Heal the Stranded Female Youth

From April 1931 to May 1932, Gasperich Mühlenweg 159 was a “shelter-home” for young women in distress for lack of social ties and family support. As “morally endangered girls” suffering from venereal diseases, they might have been coming out of prison-like detention in Grund. As “fallen maidens”, they might have been expecting a baby and risked the fate of vagrant single mothers. The socio-medical micro-initiative was directed by Miss Catherine Theisen, a retired teacher and philanthropic activist in her forties. Nothing is left of the original building. An apartment house has been built on the premises. Catherine mentions an adjacent factory building, which she intended to transform into her asylum. Possibly, it was comparable to the kind of plants that we can still see today in Mühlenweg.

Catherine Theisen’s former home in Mühlenweg at Gasperich

Born in Hollerich on 18 July 1884, Catherine was the daughter of a cauldron maker. Her welfare activism had started 1919 in Allerborn, a village in the rural North, where she served as a teacher. Between 1926 and 1933, the shelter-home showcases a telling example for the struggle of micro-initiatives in a new socio-medical field. Benefitting from occasional public support from the city and the state of Luxembourg, it survived mostly on private donations and was continuously fighting bankruptcy. From Bonnevoie, it moved to Rollingergrund and then Gasperich.

A school inspector’s report mentions 3 adults and 1 baby, but also periods of vacancy. For Rollingergrund, a press chronicle counts 5 mothers, 5 children aged 1-13 years, and 6 babies of 2-8 weeks. Rollingergrund was a highpoint when Catherine’s institute had temporarily mutated into a nation-wide project directed by personalities close to the national Red Cross, like Dr Ernest Lamborelle, Parliament deputy and Antoine Ensch, director of the State prisons.

The final merger into the Red Cross came by the mid-1930s, after a forced move from Gasperich to an isolated house in Kalchesbrück. Before, Catherine had located ”a true disgrace for civilisation in the woods behind Gasperich and Cessingen, where depraved families lived in dug-out earth-holes”. In social hygienic terms, she highlighted the temptation of communism in the face of pauperisation, and she denounced the fate of “female youth, stemming from alcoholic parents and suffering from strongly affected nerves”. Catherine claimed that the Ettelbruck hospital, the Rhum orphanage and the prison in Grund were unsuited for young women and single mothers in distress. She also criticised their deposit in homes of the Congregation of the Good Shepherd in Trier, Metz and Nancy. Her aim was to create small-scale family-like environments in Luxembourg. In a letter of 30 April 1931 written in Mühlenweg, she said she wanted to ”heal the stranded female youth, through practical household education and development of their motherly love, from the sequels of neglect and demoralisation”. Her suggestion to import- because of their training in “healing pedagogy”- Luxembourgish Sisters from the Good Shepherd in Angers, points however to her growing awareness of the limits of benevolent medico-social action.

Findings are partially based on material from the Luxembourg National Archives , the Luxembourg City Archives and from Luxembourg’s press.