Female religious congregations in Poland in the face of changes from Communism to the transformation period (1945-2000)

Agata Mirek


Development and activity of religious orders is conditioned by the sociopolitical situation of individual countries and the position of the Catholic Church within these countries. Historically, religious congregations have made an impact in the life of nations linked to Christianity. The Polish situation is no different - the development and activity of religious orders is strictly conjoined with the history of the nation (Kloczowski 1975, p. 13). Research on female religious congregations in Poland in the second half of the 20th century shows deep, dynamic changes within this social group. Communist state authorities had been taking over companies and institutions run by women religious since 1949, which forced their members to enact drastic changes in their usual functions and to switch to work in parishes and provide for the catechisation of children and young people. Improvements in education due to a growing number of graduates among women religious, an increased general and religious culture, a growing autonomy of particular groups of sisters and expanding all-Poland cooperation on their part, led to increased prestige and higher social status; there was a considerable demand for their work with children and the sick and elderly. In spite of state restrictions, they were able to develop and implement apostolic tasks. This was specific to the Polish Communist state largely due to the significance of the Church in Polish society. However, this situation also facilitated positive changes such as closer relationships between the hierarchical Church and its congregations. Another development in the second half of the 20th century which made a considerable impact in Poland, was a noticeable development of female contemplative communities which had never previously been a strong feature of Polish Catholic tradition. The 1989 breakthrough was not a totally liberating event in the sense of congregational life in Poland, yet this breakthrough brought about a new social context for vocations, community life and the apostolic work of female orders. The changes were visible in the return to a full implementation of statutory goals for particular religious congregations, goals which had been inconceivable during the period of totalitarianism, for example, the opening of new schools and publishing houses, work in hospitals and other social institutions.

In the Communist state

While women religious were not spared torments and harassment in Communist Poland, religious communities were not entirely dissolved as was the case in other people’s democracies in Europe (Kaczmarek 2007). After the end of the war, all congregations had started rebuilding their houses and institutions. This was a difficult period for religious communities which, due to international political decisions and border changes, were supposed to leave the territories of the pre-war Eastern Poland and frequently lost their heritage - they were deprived of churches, monasteries, orphanages, hospitals and nursing homes. Altogether, the loss of female religious orders in the Eastern Borderlands of Poland amounted to 400 convents and houses. Entire religious provinces were also displaced.

If Catholics in Communist Poland were usually treated as second-class citizens (with limited opportunities for promotion even if loyal to the regime), women religious were treated as third-class citizens, constantly pushed to the margins of society, deprived of opportunity but, above all, deprived of basic civil rights and freedoms guaranteed to every Polish citizen by the Constitution. Polish bishops wrote to the government:

The fate of religious clergy is even more uncertain and far more dangerous. Orders are limited in their activity or even deprived of the possibility to do work that they always used to do everywhere in accordance with their vocation. The usual application of unpleasant methods of political pressure on them systematically leads to their expropriation of the necessary maintenance resources and apostolic activity.

(Raina 1994, p. 415)

Women religious were systematically deprived of apostolic activity and unrestricted professional work. ‘Sisters are removed from hospitals and charity institutions, even their own, where they worked for a long time with great, even heroic, devotion for the good of the sick, orphaned or bereft. "They are deprived of financial support regardless of their current or future fate’ (Raina 1994, p. 416). They were also denied opportunities of gaining education. 'At school there was no place for sisters. They were deprived of the possibility to teach lay subjects, so no need was seen to educate sisters-teachers. In the period of socialism, the only university which admitted nuns or monks was the Catholic University of Lublin’ (Kaczmarek 2007, p. 148). They were also forbidden access to social benefits such as healthcare, social insurance or pension schemes. Discrimination against them was largely visible in the form of legal provisions which excluded the possibility of their being insured due to their church membership and associated pastoral activity. Similar regulations referred to the social insurance of church people in employment relationships or those engaging in crafts (Stanisz 2005, pp. 272-3). Tax provisions were also abused so that legal persons in the Catholic Church, including religious congregations, were never treated under tax law as social organisations and instead were treated as profit-oriented institutions (Stanislawski 2005, p. 265). Planned atheisa- tion covered all areas of congregational activity and took forms of institutional and legal solutions. The fight against congregational activity was conducted ‘in the majesty of the law’ (Zuber and Bach 1994, p. 87). The authorities, freed from the uncomfortable bonds of the Concordat, terminated in September 1945, gradually introduced legal provisions aiming at the liquidation of all external activity of religious orders. The 1952 Constitution of the Polish People’s Republic ensured freedom of conscience and religion in art. 82, yet, nonetheless, planned atheisation w'as spreading ever more widely since the constitutional principles of religious law were subordinated to the general rule of state atheisation and were freely interpreted. Provisions in religious law, including those related to orders, were a symbol of the dismantling of previously guaranteed constitutional rights and freedoms (Pietrzak 1993, p. 157).

