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Pater Gebhard Graf von Stillfried (SJ)

P. Gebhard von Stillfried SJ
* 03.06.1909 † 30.08.1974
Entrance into the Order 1930 - Priestly Ordination 1939 - Final Vows 1948

Founder of the "open door" in Berlin (OTB Offene Tür Berlin)





Looking back on the life of Fr Gebhard von Stillfried, which I was privileged to share as a 'Spittelist' in Breslau, as a fellow novice in Mittelsteine, as a 'philosopher' in Valkenburg and for a few years in Berlin, the phrase of Thomas Aquinas comes to mind: Humility is only genuine that is paired with high humility.

He recognised the 'little way' as his path from the novitiate onwards and remained faithful to it until the end. So humility, but in high courage, and that 'includes in itself an indomitable firmness of hope, an almost challenging confidence and complete calmness of a fearless heart'.

This chivalrous high courage was certainly already an inheritance of his noble descent. Like his brothers Wolfgang and Nikolaus (who entered the novitiate with him on 30.4.1930 and died in St. Blasien on 20.7.1935), his father raised him to be courageous. From his mother, whom he adored very much, he had the 'Blücher blood'.

In the Wroclaw Elector Franz Ludwig Convent ('Spittel') Gebhard was from the beginning in the so-called upper section because he was two years older than the average of his classmates. Under Fr Hubert Kraus, Fr Pies and Fr Stromberg, he was always among the dedicated.

P. Pies had formed a core team within the department with whom he discussed the respective group situations, by whom he had his work critically examined and who helped him in the realisation of all undertakings. Gebhard was one of the most zealous members.

His confessor and spiritual director in the last years of the grammar school was Fr Stanislaus von Dunin-Borkowski, with whom he introduced me one day. That became decisive for my life.


In Breslau he attended the predominantly Protestant Magdalenen Grammar School. His friendship with the later surgeon Prof. Linder dates from this time. In Berlin, he usually called Gebhard before serious heart operations and asked him to help him with his prayers. Once a patient's heart stopped. The professor performed cardiac massage for 15 to 20 minutes. At last the nurses said it was useless to continue. The professor said: 'No, Fr Gebhard is praying. In fact, the heart began to beat again.

His candidacy sermon from the novitiate is unforgotten. A predicate he often used was: 'That is touching'. His amiable fussiness meant that he was often late for the individual exercises. The theme of his sermon was: 'The Holy Family'. His first sentence was a resounding success: 'It is touching that poor people always have to be late. Thunderous applause. The ability to preach was proven with this single sentence which was so convincing. Satis est, Carissime', said the novice master Fr Kempf.


But this touching 'Geppel' had the courage at the end of the novitiate to write to Father General Ledòchowski and, citing facts, to ask for a replacement for the meritorious but too old Father Kempf.

He did his philosophy in Valkenburg, and studied theology in Innsbruck. There he was ordained priest by Bishop Paul Rusch on 25 July 1939. On 30 July 1939, assisted by Father Georg von Sachsen, he celebrated his First Mass in his home town of Silbitz (district of Strehlen, Silesia).

He completed his theology in Vienna in 1940. Here he began his actual priestly apostolate. He came into close contact with a circle of artists, which lasted until his time in Berlin. He sacrificed many a night there, many a borderline situation had to be passed.

He said little about his military service from 1940 to 1941. Then Hitler's secret order ensured that he was 'not to be used' and was shunted off to the Ersatz-Reserve II until such time as he - like all dismissed Jesuits - was to be deployed in an Organisation Death Company to search for mines. This did not happen.

From 27 May 1942 to September 1946 he was curate in Berlin-Biesdorf (in the east of the city). Soon the flats of his parishioners were destroyed by the bombing. He was usually seen in his air-raid uniform as he tirelessly helped his faithful restore their homes. In the days of the battle for Berlin, he was able to protect the sisters through his personal efforts. He was able to save the Berlin-Biesdorf retreat house by setting up a home for the elderly there after the end of the war and the departure of the Russians, and he built the 'Haus Winfried' for the parish. How unforgotten he still is in this parish today could be seen from the strong participation of Biesdorfers of retirement age at his funeral on 9 September 1974 at the Sankt Hedwigs cemetery (Berlin-Reinickendorf). It was one of them who addressed his brother Franz Graf Stillfried in shock: 'But I came to your funeral and now you are standing in front of me'.


In the years 1946 - 1947 Fr. von Stillfried was the assistant to the novice master in Pullach. He led the novices to the Holy Spirit and gave them the example of a radiant philanthropy. It was a beautiful collaboration with him.' So confessed Fr Deichstetter, the novice master at the time, on the telephone.

On 15.8.1948 he made his Last Vows in Wessobrunn (Obb.), where he worked as a pastor for over a year. From 1949 to 1951 he worked in Karlsruhe in individual pastoral care of the poor and needy.

1951 - 1957 he was student pastor for the diplomatic and interpreting school of the Foreign Office in Speyer and Germersheim. Once we met there. He was as enthusiastic as ever about his work. I will never forget his guided tour in and around the cathedral. He was able to bring Otto von Bamberg to life as a great builder. Among his students, the memory of his dedicated services still lives on.

Already in Speyer he suffered from severe disc pain. On 26 December 1956 he was operated on in Rome. At that time, his life was already on a knife edge.


In 1957 he came to Berlin. In 1958, shortly before the 78th German Catholic Day (the 2nd in Berlin), he opened the 'Open Door Berlin' (OTB). His work, to which he was able to contribute all his talents: his artistic gifts in furnishing the lounges, the library and the crypt, in designing the large display window for thematic eye-catchers several times a year, in organising exhibitions of well-known artists, his passion for preaching during the meditation of the daily services in the crypt. And here, at last, he was able to give away his burning heart for the people and their needs. Only the Lord God can measure the pastoral effect of the Open Door.

The financing of this work was only possible because he was able to inspire large and small donors so much that they never gave up. The confreres who worked with him should write a detailed tribute about this time, which most of us experienced. His lay colleagues, especially Mrs Erdmann, should also be acknowledged.

The spiritual legacy or testimony of his life to us was drawn by Fr. Provincial Brenninkmeyer in the farewell service on 9 September 1974 in St. Rita's Church in Berlin-Reinickendorf. He took 1 Corinthians (2:1-5) as his starting point:


When I came to you, brothers, I did not come to proclaim the testimony of God to you with overwhelming eloquence or wisdom. For I had purposed to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. Moreover, I appeared among you in weakness and fear and trembling. My word and my proclamation did not take place in winning words of wisdom, but in the demonstration of spirit and power, so that your faith might not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.

Fr. von Stillfried was filled with a great passion for preaching, carried by a deep knowledge of Jesus Christ crucified and driven by the will to help people (Ignatius) in all needs, from the physical to the deeply spiritual. And he did this in the way of simplicity, in the way of attentive and patient conversation, in sharing the cross of others. His special concern until the last hours before death was for the priests, not least those who needed brotherly advice and encouragement in difficult situations'.



P. Alfons Matzker SJ

From Rundbrief Ostdeutsche Provinz SJ, 5/1974 - September, S. 30-33

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