Sister Survivors of European Communism

February 23, 2009 by

The 40-plus year silence and oppression of sisters under European communism is slowly becoming known through a research project, Sister Survivors of European Communism.

Initiated in 2003 by Sisters of St. Joseph Margaret Nacke and Mary Savoie, who volunteered in Romania after the fall of communism, hundreds of testimonies, photographs, books, and other documents have been collected and archived at Catholic Theological Union’s Bechtold Library in Chicago.

Preserving the stories of the extraordinary courage and unwavering commitment of these sisters is important historical data for the archives of the Catholic church.  Every effort was made by the Soviet communists and their satellite countries to suppress all activities of the sisters, depriving them of ministries that would in any way influence others and placing them in works that would negate any contact; therefore, whether on farms, in factories, caring for the elderly or incarcerated in prisons, sisters seemed undeterred in living their faith.

Aware of the urgency of interviewing many of the sisters because of age, the authors of this project worked with major superiors in the eight countries of focus to collect data.  The project has taken various paths since its inception; for example, a PowerPoint presentation titled “Witnesses to Faith” offers a background of historical information, specific photographs of sisters with their testimonies, and a variety of situations of sisters during this period.  “Faces of Faith” is a traveling exhibit of sixteen 11 x 20 inch photographs of sisters with information about their lives under communism.  In 2006, Sisters Margaret and Mary — in collaboration with the Ukrainian Catholic University’s Institute of Church History — presented a conference in Lviv, Ukraine, with the theme “Our Common Mission and Commitment: Lessons from Sister Survivors of European Communism.”

THE CONFERENCE

Sisters Margaret and Mary in July 2006 planned and facilitated a conference in Lviv, Ukraine. The conference was held at Holy Spirit Seminary and brought together sisters from eight former communist countries.  The goal of this conference was to examine fundamental values guiding sisters who lived under communism and to explore ways in which these values can be integrated into our lives as sisters.

The Rev. Dr. Borys Gudziak, Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University, Lviv, in his opening address focused his remarks on the history of the persecuted Greek Catholic Church, how that history has been recorded and his personal thoughts and hypothesis about female religious relative to the underground church.  Dr. Gemma Simmonds, Congregation of Jesus, lecturer in Theology, Heythrop College, University of London, gave the major presentations.  Her remarks anchored the universal relevancy and value of the work of the conference for the church and especially for women religious.

Some of the lessons expressed by conference participants as they reflected on the lives of those who experienced communism:

• Human life is characterized by conflict and tragedy; however, through the witness of faith our lives can become a revelation, not of the hopelessness of the human condition, but of the hope that is to be uncovered in tragedy.

• We need to examine our current religious lives, not only as affected by our past, but more importantly in light of today’s church and social realities.

• The hardships of the past were clear and we endured them.  We are now experiencing the slavery of freedom.

• We are called, as T.S. Eliot said, to a condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.

THE DOCUMENTARY

A recent initiative is the production of a one-hour broadcast documentary, “Interrupted Lives — Catholic Sisters Under European Communism,” that will reach a broad audience in this country and abroad.  Expected to be completed by April 2009, the documentary will include reflections from Eastern European historians, re-enactments of life in prison and escape, and on-site interviews to bring to life the story of Sister Survivors.

The Sister Survivors project is an example of international cross-border collaboration among congregations of women religious who lived under communism.  Although the project reveals the over 40-year oppression of sisters in some Central and Eastern European countries, directors are aware that substantial research remains to expand learning about the oppression of sisters under European communism but also in other parts of the world.

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