Ursula — a Catholic marriage

How a German divorcée broke religious boundaries by wedding a Portuguese-Indian lady in the early 1940s

I recently finished publishing the autobiography of my father, Alois Friedl, which was never completed — death came before he could do that. At the end of this article you can find a list of all the chapters he had finished. I will add to them, filling the biography with tales he told me during my childhood. And with material I dug up from relatives and friends, and from his ancestral home.

Alois was born in 1888 in the southern German town of Wellheim. At the age of 14, in the middle of winter, he ran away from home. He was adopted by a big-city family, and went on to work for an international Swiss company. He became a highly skilled technician, a master watchmaker who designed chronometers for ships that needed highly accurate time for navigational purposes.

Alois was an avid cyclist who won a number of races. He married, and had a daughter named Magda, who died of TB when she was sixteen. That was long before I was born, and I am sad to have never known my half-sister.

When the company set up a clock subsidiary in India Alois was put in charge of the technical department. During the first world war he was interned by the British rulers of the country and put into a prisoner-of-war camp. There he became a snake and wild-life expert, and subsequently started hunting in the lush jungles of the Western Ghats. He was a classical adventurer, but one who soon came to realize that killing great jungle cats, especially tigers, violated natural law.

After WWI Alois was repatriated and returned to Germany. After the death of his daughter he and his wife divorced, and he became an active opponent of the rising Nazi party. A wanted dissident, he fled the country and returned to India, resuming his technical leadership of the Swiss clock company.

When he had set everything up, very nicely, war broke out again in Europe, and once again the German citizen was put under house arrest by the British rulers of India. There, in the first few months of the confinement, he wrote a seven-page letter to King George VI of England, describing his life and his predicament. He swore that he never go back to Germany. And he actually got a reply from the king. Alois was awarded British citizenship and became a free man. The fact that he was a superb designer of navigation chronometers, which the British navy needed, may have helped the royal authorities to persuade the king.

I have undertaken great efforts to locate a copy of the seven-page letter — in vain. I believe it was handwritten and photo-copy machines had not been invented. Maybe someday I will get access to the Royal Archives and find it filed there?!

So Alois settled back in his job. He invited his bride-to-be, Susi, to join him in Bombay, and the two set themselves up in a nice coastal villa.

Susi, like Alois, hailed from Bavaria, Germany. She was a vivacious, adventurous person who gladly accompanied him on his hunting trips.

The two were set to marry, but before the wedding could be arranged something unexpected happened: the clock company hired an attractive new staff member. In his autobiography Alois discretely writes:

She was a Christian and her name was Ursula Gonsalves. She came from a small town south of Bombay and was a trusting and lonely person.

A staff meeting at West End — on the left the new sales assistant Ursula.

I took it upon myself to pay a little attention to her. It began with us going for long walks or spending the evenings in quiet conversation in one of the cafés on the seashore. Over time, interest turned into friendship, later into affection, and finally into love.

Fortunately, Ursula shared my love of nature and my passion for hunting and was a wonderful counterbalance to my often rash bravado, putting the brakes on many a foolish venture and steering it in a more sensible direction.

That is how Alois described it. But what about Susi? Well, many years later my father (and Susi herself) told me the full story.

When it became obvious that Alois was involved with two women, there were traumatic confrontations, after which he came up with a unique solution to the dilemma. It was in some ways typical for him: he booked a luxury two-week ocean cruise to Singapore — for the two ladies! “You girls work it out,” was the message. “I will accept whatever you decide.”

This is the only (soiled) photo I found of Susi and Ursula in Singapore

The two had a wonderful time, and became life-long friends, staying in regular contact until their deaths in their late 70s.

And what did they decide? Back in Bombay Alois learned what it was: Ursula gets you!

Susi returned to Germany, lived with her brother and his wife, never married. She was my “Tante Susi”, aunt Susi, who treated me with the greatest affection, as if I was her own son. When she died, rather suddenly, I tried to retrieve the treasure of letters and pictures that she had accumulated. But I found that her heirs had burnt them all, in the garden outside. What a horrible shame.

After their trip to Singapore Ursula and Susi became dearest friends for life.

It was the early 1940s when Alois and Ursula decided to get married. But there was a problem. She was from a devout Catholic community where everything centred around religion. He had been married before, and the Catholics did not recognize divorce (in fact they also disapproved of his marriage in a Protestant part of Germany). No priest and no church was willing to conduct a nuptial ceremony between the two.

That’s where his friends Julius and Angela Sattler come in. Jules had an electrical company in Bangalore, and Angela found a Catholic priest in the town who was willing to marry them. “If they love each other, that’s all that matters,” said this revolutionary clergyman. “Bring them over, and I will conduct the ceremony.”

So Alois and Ursula took the two-day 1000 km journey by bus and train to Bangalore. They were duly married and returned to Bombay as a legitimate couple.

In Bangalore they were hosted by the Sattlers, who had a one-year-old daughter Erika, who today runs a parsimony farm in New Zealand

Alois had a problem with the intense heat in the Indian coastal city, and so he purchased a villa in the hill station town of Lonavala, a four-hour journey by train from his workplace. It was also very close to the jungles he so loved.

Rose Cottage, in the beautiful hill station town of Lonavala
And that is where I come into the picture, the biographer-to-be, 75 years ago.

Alois Friedl biographical stories

  • 1. Alois: the beginning — The adventurous life of a young boy started with his fleeing from his native village in Bavaria, Germany.
  • 2. Alois: Gateway to India — How this adventurous young German technician (my father) made his way to India, 110 years ago
  • 3. Alois: Death in the jungle — An adventurous young German (my father) described his first hunt in the jungles of India, over 100 years ago.
  • 4. Alois: Prisoner of war — What was internship like during the first world war. Not like you might think, in British ruled India, a century ago.
  • 5. Alois: Deadly poisonous snakes
    How a German technician in a British prisoner-of-war camp, in 1914–18, dealt with the reptiles that abounded in India
  • 6. Alois: Purdah — A description of how, in 1914, Indian traditions and mores made even a minor dental treatment of women a challenge.
  • 7. Alois: The last tiger hunt
    Sitting watch over a dead tiger he developed an almost personal relationship. It was like holding a wake over the body of a friend.

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.