During his major pastoral tour of Poland in June 1999, Pope John Paul II, at a special Mass celebrated at Warsaw on June 13, beatified the first of 108 Polish martyrs of the World War II Period. Although not all who died for their faith in those years can be declared blessed, the number 108 should not surprise us. The whole period of World War II was one in which more are said to have died for their faith than at any time since the days of the Roman persecutions.
What was verified by the Holy See in determining who would qualify now for this rite of beatification was not the personal fame of the candidates (most of them were practically unknown), but the evidence that they had chosen God over Caesar.
It will be helpful, however, to pick one of the better known new blesseds to illustrate the persons whom the Church had singled out as representative victims. Let us take Blessed Alice Kotowska, a nun of the Polish teaching Congregation of the Resurrection, an order that has many convents in the United States.
Mary Jadwiga Kotowska was born in Warsaw, Poland, on November 20, 1899. Her family must have been fairly well placed, for their daughter moved easily in contemporary religious, patriotic and professional circles.
Poland had been a great power up to the 17th century. In the 18th century, however, it had been gobbled up by Prussia, Russia and Austria. Fortunately, the partitioned nation once more proclaimed its independence after World War I, and in 1919 the Treaty of Versailles acknowledged that status.
At 18, during the closing months of the war, Mary Jadwiga had shown her devotion to the Polish homeland by joining the Organized Polish Army. With peace achieved, the patriotic laywoman studied medicine, and devoted her medical skill especially to the casualties of the Polish-Bolshevik War over the Polish-Russian boundary. The Polish government later awarded Mary the decoration “Poland Restored” for her compassion and bravery.
By the time she was 22, however, Mary Kotowska wanted to commit herself more fully to the needs of the people. She wrote the superior general of the Sisters of the Resurrection asking to be received into membership. “I desire to live and die for Christ,” she said, “loving Him above all, since He is the Greatest Love, Lord, God and my All.” The offer was accepted, and Mary Jadwiga became Sister Alice. Diligently pursuing the scholastic and spiritual program of the Order, she taught in their schools in Warsaw and Wejherowo. In the latter city she was appointed both directress of the high school and superior of its teaching sisters. She proved to be very capable in both tasks. Particularly convinced of the need of prayer as backup for teaching, she herself spent hours before the Holy Eucharist, and promoted Eucharistic devotion among both her fellow nuns and her students.
Poland lost its treasured independence once more with the outbreak of World War II. The Nazis invaded Polonia in 1939, reaching Wejherowo on September 9, 1939. One of the first steps taken by the invaders was to establish a “black list” of Polish leaders. Sister Alice was singled out because she had been connected with the Organized Polish Army in the past and was a nurse and teacher. That meant she was classified by the Nazis as a leader, and their policy was to replace leaders with nonentities.
When Sister Alice learned that the Germans were drawing near Wejherowo, she and the convent custodian, a man named Francis, buried their most precious liturgical vessels in the convent garden to prevent their being desecrated by the Gestapo. Francis, however, was actually a spy for the Germans, and next day he led the invaders to the spot where the vessels had been buried. The Gestapo quickly confiscated what the nun had striven to protect.
A few weeks later, when the sisters were at prayer in their chapel, two Gestapo soldiers knocked on the convent door and demanded that Sister Alice come with them. She calmly obeyed their command. Before leaving, she turned and said, in the hearing of the community, “I forgive Francis for everything.” Taken off to a prison crowded with other “undesirables”, she remained there until November 11.
On November 11, 1939, the jailers ordered their prisoners to line up outside the jail. A number of trucks stood waiting to convey them to their place of execution. Attached to the trucks were a number of shovels for the condemned to use to dig their own graves. The lineup of victims included several Jewish children, some Polish laymen and laywomen, and, at the end, Sister Kotowska. Most of the accused were in anguish. Sister Alice was at peace, and this had a calming effect on the others. When the signal was given to climb into the trucks, the Sister Superior went quickly to the Jewish children, took one of them with her, and bravely climbed into the first lorry with the rest of the children. The trucks drove off to a forest near Piasnicy, a few miles away. There, after the condemned had dug shallow graves for themselves, the executioners shot and buried one and all.
Later on, the Gestapo returned to the site, dug up all these remains and burned them. At one gravesite there was found a piece of black rosary such as the Sisters of the Resurrection wear. From these ashes Blessed Alice will rise again, young and ardent, like a light in the forest.
Sister Alice, according to her sister-companions, had followed diligently the rule of her Community day by day. Then came that extraordinary moment in which she ” was given the choice of betraying God and country. She was ready to make, and made, the right choice.
–Father Robert F. McNamara