In 1934, Hermine Speier became the first female employee in the Vatican in the modern sense of employee with a salary and a pension plan. She wasn't a nun, and more surprisingly, she wasn't even Catholic.
If you are looking for a job in the Vatican today, and we are talking any job, there are severe restrictions as to who is eligible to get such a job. The Vatican makes no bone about it: Equal opportunities are a myth. Vatican officials don’t join in the game of make believe all other governments are embroiled in. If you want to join the Swiss Guards, you have to be Catholic, a Swiss national, and a member of the Swiss army. For any other job restrictions are less severe but you have to be a Catholic.
But in 1934 when Hermine Speier was hired by the Vatican Museum, the situation was different. There was no talk about equal opportunity then, but there was a need. Hermine Speier had just been sacked by the German Archaeological Institute in Rome for being a Jew. With recommendation from her (German) boss Ludwig Curtius, she applied to the Vatican Museum for a job. There was no job; and the mere idea of a woman working for the Vatican sent shock waves through the purely male establishment.
Pope Pius XI was unimpressed by his establishment and created a job for her. In doing so, he broke with every known convention on the way. She was employed as curator of the museum’s photographic archive on a pay per day basis, an arrangement that was later changed to a full contract. Her former boss Ludwig Curtius was sacked as director of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome in 1937 for his refusal to embrace Nazi doctrine.
When the Nazis started to round up Jews in Rome in 1943, Speier was moved to the nunnery of St Priscilla together with other Jewish families. The nunnery was chosen on purpose for having a back entrance that led directly into the catacombs of Rome. This honeycomb of tunnels under ancient Rome had been used for the same purpose by the Christians under persecution by the Roman Empire. It allowed the nuns to remove anyone within minutes in case of a possible search by the Gestapo.
After the war, Hermine remained with the Vatican Museum until she retired in 1967; she also converted to Catholicism. For having done so without duress, she was shunned by her family until her death. At her funeral, all family members with the exception of one forgiving brother were absent. Bigotry, it seems, is not an exclusively Christian attribute.
Hermine Speier was born in 1898 in Frankfurt am Main; she studied German language, history, and philosophy in Giessen and then transferred to Heidelberg to finish off in archaeology under the tutelage of Ludwig Curtius. She worked as assistant to Bernhard Schweitzer at Konigsberg University until she followed Curtius to the German Archaeological Institute in Rome where she was curator for the photographic archives. This job, like the later one in the Vatican, hadn't existed before and was created specifically for her.
During her tenure at the Vatican Museum, she published four major works dealing in archaeology and edited several more. She left her mark on the archaeological community in Rome. Her works left traces in the writings of many other authors of both factual and fictional works in several languages. She retired at the age of 70 from her post in the Vatican and died in 1989 in Montreux, Switzerland. She was buried with Catholic rites in the German Cemetery in Rome (Campo Santo Teutonico).
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