In January 1950, diocesan Caritas facilities w'ere nationalised and their property was taken over by the authorities. The lack of information on the competences and methods of establishing the Church Fund became another instrument of pressure in the dialogue with the Church (Winiarczyk- Kossakowska 2000, p. 58). The act of 20 March 1950 on the takeover of ‘dead hand properties’ (Journal of Laws No. 9, item 87 as amended) introduced a legal situation in which religious congregations lost their own estates and households. These assets frequently formed the very basis of existence for many religious communities, novitiates or formation houses in particular. Religious houses were only permitted five hectares of land but the sisters defended themselves from these attacks and demanded that they have their right to property respected under the law.

After the act became effective, the execution of its provisions began. Commissions of several people appeared in monasteries and compiled reports detailing the seizure of property. Officials received an inventory w'hich they completed with specific data including the number of registered buildings, live and dead inventory, stocks of crops and feed. Many irregularities and abuses of power were committed during this period of takeover and commissions to monasteries frequently took over everything that belonged to the religious houses, freely interpreting the execution of the act (Kaczmarek 2007, p. 99).

Despite attempts to regain their rightful property, no actions brought by congregations yielded successful results. Using economic instruments, the authorities wanted to penetrate the Church’s internal structures, orders in particular, and to become the legislator. The decisions taken by the authorities reflected their negative attitude to orders. Congregations’ appeals to state offices show that the execution of a decree on the takeover of ‘dead hand property’ became a vehicle for an aggressive, repressive state policy, addressed directly towards religious congregations. The main aim of the act was to limit material resources belonging to the orders and to encourage sisters to be positive about the changes taking place in Poland (Kaczmarek 2007, p. 102).

This unique attack on religious orders was applied in the provinces of Wroclaw, Opole and Katowice, where the ‘X-2’ action was conducted - as a result of this action, between 1954 and 1956 over a thousand women religious were interned in eight labour camps (Dtjbowa Lqka, Stadniki, Staniqtka (2), Kobylin, Gostyri, Wieliczka and Otorowo), which meant the liquidation of over 300 congregational houses (Mirek 2005). Forced labour camps for women religious were an important step in the realisation of this goal. In August 1954, as part of the ‘X-2’ operation, the authorities of People’s Republic of Poland resettled more than 1,200 sisters from the Western Territories of Poland detaining them in labour camps created in the monasteries of central Poland, from which other monks and nuns had been expelled earlier. The authorities of the People’s Republic of Poland committed acts of terror towards nuns, using accusations of German revisionism against them. While the Communist authorities never brought official charges against the displaced nuns held in the labour camps, they were subject to surveillance and political indoctrination. The condition of monastic life in Poland was not significantly affected by the mass displacement enacted by the Communist authorities in the so-called Regained Territories in August 1954. A series of events that led to the political crisis in 1956, compelled the authorities to abandon this course of action (Mirek 2009). The greatest period of severity in Communist terror occurred between 1945 and 1956. During arrests, investigations and trials, inalienable human rights to defence and justice were commonly violated. The lives and acts of convicted people were of no importance - everything rested on the arbitrary decisions of officers of a repressive apparatus of monstrous proportions. They had the sole right to decide who to treat as an enemy. The absurdity of the charges brought against women religious during this period was evident in the fact that sometimes verdicts were annulled in a higher court and by the rehabilitation trials of convicted sisters at a later time.

Sisters’ trials could not have been possible without the operational work of the officers of the Department of Public Security, who gathered incriminating material, recruited agents around women religious and falsified or manipulated the testimonies of sisters, ensuring that the court verdict met with the expectations of Communist officials. All female religious congregations experienced oppression, whereas 123 women religious belonging to 41 congregational families faced the traumatic experience of arrests, trials and imprisonment. The most numerous groups of arrested sisters were among the Sisters Servants of the Byzantine-Ukrainian rite. Fifteen sisters, charged with collaboration with the Ukrainian underground, were imprisoned for 13 months without prosecution and released due to lack of incriminating evidence. Fourteen Elizabethan Sisters and ten Sisters of Our Lady of the Good Shepherd were also detained. In 17 congregations one sister suffered arrest.

