Judy Zielinski, a Sister of St. Francis off Sylvania, Ohio, who was writer and producer of the documentary — titled “Interrupted Lives: Catholic Sisters Under European Communism” — received notice of the national award earlier this month. The 45th annual Gabriel Awards will be presented in New Orleans June 3.
“The Gabriel is, indeed, a prestigious award. It proclaims a value-centered view of society and humanity, and it raises our consciousness,” according to the letter from the Catholic Academy. “We are pleased to recognize your work for its embodiment of these ideals.”
The documentary was aired nationally as part of ABC’s “Vision and Values” series in September, and is available on DVD through the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which provided a portion of the funding for the project.
Sisters Mary and Margaret, both members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, 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. — which is where Sister Judy Zielinksi works as a writer and producer — to create a documentary of the story of the Sister Survivors.
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.
After the documentary was completed, it was offered to the Interfaith Broadcast Coalition as national religious programming, and ABC selected it to offer its affiliates in September 2009.
Since then, Sisters Mary and Margaret have continued showings of the documentary around the country and have scheduled other educational programs to tell the stories of the Eastern European sisters.
The Gabriel Awards, which were first presented in 1965, are designed to honor works of excellence in film, network and cable television and radio programs. These include feature films and documentaries, entertainment and news programming, public service announcements, and stations which serve audiences through the positive, creative treatment of concerns to humankind. Categories for TV and radio include both English and Spanish language programs.
“Interrupted Lives” won in the category for nationally televised religious documentaries.
The award itself is a nine-inch silver angel mounted on a polished base of wood. Gabriel raises skyward a globe encircled by electrons to symbolize the
communication of God’s word to humanity. It is a salute to all those who strive for values-centered programming.