By Sr. Maria Teresa Gorska, CSFN From Catholic Sunday Weekly
On 5 March 2000, the Holy Father John Paul II beatified 11 Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, Martyrs from Nowogrodek: Sr. Maria Stella and her 10 Companions, in Rome.
When the first nuns of the Holy Family of Nazareth arrived in Nowogrodek on 4 September 1929 Nowogrodek was a small town in the eastern lands of the Republic of Poland (now Belarus), with a nationally diversified population.
The first apostolic work of the nuns in Nowogrodek, as a condition of educational activity – the nuns ran a school – was ministry connected with the Church of the Transfiguration, called ‘Biala Fara’ [White Church]. The nuns, who formed the community of the House of Christ the King, gave examples of deep faith, hope and love to the local people. From the beginning of their activities the nuns tried to discern the needs of the society.
Under two occupations The outbreak of World War II on 1 September 1939 and the occupation of those lands, first by the Soviets and then by the Germans, disturbed the order and harmony of the community in Nowogrodek. During the Soviet occupation, when the nuns could not run the school officially, they became much closer to the local people. Expelled from the house, forbidden to wear their habits, they experienced hardships of daily life and saw the sufferings of the inhabitants of Nowogrodek and the neighbourhood; they saw the arrested and transported to the steppes of Kazakhstan and to Siberia. During the German occupation the nuns could wear their habits and they returned to the cloister to be signs of hope for the tormented people. The parish church, filled with believers, was also such a sign during both occupations.
German terror When the special Gestapo units arrived in Baranowicze terror against the civilians in the town and the whole district increased. The first mass execution took place on 31 July 1942 in the forest near Nowogrodek. Then 60 people, including two priests: Fr Michal Dalecki, the Nowogrodek dean and Fr Jozef Kuczynski, were shot. In the spring of 1943 the nuns intensified their religious and charity activities. The citizens of Nowogrodek, tormented by the regime, sought comfort and peace in the church where Fr Aleksander Zienkiewicz, the only survived priest in the vicinity, celebrated Mass in the morning and in the evening, when the Blessed Sacrament was exposed the faithful together with the priest and the nuns, recited the rosary. The next wave of terror happened on the night of 17-18 July when ca. 120 people – fathers and other Polish family members – were arrested to be executed. On the afternoon Sr. Maria Stella said during a meeting with Fr Zienkiewicz, ‘My God, if sacrifice of life is needed let them kill us and not those who have families. We are even praying for that.’ It was a common decision of the nuns and Sr. M. Stella as the superior of the house told the chaplain about it. Those who were sentenced to death were transported to work in Germany. Some people were released. The transport set out westwards on 24 July 1943. All those who were transported survived the war.
Martyr’s death of the nuns Facing the danger of death of the only priest in the vicinity Fr Zienkiewicz, who was on the list of those sought by the Gestapo, Sr. M. Stella expressed the sisters’ readiness to sacrifice their lives, ‘My God, if sacrifice of life is needed, accept it from us and spare those who have families.’ We are even praying for this intention.’ On 31 July 1943 Sr. Maria Stella was asked to come to Gebiets-Office located in the building of the former voivodship office at 7.30 p.m. The oral command was given by a German who came to the nuns dressed as a civilian. After the rosary 11 nuns of the Family of Nazareth together with their superior went to the building. The sisters’ names were: M. Stella, M. Imelda, M. Rajmunda, M. Daniela, M. Kanuta, M. Sergia, M. Gwidona, M. Felicyta, M. Heliodora, M. Kanizja and M. Boromea. The nuns thought that the worst thing that could happen to them was transportation to work in Germany. The twelfth sister Malgorzata Banas, who was to care for the church and the chaplain, remained at home. Then things happened very quickly. The verdict had already been taken . The extermination of priests and nuns in Nowogrodek was the task of the security police in Baranowicze. The police was subordinated to the Reich Central Security Office, its aim being the complete destruction of Christianity. That’s why the nuns did not hear any accusations and there was no investigation. After two hour visit to the office the nuns were escorted and ordered to get in a lorry and they were transported towards the military barracks along the Nowojelenski tract. Because of the heavy traffic the Gestapo officers decided to go back. The nuns spent one night in the cell of the police station, praying and lying prostrate, preparing to offer the sacrifice of their lives. On Sunday, 1 August 1943, at dawn the nuns were transported and killed in a small birch-pine tree woods, five km away from the town. The task was fulfilled by the officers of the flying squad from Baranowicze. The nuns died martyr’s deaths, killed by the Nazi torturers. Fr Zienkiewicz and all those for whom the nuns had sacrificed their lives survived. ‘No one has greater love…’, said the Holy Father on the day of their beatification.
Restored community Since 13 September 2009 there has been the Province of the Blessed Martyrs from Nowogrodek in Belarus and there are the relics of the nuns and the beatification picture in the parish church there. The convent of the Blessed Martyrs has a museum and a communion host bakery. The religious community and novitiate are located in the former school. From among the people connected with the Blessed Martyrs two are candidates for the altars. These are the Servants of God: Sr. Malgorzata Banas, who survived the war and the sisters’ chaplain Fr Aleksander Zienkiewicz.