The form of attack against women religious in the Polish People’s Republic did undergo change. In the 1960s, direct forms of repression such as arrests and show trials were abandoned as security officers believed that these methods were counterproductive since they ‘added to the Church's glory of martyrdom'. However, more and more frequently, congregational communities were harassed by administrative and penal methods. Yet, this change in methods did not mean the authorities were abandoning their goal, namely, the dissolution of orders (Tanje dokumentry 1996, p. 19).

After a brief change in religious policy, forced on Communist authorities by the Polish October of 1956, the new authorities returned to an anticlerical policy immediately after strengthening their position. Indeed, between 1959 and 1963, the party succeeded with their earlier goal - the secularisation of society - but the methods used to enact this were exceptionally cruel. Reports provide detailed information on how many sisters were ‘checked out’ of hospitals, kindergartens and other institutions, how the scope of religious teaching and its influence on young people was limited. The change of tactics was frequently perceived by society as a symptom of a relaxed attitude towards the Church and religious orders. After all, it was simply an illusion since orders had always been a difficult opponent for the Communist authorities. The authors of ‘Information on orders in Poland’ from May 1959 written for the Administrative Department of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party noted that the activity of orders in the Polish People’s Republic had not been properly appreciated earlier. The party decided to rectify this mistake. However, the main obstacle in fulfilling that goal - in the opinion of security officers - resulted from a high level of discipline and subordination of orders to Primate Wyszynski's policy (Fijalek 2001, p. 19).

The Central Committee’s Commission for Clergy in July 1961 proposed a plan of limiting the development of orders or even their dissolution, starting with the use of tax provisions and housing law (Tajne dokumenty 1996, p. 22).1 Orders suffered from unjustified, surcharged taxes and seizure of their property. An unexpected surcharge was also requested for previous years (J^drzejczak 2005, pp. 58-75). The seizure of property was meant to result in the dependence of religious communities on the state, deprivation of their ability to act, and as a consequence, to their eventual dissolution.

The Primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyriski, in one of his pastoral letters, called the decisions of state authorities ‘a hurricane of lawlessness’ passing through Poland. Actions by the regime caused deep ruptures in the life of congregations. This was a dramatic moment as most orders were suddenly deprived of the possibility to follow their charisms. They faced a threat of losing their identity due to the specificity of their activity, independently of particular social tasks determined in their own regulations. Losing their own apostolic activity, women religious performed similar work - they went to work in parishes as religion teachers, organists, sextons, guardians of the ill in the parish in great numbers. They also took household jobs in curia, homes of bishops and retired priests, in seminaries and male monasteries (D^bowska 2007). Although the idea of small, usually three- person communities, easily assimilated with the parish environment, was not new, the dominant model for congregational life in Poland after 1945 was a community with a greater number of sisters who performed educational or charity activities within their house.

Women religious were allowed to work in institutions of special devotion and toil, such as nursing homes for children and young people with special needs or nursing homes for the elderly. Service in these institutions was conducted within the Association of Secular Catholics ‘Caritas’ supervised by the authorities. It was only the care over spiritual specificity that allowed congregations to preserve their own identities. Establishing new congregational houses was completely dependent on state authorities whose illegitimate acts were aimed at limiting the possession of orders and minimising the influence of sisters on society (Mirek 2003, 2005). By 1964, female congregations had been deprived of 215 places of worship; 35 secondary schools, 39 primary schools, 327 kindergartens, 53 dormitories, 117 child care homes, 52 homes for the elderly and 63 hospitals had been closed, 7,326 women religious had become unemployed, and 658 non-utility buildings and 155 outbuildings had been taken over (Zdaniewicz 2000, p. 221). After several waves of seizing property from female orders, Communist authorities were forced to acknowledge: ‘The economic base has shrunk considerably. Nonetheless, orders show amazing resilience in adopting to new conditions, in pursuit of new opportunities for subsistence’ (Stryjewski 1958).

When state regulations began to threaten the existence of religious congregations, it became clear that religious communities would have to resist systemic Communist pressure at all costs. In 1950, the congress of Major Superiors in Warsaw led to the creation of an idea of the Inter- Congregational Agreement, which had already existed in 1945 but was later transformed to the Department for Religious Affairs at the Secretariat of the Primate of Poland. The department was managed by Father Bronislaw Dqbrowski, later archbishop and general secretary of the Episcopate of Poland for many years. To boost all religious environments in Poland, Primate Wyszyriski established an institution, previously unknown, of so- called diocesan religious clerks whom he initially nominated himself. Thanks to the service of these clerks, Cardinal Wyszynski's inspirations and instructions reached all religious communities in Poland. Commissions, initially called sections, were subsidiary bodies of the Department for Religious Affairs, which were formed during the works of the Consulta of

Major Superiors of Women Religious (Bar 1980). They were educational, parish, Marian, nursing2 commissions and included a separate commission of non-habited congregations. Soon, the Department for Religious Affairs, thanks to the commitment of its manager, Father B. Dqbrowski and the devoted, competent service of women religious (directed to this work at Cardinal Wyszynski’s request), became an information resource, a point of consensus, a forum for the exchanging of experiences, and, most importantly, an organ representing religious communities before secular authorities (Wspomnienia, p. 33).

