Documentary to be offered by ABC this fall

August 25, 2009 by

Sister Judy Zielinski

Sister Judy Zielinski

The award-winning writer and producer who is the creative force behind the upcoming documentary “Interrupted Lives: Catholic Sisters Under European Communism” says “no project has influenced me more deeply and personally.”

But Judy Zielinksi, who is a Sister of St. Francis of Sylvania, Ohio, knows she could not have had that experience without the 16 years of dedication and extensive research done by Mary Savoie and Margaret Nacke, both Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia.

Sister Margaret Nacke

Sister Margaret Nacke

Sisters Mary and Margaret first went to Romania in 1993, as volunteers to help the Church in Eastern Europe after the fall of communision.Over the next decade in many visits, they branched out to other Eastern European countries and built relationships with may 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
Sister Mary Savoie

Sister Mary Savoie

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. — which is where Sister Judy Zielinksi works as a writer and producer — to create a documentary of the story of the Sister Survivors.
“I wasn’t convinced at first,” Sister Judy concedes. But she made the trip to Belleville, Kan., where Sisters Mary and Margaret live and work, and spent two days talking with them and going through their materials.
“They had a huge amount of information, but they didn’t have what’s needed for TV,” recalls Sister Judy, whose credits include the documentary “Jesus Decoded.” “So that’s where my work started.”
A team from NewGroup, including Sister Judy and photographer Lynn King, and Sisters Mary and Margaret traveled together to Eastern Europe, mostly for introductions and to get a better sense of the story.
But once she began meeting the Sisters who had survived, Sister Judy realized this was more than just a scouting trip.
“These were women who were fragile, many of whom were mature women at the end of World War II,” she said. “They were elderly, and many were in frail health. We knew this couldn’t wait.”
During that first trip, they interviewed and videotaped 42 Sister Survivors. They would eventually return for more interviews and taping.
“They recalled their personal experiences of… spending years of labor on collective farms and in state-run factories, foregoing the wearing of their habits and veils, losing the right of free assembly and … banishment from monasteries and convents. Some shared stories of imprisonment, beatings and isolation. Others recalled vows whispered in confessionals, attics or basements out of fear of discovery by the police…”
For Sister Judy, who grew up in a Polish-American parish, the stories they told from the mid 1960s on were particularly moving.
“I was a young Sister teaching high school and coaching cheerleaders, experiencing a new and exciting post-Vatican II time in the Church,” she said, “and their entire culture of religious life and ministry had been destroyed, leaving only tiny remnants of debris floating around. It was sobering.”
It was also a massive creative challenge.
“The scope of this project was daunting,” Sister Judy concedes. “Tell the stories of the Communist experience over 40 years as it unfolded in five Eastern European countries, each with its own culture, history, ethnic populations and languages. And do it in 53 minutes!”
That is expected to be the finished length of the documentary when the final cut is completed.
A couple of hurdles have yet to be crossed, but the expectation is that the film will be offered by ABC television to its affiliates beginning Sept. 13.
Local ABC affiliates then can choose to air it, but have no obligation to do so. (See related story at the bottow of page 6.)
But that won’t be the end of the story — or of the work being done by Sisters Mary and Margaret, who are the executive producers of the documentary.
The DVD of “Interrupted Lives” will be available for sale through the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Sisters Mary and Margaret are organizing special showings and discussions to continue to educate people about this period of history.
One such is a colloquium scheduled for Sept 4 and 5 in Atchison.
Information about “Sister Survivors,” including “Faces of Faith” — a traveling exhibit of photographs — is available on the Sisters of St. Joseph web site:


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