Heritage – December 1 2020

SOS Children's Villages pioneer Maria Heissenberger remembered

SOS Children's Villages mourns the loss of Maria Heissenberger, a pioneer who made a significant contribution to the worldwide development of SOS Children's Villages. She was the Austrian who, together with Hermann Gmeiner, built the first SOS Children's Village outside of Europe, in Daegu, South Korea. She died on November 23 at the age of 90.

From Austria to Korea

In 1960, having already established a home for homeless children and young people together with a colleague in the city of Daegu, she was about to take over the planning and management of another orphanage. However, during her first home vacation in Austria in 1962, she happened to mention to a journalist that she would rather build an SOS Children's Village in Daegu, if she had the money.

As fate would have it, Hermann Gmeiner - the founder of SOS Children's Villages - read this article and got in touch with Maria Heissenberger. This was the start of the “SOS Children's Villages South Korea” project and the unique “grain of rice campaign” which raised the money to build the village. Maria Heissenberger managed the SOS Children's Village Daegu from 1963 to 1968.

Her actions in Korea sparked the global expansion of SOS Children’s Villages, which today has more than 550 villages across the globe.

Maria Heissenberger with SOS Children's Villages’ founder Hermann Gmeiner (left) and Ludwig Kögl, founding member and long-standing director of SOS Children's Villages Austria. Photo: Hermann Gmeiner Academy/Archive

"I always wanted to be me"

Maria Heissenberger was born in Zöbern, Austria on February 8, 1930 into a day laborer's family. After finishing her education, she trained as a church apostolic assistant, but decided not to enter a monastery. "I always wanted to be myself," she later said of her decision.

After her involvement with SOS Children's Villages, she worked in South Korea for another 23 years in the social and educational sector, developing projects and leading them. Helping people with tuberculosis was a particularly important cause for her. She founded a tuberculosis clinic in Korea and when she received the highest honour in South Korea, the Minju Sang Prize, she used the prize money to buy a much-needed X-ray machine for the clinic.

To achieve what she wanted to achieve, it took strength and, above all, the will to unconditionally be there for other people.

Top photo: Maria Heissenberger with SOS mothers in South Korea

Photo credits: Hermann Gmeiner Academy/Archive