20-year journey takes Kansas sisters to Slovak Republic
All photos by Sister Eva Kusikova, a Missionary of the Holy Spirit sister
When Sisters Mary Savoie and Margaret Nacke first went to Eastern Europe almost 20 years ago to help sisters who had survived communism, they really didn’t know what to expect. And despite numerous trips over the decades to more than a half dozen countries that had fallen behind the Iron Curtain, their most recent visit to the Slovak Republic took them by surprise as well.
They had been invited by the Slovakian Leadership Conference of Women Religious to lead a conference/retreat that Sister Mary designed, titled “Gospel Call to Servant Leadership,” and they expected 25 or 30 sisters to attend.
“But as we were driving from the airport, we asked how many were registered,” Sister Mary says, “and they said, ‘More than 100 so far!’”
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The number turned out to be 101, representing 17 congregations of women religious from across Slovakia, a nation sandwiched between Poland to the north and Hungary to the south.
Participants at the weekend conference/retreat Sept. 7, 8 and 9 were divided into smaller groups that mixed the sisters from various congregations together, with a discussion leader assigned to each group. Then every piece of the conference, both presentations and discussion, had to be translated into both English and Slovak.
The conference was held at the Saint Francis Xavier Seminary in the village of Badín, about 120 miles east of the Slovakian capitol of Bratislava.
But the journey that would eventually take Sisters Mary and Margaret to a village at the edge of the Carpathian Mountains began in Kansas.
The two women are both members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia and today live and serve in Belleville, Kan. They first went to Romania in 1993, as volunteers to help the Church in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. Over the next decade in many visits, they branched out to other Eastern European countries and built relationships with many of the sisters who had survived behind the Iron Curtain.
In 2003, Sisters Mary and Margaret began serious research into the plight of those Catholic Sisters, eventually covering eight countries and the years spanning the rise of Stalin in Russia to the fall of the Berlin Wall. That included numerous trips to Eastern Europe, interviews with the women they came to call “Sister Survivors” and extensive academic study into the local and Church history.
In July 2006, they planned and facilitated a conference in Lviv, Ukraine, bringing together sisters from eight former communist countries. The goal was to examine fundamental values guiding those sisters who survived under communism and to explore ways those values can be integrated into the lives of American sisters.
As a result of the work done by Sisters Mary and Margaret, hundreds of testimonies, photographs, books and other documents have been collected and archived at Catholic Theological Union’s Bechtold Library in Chicago.
It was also in 2006 that Sisters Mary and Margaret hired NewGroup Media of South Bend, Ind., to create a documentary of the story of the Sister Survivors. Work on that project required more trips to Eastern Europe.
“Interrupted Lives: Catholic Sisters Under European Communism” was aired nationwide on ABC in September 2009 and eventually also shown on EWTN. In the spring of 2010, the film was honored with a Gabriel Award from the Catholic Academy for Communication Arts Professionals. The documentary remains available through the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
A year ago Sister Margaret published “Bearers of Faith,” a soft cover book that brings together many of the archival photos and stories from Sister Survivors.
At the same time, Sister Mary was working on “Gospel Call for Servant Leadership,” and planning a conference/retreat held in Chicago last fall.
“Our intent in Chicago was to bring sisters over here who would then return and train others,” Sister Mary explained. Among the seven sisters from Eastern Europe at that conference were two from Slovakia.
But when they returned home, they told their fellow Slovakians that the better approach would be to invite Sisters Mary and Margaret there — which is exactly what Sister Justina Kosturova, a Dominican sister who is president of the Slovakian Leadership Conference of Women Religious — did earlier this year.
“Gospel Call to Servant Leadership” focuses on the leadership qualities of Jesus as demonstrated in the Gospels and includes practical application for participants, Sister Margaret explained.
“Leadership is not a position,” Sister Mary added. “It’s a process of influencing behavior of others in a positive manner.”
That influence continues in help that the two sisters are providing for two more projects related to Sister Survivors.
The Slovakian sisters are completing work on their own hourlong documentary that uses some of the information Sisters Mary and Margaret gathered earlier; that is due to be completed in December and Sister Margaret has already contacted EWTN about airing it in the United States.
Meanwhile, the Hungarian Leadership Conference of Women Religious is working on a book about the history of sisters there, and Sister Margaret is trying to find grants or other funding that would help with that project.
“What’s happened over all these years is that we’ve grown closer to these congregations and these women,” Sister Margaret said. “There’s such a great connection among us all.”
5 thoughts on “20-year journey takes Kansas sisters to Slovak Republic”
Margaret and Mary,
What an inspiring ministry, reaching across the world to mentor and dialogue with other women religious about what it means to follow Christ!
Congratulations, Mary and Margaret! a wonderful article that chronicles your many activities and journeys to Central and Eastern Europe.
What a turn out for the conference. Thank you for sharing your gifts and for your devotion and persistence in keeping up the connections.
Congratulations. We, as a community are so proud of the two of you reaching out to the world. Thank you.
Fabulous Mary and Margaret that you bring so much to these sisters and what a gift you have in sharing with them and with us. What a great ministry!
Great continuation and follow up of your ministry started those many years ago, Magaret and Mary! Thanks for representing our charism so faithfully.