, John J. Cantwell, having obtained the family’s permission, gave him a Christian burial.