Zofia Luszczkiewicz, left, and Anna Abrikosova (Courtesy of the Sisters of Mercy, Krakow/Catholic Newmartyrs of Russia)
WARSAW, POLAND — When the Polish church filed a document with the Vatican this August, proposing the beatification of 16 members of the Sisters of the Congregation of St. Catherine the Virgin and Martyr, it was a vivid reminder of the hardships inflicted on religious sisters under communist rule in Eastern Europe.
The nuns, aged 27 to 65, all died martyrs’ deaths at the hands of Soviet soldiers in the northeastern Warmia region during the 1945 reinvasion of Poland, and were among over 100 killed from the St. Catherine order alone.
It was just one of numerous brutal episodes involving Catholic nuns that, three decades after communism’s collapse and the Nov. 9 felling of the Berlin Wall, many now hope will become better known. A full account is needed, some Catholics say, in the interests of historical accuracy, as well as to illustrate the virtues involved in acts of testimony and martyrdom, and to ensure that the courage and endurance of religious sisters are accorded proper recognition
Even today, however, the tight control exercised over media appearances means few religious order leaders are prepared to talk to journalists. Requests by GSR for comments on communist-era suffering from Poland’s Conference of Higher Superiors of Female Religious Orders received no reply.
“Certainly, the situation of nuns was different here than in neighboring countries — the worst sufferings were confined to the 1940s and 1950s, after which planned repressions were abandoned in the face of resistance,” Malgorzata Glabisz-Pniewska, a Catholic presenter and expert with Polish Radio, said in a late October interview with GSR.
“But the whole story has hardly been told, even now, and the sisters involved have remained in the shadows while attention focused on the persecution of priests. It should be an inspiration for younger members of religious orders, as well as for the church and wider society,” she said.
The assault on sisters
When Eastern Europe was overrun by Stalin’s Red Army at the end of World War II, the newly installed communist regimes moved quickly to neutralize the Catholic Church.
Historians concur that religious orders were seen as secretive organizations threatening the officially atheist Communist Party’s absolute power, so they became key targets for repression.
Hundreds of books have been published about the communist-era persecutions. A few used as sources for this story include a new Polish-language book by Agata Puścikowska, War Sisters; a two-volume book in Slovak, co-edited by František Mikloško, Gabriela Smolíková and Peter Smolík, Crimes of Communism in Slovakia 1948-1989; and a Romanian book by C. Vasile, Between the Vatican and the Kremlin.
In Romania, Catholic orders were banned outright in 1949, their houses closed and ransacked; and while most nuns were sent to labor camps, a smaller number, mostly elderly and infirm, were moved to “concentration cloisters.”
In Bulgaria, where orders with foreign headquarters had already been outlawed, the Eucharistic sisters saw their Sofia chapel turned into a sports hall, while over a dozen surviving Carmelite nuns were given heavy prison terms.
Up to 700 Catholic convents in what was then Czechoslovakia were seized in a coordinated action in 1950, leaving an estimated 10,000 nuns incarcerated in prison and detention centers.
Many had qualified as teachers, doctors and translators but were set to work as farm laborers, weavers and fruit pickers when they refused to renounce their vows. Others were sent to “centralized convents” such as Bilá Voda in Moravia, which became home to about 450 incarcerated sisters from 13 orders.
In places like this, the orders continued recruiting and training members in secret, putting them through novitiates under cover of regular jobs.
In other countries, habited orders were later grudgingly permitted, but only after their schools, clinics and care homes had been seized and many nuns killed or imprisoned.
In Hungary, the regime opted for quick overnight swoops like Czechoslovakia’s, trucking nuns to internment centers and withdrawing legal status from at least 60 orders.
A petition to the government deplored how nursing sisters had been peremptorily sacked and others offered bribes to abandon their communities. But Hungary’s Culture Ministry was adamant: The orders were “nests of anti-state agitation.”