This situation forced the Primate to develop a plan in the event of a massive attack on religious life in Poland. The general rules of religious houses were determined in three points. First, resist as long as possible, second, resign from state institutions if necessary but defend religious houses. The last rule stated that every congregation should decide which house it could relinquish and which house it could retain and lease, as a whole or in part. In an emergency, any sisters removed from their jobs in state institutions should be redeployed to other congregational families. Congregations with generally smaller communities were encouraged not to give up their institutions but to take up parish work. The second part of the regulations concerned the ways and conditions of taking up that work: the general rule adopted in this case involved the protection of common religious life. If work was imposed on women religious by the authorities, sisters were only advised to take up work at home and this contract should include detailed description of terms so that women religious could fulfil their religious exercises (Kaczmarek 2007, p. 135). The last issue concerned clothing: renunciation of religious clothing was considered unacceptable. The simplification could not consist in the change of clothes as such, but in saving fabric (Zagadnienia, pp. 5-6).

Inter-congregational collaboration turned out to be a useful initiative for the entire religious community in Communist Poland. Thanks to help and instruction from the Department for Religious Affairs, Polish women religious successfully resisted the authorities’ destructive actions. Instructions sent through diocesan clerks to all religious communities in Poland served as an efficient tool in shaping the resistance. They referred to ways of completing statistical surveys (ACMN, WP, sign. В. Xlll, I. 1, Instrukcja przeslana przez Wydzial Spraw Zakonnych), keeping housing files (ACMN, WP, sign. B. Xlll, 1. 1, Sprawozdanie z dzialalnosci Zgromadzenia), or sisters’ conduct towards the representatives of administrative authorities in offices (ACMN, WP, sign. В. XIII, I. 1, Zachowanie si? siostr zakonnych w razie ich wezwania do osobistego stawienia si? w urz?dzie) and the way of receiving Security Service officers in religious houses. Invaluable societal trust in female orders was the result of the long impact of monasteries and religious communities on the local environment not only in the field of religion but also in social areas still not completely taken over by the Communist regime.

Communist authorities in the early 1970s were concerned about the counterproductive effects of the seizure of religious properties and the obstruction of the sisters’ work opportunities. That is why new propositions appeared: ‘to slow down and weaken the process of sisters’ increasing movement to the auxiliary pastoral work in parishes, as this phenomenon is undesired’ (AAN, UdSW, sign. 142/1, Sprawozdanie z pracy Wydzialu Zakonow w 1973 r. i zalozenia do pracy na 1974 r. z dnia 22 stycznia 1974 r., c. 157-162). The Department for Religious Affairs was forced to admit that one of the relevant reasons of sisters’ movement to work in parishes was their ill-considered deprivation of the opportunities to work in nursing, services and crafts (AAN, UdSW, sign. 142/1, Sprawozdanie z pracy Wydzialu Zakonow w 1973 r. i zalozenia do pracy na 1974 r. z dnia 22 stycznia 1974 r., c. 157-162).

The factor which integrated religious congregations was their joint participation in the great events of Church life, including the Second Vatican Council, which sought a thorough renewal of religious life, not only by change of clothes, vocabulary, day-to-day schedule, but also through a deep reform of ways of thinking, acting and living, which isolated women religious from the world. Council documents showed the general direction of that renewal, in respect to a variety of religious institutions in their life and work. The decree Perfectae caritatis recommended a return to the sources, to the Gospel and the charism of the founders, but also an adjustment to changing conditions of the era and of every period which would come through changes in thoughts and tasks. Among the practical tips one was particularly interesting - remove old forms, examine the way of governing the institutions, and include all members in collaboration on the renewal of the Church.

