A native of Germany, Rosa Gartner’s background seems almost shrouded in mystery. She was born on October 12, 1896 in Hildmannsfeld Amt. Beuhl, Baden, Germany. Records indicate Regine Gartner as the mother, but do not provide the father’s name. She had seven half-siblings, six sisters and one brother.
She probably came to this country with other young women whom Clementine Zerr or other Sisters would bring back with them on visits to Germany. Rosa became Sister Sophie Gartner and made first vows on July 7, 1914 and perpetual profession on July 4, 1920. She was naturalized in May 1929. She visited her family in 1922 and returned with Sister M. Edwin Haunss and Sister Theodolinda Henssel.
Her teaching ministry began in 1913 and continued in several small towns in southern Illinois and southeast Missouri until 1933 when she led the first five missionaries to China. Sister M. Louise Utar, who went to China in 1935, recounted that Sister Sophie Gartner went to Germany to visit her family before she left for China. The trip to Germany seemed to have solidified Sophie’s relationship with her father and other family members. Her letters to Mother Mary Stella and Mother Vincentia reveal a woman coming into her own strength in China. She writes in an organized, competent, even visionary voice; she had great plans for the China mission.
The Sisters quickly learned the value of working with other communities, especially the Franciscan friars from Chicago, Illinois and the Sisters of St. Francis from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Springfield, Illinois, and Dubuque, Iowa. Sister Sophie Gartner returned to the United States on November 4, 1937 and made the voyage back to China in August, 1938. She traveled to schools to tell the Adorers’ China story to students and also helped Mother M. Stella understand conditions in China, with both the missionaries and United States leadership becoming more comfortable with decisions being made on the local level. The superior in China could move Sisters from one mission to another and report to the Provincial either before or after the necessary moves. World War II ended the China mission; the Sisters were in internment camps from 1943 to 1945 and returned to the United States, arriving in Ruma on November 11, 1945.
The intrepid Sophie resumed her teaching ministry after the memorable years in China; there was, indeed, life after China. Once again, children in small schools in southern Illinois benefited from her talents as teacher, principal, and organist. In 1965, she retired to St. Clement’s Hospital in Red Bud, Illinois and died there on November 26, 1966.
Sister Sophie Gartner had definite ideas about forming young Chinese women for community membership that included keeping them in China. She knew the value of collaboration with other congregations, of leadership on the local level that took initiative, and in trusting her own insights. These ideas that we take for granted today had seeds in China’s soil.