Gary Wiltscheck prepares to talk to the Sacred Heart Christian Women Society about his book on Sr. Adelaide (Agnes) Koetter, of Freeport.
When it would seem that every story of every World War II hero and martyr should have been told by now, it seems strange to realize how little was known about Sister Adelaide (Agnes) Koetter, of Freeport, until recently. Gary Wiltscheck, a writer originally from Freeport, now living in New Ulm, and a relative of Sr. Adelaide, has made it his job to uncover the facts about the saintly woman who grew up in Freeport, served as a missionary in New Guinea, and was executed by the Japanese in 1942.
In his book The Story of Sr. Adelaide Koetter, Wiltscheck details her early life, her work in the mission field, and her untimely death. He also speaks to groups around the state; recently he gave a talk to the Christian Women Society of Sacred Heart Church, Freeport.
Agnes Koetter was born in 1907 to Mathias Koetter and Elizabeth Meyer Koetter, on a farm a mile and a half north of Freeport. Sundays and feast days were strictly observed in the Koetter household, as was the case for most of the families of Freeport.
“When someone passed away, the church bell tolled for each year of the person’s age, while everyone counted and tried to guess who had died,” Wiltscheck said. Agnes was known to be a pious girl and also a bit of a tomboy, whether driving recklessly in the family pickup as a girl or balancing shakily in a native canoe as a missionary.
Following in the footsteps of a sister, cousin, and three aunts, she became a nun. She joined not the close-by Benedictine convent at St. Joseph but Holy Ghost Convent in Techny, Ill., an order which sent missionaries to four different fields. She took the name Sister Adelaide and served for three years in Meridian, Miss. In 1937 she was given a permanent assignment to New Guinea. She traveled to Vancouver, B.C., then boarded a steamship. Twenty-four days later, she was in Sydney, Australia. One month and 19 days later, she was in New Guinea, a trip she apparently found turbulent but exhilarating.
There she was assigned to the remote island of Kariku, an eight-mile- long and three-mile-wide stretch, with hilly trails but no roads. It was a place of scenic beauty but extreme poverty. Her mission station had a church, a 150-student school, and one priest. Adelaide was assigned the church, school, and hospital, while the other two resident sisters managed the farming operations. Later a training school was built, and other sisters and brothers arrived.
“It is quite a new feeling to become a doctor over night,” she wrote in a letter to her convent. “There are enough patients to keep me busy. Some of the sores and ulcers are horrid. I haven’t done any cutting yet.” In another letter she asks about the medical effects of baking soda and whether quinine is the only remedy for malaria.
The school was ill equipped. She translated a 150-page first-grade reader into pidgin English, the language of her students, typed it, then ran it off on a mimeograph machine. She visited a leper colony, where she joined a sing-along and taught pidgin English lessons. “Leprosy is not dangerous if a little care is taken,” she noted in a letter. She coped with earthquakes, broken sandals, which required her to walk some distance in stocking feet, snakes, alligators, and a runaway horse. In letters home she asked for a good fountain pen, something to help cope with flies, a thermometer, a fine comb, rust remover, and an English-German dictionary.
Everything changed in 1942 when Japanese forces arrived. One thousand of them were quartered on Kakiru, where they suffered marked defeat from Allied forces. The survivors interrogated the missionaries and concluded that some of them were spies and that they all should be deported. Forty-two people were herded onto a Japanese ship, including men, women, two children and a baby. Once at sea, all of them, along with 20 others from another New Guinea mission station, were executed in gruesome fashion, their bodies dumped into the sea.
This operation raised a number of questions. It is not known who gave the execution orders. It was puzzling because the Japanese and Germans were allies, and a number of the victims were German. The ship’s crew were ordered not to reveal what had happened and were told to say that their passengers had fallen overboard. The ship’s commanders were tried for crimes against civilians following the war, but they managed to convince the panel that the orders came from elsewhere.
The War Department only told Sr. Adelaide’s family that she was “missing.” After a year and three months of anxious waiting on her family’s part, the convent notified them that they were not aware of her whereabouts. Another year and a half passed before the family was told that the nuns had been placed on a ship which sank. This conclusion was drawn when a number of the nuns’ veils washed ashore but, in fact, all the religious were stripped of their garments before being executed, and their bodies dropped into the sea. In 1945, when her family finally concluded that she had lost her life and a requiem mass was held for her, a newspaper report said she had died on a sinking ship.
A grotto at Sacred Heart Church, Freeport, built and dedicated by the Koetter family in honor of Sr. Agnes Koetter.
In 1947, the Koetter family built and dedicated a grotto on the grounds of Sacred Heart Church. They maintain it to this day. The inscription reads, “In loving memory of Sr. Adelaide Koetter killed in World War II 1943.” It wasn’t until 1979 that the details of Sr. Adelaide’s death were known, by which time both her parents were dead. Wiltscheck believes there is probably more to be known.
He says, “I feel honored that I can perpetuate the story of a fellow Freeport native who made a difference in her life.”
The Story of Sr. Adelaide Koetter is available from Gary Wiltscheck, 20410 County Road 5, New Ulm, MN 56073; Ph. 507-359-9645 firstname.lastname@example.org.