Due to the development of efficient strategies of operation within unfavourable circumstances, female religious communities in Poland turned out to be highly resistant to the hostile actions of Communist authorities. Flexibility of moving from one type of work to another (although the unification of activities of orders, despite different charisms, became a side effect), and constant adherence to that chosen lifestyle forced Communist authorities to gradually revise the counterproductive anti-religious policy (Krupecka 2014, p. 192). Like a great part of Polish society under Communist rule, women religious were also capable of exploiting legal loopholes and acting on the margins of the law. For example, in response to the takeover of religious kindergartens, sisters opened illegal kindergartens, usually called children’s ‘storage’ facilities, with reference to provisions which allowed them to take care of neighbours’ children (Krupecka 2014, p. 182). On the 30th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War on 31 August 1969, the Bishop Ordinary of Katowice, Herbert Bednorz invited female religious congregations of the diocese of Katowice to participate in the day of retreat and prayer in the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswi^cim. The bishop’s initiative was inspired by the idea of integration and strengthening of the religious environment when Communist authorities strengthened secularisation activities. The event was connected with the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War and the idea of Polish-German reconciliation. The congress of women religious was an unusual event so, due to its character and venue, it was under Security Service special scrutiny (Mirek 2015, pp. 363-4).

Sisters were also visible in society during workers’ strikes or struggles for an independent press and culture. During the strike of 1981 at the University of Warsaw, the Ursuline Sisters of the Agonising Heart of Jesus brought students sacks with bread and pots of cabbage cooked in the convent kitchen as well as reams of printing paper, obtained from the curia of Warsaw (Krupecka 2013, p. 334).

Help for those detained, internees and their families became a priority for women religious. Many of them were engaged in the work of parish teams which distributed charitable gifts to those most in need. Sisters also performed important dangerous tasks which demanded diplomacy and secrecy. Their first mission occurred on the first day of Martial Law. They informed lay people and priests about the meeting in the residence of the Primate of Poland in Warsaw, which gave rise to the formation of the Primate’s Committee of Help for Imprisoned People and Their Families (Mirek 2015, p. 518).

Following arrests and internments on the institution of martial law, the convent of the Franciscan Servants of the Cross in Warsaw was frequently visited by people, not just those previously associated with the Church of St. Martin. They brought information about the internees as well as parcels, especially clothes, for those taken during the night. Initially, it functioned as a temporary store for donations, but the undertaking transformed into several years of activity of the Primate’s Committee of Help for Imprisoned People and Their Families. ‘Parcels, cases, boxes near the wall, and people around - embarrassed, worried, speaking in quiet voices, but the noise was humming in the hall. Among these parcels and people, sitting, making notes, crouching by the parcels or running somewhere, brown frocks of Franciscan Sisters are passing by’ (Wspomnienie 1994, p. 182).

In the early 1970s, in spite of difficulties within the Communist state, a series of systematic studies on sisters’ own history, was initiated by Professor Jerzy Kloczowski. This cooperation resulted in volumes devoted to the history of particular congregations in the inter-war period: 17 volumes describing the history of female congregations between 1939 and 1947, and five volumes on the history of the congregations in the Polish People’s Republic.

One of Primate Stefan Wyszyriski’s greatest merits, as it seems, was not only the unification of religious groups, but the persuasion of all church parties that closer collaboration between orders, parishes and diocesan hierarchies was necessary (Ciosek 2018, p. 67). In post-war Poland, unity among Church institutions became the only efficient weapon against the authoritarian state policy - a policy consisting of the introduction of division and chaos. The tactics assumed by the Primate reflected his outstanding insight and ability to predict the future of the Church in Poland after 1945. The emphasis on sisters’ unity and deep spiritual life (and, equally importantly, social competence) was one of the ways of fighting to preserve traditional Catholicism in the face of loss of proper development of Church life. Undoubtedly, it was also the Primate’s prudence that contributed to the fact that the understanding of post-Conciliar religious renewal in Poland translated into a deeper religious life and faithfulness to the rules (adapted and changed, but in favour of spirituality and religious consecration). This fascination with the spiritual possibilities given by religious asceticism led to the development of religious life in Poland in new forms, adjusted to the needs of the time, even though the authorities attempted to divide Catholics into progressives, implementing the ideas of ‘Council spirit’, and ‘reactionaries’ (‘obscurants’, ‘bigots’). Religious environments, consolidated due to the Primate’s initiative, survived the period of the most severe persecution and, strengthened, were able to resume many important apostolic and charitable initiatives in the final phase of the Polish People’s Republic, and assist in the revival of religious life abroad, for example, in Czechoslovakia and in federations of the USSR (Ciosek 2018, p. 67).

The political transformations and rapid subsequent reforms created a particular climate and opportunities for the Church, including religious life. In the State-Church relationship, these changes occurred slightly earlier. Subsequent social protest loosened the restrictions and forced Communist authorities to change their tactics in the fight against the Church and its religious congregations (Olech 2009, p. 21).

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