Maria Elisabeth Gruyters (1789-1864), the foundress of our Congregation, was born on November 1, 1789 at the village of Leut, near the river Mass, today in the Belgian province of Limburg. Her parents Nicolaas Gruyters and Maria Borde gave her the name Maria Elisabeth. She was born into a big family as the fourth daughter of 8 brothers and sisters. They were staunch believers who kept the Christian traditions faithfully. When Elisabeth Gruyters was 14 days old, she was taken to the church to be baptised.
Gruyters’ family had lived in Limburg, Province of Belgium for a long time. They belonged to the most important group of people in the village, being among the first pioneers. Her father was a ‘rentmeester’, a kind of estate steward at the castle in Leut. This position gave him an important role of organizing all the properties of the owner of the castle. The family was well known not only because of the position of Nicolaas Gruyters but also because of their good qualities. They welcomed those who came to their house with hospitality and warmth. The needy would be helped willingly. They had a very good relationship with others.
We know only very little about the youth of Elisabeth Gruyters. However, based on the historical facts of the country in general and the surroundings in particular, we can say that she had a difficult youth. At that time, the political situation in Europe was generally very difficult. There were wars, violence and a suffering in France, and, as a result, chaos was all around.
When Elisabeth Gruyters was 9 years old (1796), France occupied Belgium, and the Church was persecuted. In her 12th year (1799), Napoleon conquered Belgium. It was the peak of the war. Until now we can see the rooms in the basement of the castle in Leut that were used as hiding places for the victims of violence, especially the youth, who were forced to do labour.
With regards to her education, we also know that Elisabeth had education, no matter how little. This could be proven because she could write and read as well. We have no doubt on this opinion because we can read the story of the origin of the Congregation, which was written by her. This evidence is proven in the first and second paragraphs of the book that she left as a heritage for the congregation. She said, ‘But it seems to me, that before I start writing here…’(EG 2).
Later, in her 32nd year (1821) she left Leut to go to Maastricht, which was 18-kms away. In this town the situation was not so much different. Maastricht suffered the effects of the French oppression under Napoleontic regime too. It resulted into the abolition of convents, and churches could -for the greater part- no longer celebrate the Eucharist. Monks and nuns disappeared out of sight. Protracted occupation and plundering left Maastricht impoverished. Military life monopolized and the population was left to poverty and hardship.
In Maastricht she worked as a housekeeper in the house of the wealthy Nijpels’ family for many years. In fact, what she did was more than the work of a housekeeper; her attitude was as an attitude of God’s servant. This is very clear when we read her experiences during her stay with Mrs. and Mr. Nijpels. She did not only take care of their psychical needs; she was also very much concerned about the spiritual quest and welfare of the family.
Whenever she had some spare time on Sunday, she went also to Calvarieberg to say the Rosary with the sick. The experiences of her encounter with both family Nijpels and the sick in Calvarieberg were the foundation to commit herself to God by serving people especially those who were experiencing misery and distress.
Her ardent desire since 1820, as she had written, was the desire of to be admitted to a convent. This desire however gradually changed into the wish “to let a convent be established in the city of Maastricht, in which God will be served faithfully.” (EG 5)
On August 15th, 1836, the holy day of Our Lady’s Assumption, her prayer was heard.
Her desire was realized by founding the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Charles Borromeo, which she established together with the dean of St Servaas church, Paulus Antonius Van Baer. The members of the Congregation were dedicated to the care of the sick and the destitute and the education of the poor children.
Elizabeth Gruyters died on June 26 1864. By this time, she had transferred her inspiration to other women who, just like her, were moved to serve God faithfully by serving their fellow men and women. To this very day, the Sisters of the Congregation of Mother Elisabeth Gruyters, have spread to many parts of the world, trying to follow her footsteps and giving flesh to her charism according to the needs of the time and place.
The story of the origin of our Congregation, as recorded by its Foundress Elisabeth Gruyters, during the last years of her life, contains important facts and is at the same time the story of her own vocation and spiritual growth.