Modern Day Saint
The Martyrs of Nowogrodek
The Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth was founded in Poland in 1875 by Mother Mary of Jesus the Good Shepherd. Twenty-nine foundations had been established around the world by the time of Mother Mary’s death in 1902. In August 1929 Sister Maria Stella Mardosiewiez, and one other nun from the foundation, went to Nowogrodek at the behest of their bishop to start a small convent and school. At that time Nowogrodek was but a small village in the northeast region of Poland. It was populated primarily by Protestant and Jewish peoples who had a natural suspicion of these strange women in their flowing black habits and veils. The sister’s new ministry began in the midst of indifference and scorn in a hovel of a home. The bishop, a native of Nowogrodek, offered them unconditional support and he told the nuns how the town would come to view their presence with joy and one day their existence would be a source of great local pride. The convent grew to twelve sisters and they persevered with kindness, smiling graciously in the direction of stern faces and turned backs, always offering a kind word and a silent prayer.
The twelve became a fixture of the community and concern arose among townspeople if they did not all appear together performing various works of charity. The townspeople affectionately gave them the moniker, “The Kneelers” because the nuns frequented the local Church of The Transfiguration kneeling at the left side of the altar in prayer. They were quite picturesque in their habits, pleated collars, and wind blown veils as they appeared to glide up the steep hill to the church.
By 1939 there was a growing camaraderie between the nuns and the townspeople. The sisters provided a much needed spiritual balm for the community when the Nazis invaded the southern edge of Poland on September 1st of that year. It was only 16 days later that the Russian troops marched through the eastern border of Poland and occupied Nowogrodek. The nuns were forced to close the convent and school. They were also forced to give up their habits and wore secular clothing. As the communists had confiscated everything, they were without any means of support. They separated and relied on the charity of individuals and at the same time continued their own acts of charity. They formed a convent without walls and persevered by prayers and a strong faith, occasionally attending a clandestine Mass. This continued for two years until the Nazis occupied Nowogrodek in June of 1941.
The Nazis troops celebrated the occupation of Nowogrodek by rounding up as many Jews and Communist sympathizers as they could and executing them in public. Within the next two years the slaughter of Jewish people became as common place as buying a loaf of bread. The sisters could only pray and add the names of many whose lives were lost only because of their faith or heritage. Sister Stella and her companions raised the ire of the Gestapo through their acts of mercy and unwavering faith in Christ.
In late July, one hundred and twenty area factory workers, many of them heads of households, were arrested and awaited execution. The nuns prayed, “Oh, God, if sacrifice of life is needed, accept it from us who are free from family obligations. Spare those who have wives and children.” Their prayers were soon to be answered. On the night of July 31 a Nazis civilian ordered them to report to the Kommissar. Only the oldest nun, Sister Malgorzata, was left behind with the local priest in case the others did not return.
Sister Stella’s pleas to grant their offer of sacrifice were heard by the Kommissar the next morning. In response to the sister’s offering of life, the plans for the arrested workers were changed. Some were released, but others were assigned to work camps in Germany. The sisters were herded into a van and transported to a remote spot in the woods bordering Nowogrodek where an open grave large enough to hold their bodies awaited them. There, kneeling side by side in the habits of their order, the sisters bade each other farewell, hoping to meet again with Christ in Heaven. One by one, beginning with Sister Stella, the nuns were shot; their lifeless bodies tumbled into the grave.
The Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth who willingly and unselfishly gave their lives so that others might live are: Sisters Maria Stella Mardosewicz, Mary Imelda Zak, Mary Rajmunda Kukulowicz, Maria Daniela Juzwik, Maria Kanuta Shrobot, Maria Gwidona Cierpka, Maria Sergia Rapieg, Maria Kanizja Mackiewicz, Maria Felicyta Borowik, Maria Heliodora Matustzewska, and Maria Boromea Narmuntowicz.
Sister Malgorzata waited several weeks following the execution of her companions before risking a solo journey through the woods in search for their remains. She attended to the mass grave and prayed for the souls of her beloved sisters until their bodies were exhumed in March of 1945 and laid to rest on the grounds of the Church of the Transfiguration following a Mass and Christian burial.
In 1991, the cause for the canonization of Sister Stella and her ten companions was officially opened. It was hoped that the sisters would be recognized as true martyrs of the Catholic Faith, just as the heroic virtues of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, who sacrificed his life so that another man could live and be with his family, were acknowledged. On March 5, 2000 Pope John Paul ll beatified Sister Stella and her ten companions along with 33 other martyrs of the faith. In a brief testimonial the pontiff said, “Jesus’ words come to mind: ’There is no greater love that this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friend.” They perfectly confirmed the truth of these words by their lives filled with devotion and by their death.” “Before the war and during the occupation, they zealously served the inhabitants of Norwogrodek, participating actively in pastoral care and education and engaging in various works of charity. Their love for those among whom they fulfilled their mission took on signficance during the hours of the Nazi invasion.”
The prediction of their bishop that one day their existence would be a source of great local pride certainly was fulfilled.
Jim FritzThe information in this article was taken from a story written by Kathryn Lively. Her first novel, Little Flowers, was published in 2001 by Highbridge Press.
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