When life is built on and around love, it has a special kind of strength, even in the most difficult kind of circumstances. It has the resilience of steel without being stoic; it has a flexibility to shape to the challenges, without closing in on itself; it embraces the harshness of everyday realities, because it grasps a meaning of love that outlasts death.
One example of such heroic love is found in the story of Sister Stella and her ten companions, Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, the martyrs of Nowogródek. Their story of love and resilience begins when the first group of Sisters arrived in Nowogródek on 4 September 1929. At the time, Nowogródek was a small town in the eastern part of the Republic of Poland, now known as Belarus. This town embraced a diversity of people, including Belarusians, Russians, Poles, Jews, Muslims and others. When the Sisters arrived, they were not universally welcomed.
Establishing themselves in the convent under the patronage of Christ the King, the Sisters worked strenuously to identify the local needs they could address. Initially the Sisters opened a school which was linked with the Church of the Transfiguration, called Biala Fara meaning the White Church. The school was open to Christians and non-Christians. With tenacity they approached the challenges of this new apostolic work, and with the same fervour the lived their religious and community life, providing a witness of a live filled with faith, hope and love. It is not surprising that the Sisters were gradually at least respected and even accepted by the locals.
Approximately ten years after their arrival in Nowogródek, just when their apostolic work was falling into a rhythm of activity, new and even greater challenges came their way. In September of 1939, World War II broke out and the eastern part of Poland, where the Sisters were located, was attacked by the Soviet Russians, and not long afterwards the Germans attacked from the west. Due to the constraints placed on the Sisters by the Soviet occupation, they were prohibited from continuing to run the school, evicted from their convent and unable to wear their religious habits. Although the harmony and disciplined life of the Sisters was disrupted, the Sisters drew even closer to the people in these tragic circumstances. The Sisters witnessed the expulsion of many people who were arrested without cause and moved to Siberia or Kazakhstan.
In less than two years, the Russian occupational forces withdrew, only to have that void filled by the advancing German Army. During the German occupation the Sisters were permitted to wear their habits and to return to their convent. While the presence of the Sisters was a sign of hope to the people, there were contradictory messages delivered to the local inhabitants by acts of terrorism carried out by the occupational forces. Dozens of local Jews were killed in the local market place while their orchestra provided entertainment. While the ongoing executions engendered fear, the people flocked to the Fara Church, where the only available priest, Rev. Aleksander Zienkiewicz celebrated the Eucharist daily.
In July of 1942 two priests, Rev. Joseph Kuczynski and Rev. Michael Dalecki were shot, together with sixty others in a mass execution which took place in a forest near Nowogródek. The arrests continued and on the nights of 17and 18 July, 120 people were taken to be executed. The Sisters were asked to pray for the prisoners’ release by the women of the town. After discussing the matter, the Sisters unanimously expressed their desire to offer their lives in sacrifice for the prisoners.
It was at this time that Sister Mary Stella, at a meeting with Rev. Zienkiewicz said: “My God, if sacrifice of life is needed let them kill us and not those who have families. We are even praying for that.” At that time, coincidentally or more appropriately providentially, the execution of 120 people was stopped. Some of those selected for execution were moved to Germany to undertake strenuous work, and others were released.
A year afterwards, the memory of death lingered as the occupational regime carried out their activities. On 31 July, 1943 the Gestapo ordered Sister Mary Stella and her Sisters to report to their headquarters at 7:30 p.m. The Sisters wondered whether they too would be sent to Germany for hard labour. One can imagine the range of their thoughts that came to their minds when reflecting on their situation as individuals and as a community. Would there be an interrogation and false accusations? Will they be sent somewhere…?
After joining in the prayer of the rosary the eleven Sisters proceeded to the Gestapo headquarters. The sisters’ names were: Stella, Imelda, Rajmunda, Daniela, Kanuta, Sergia, Gwidona, Felicyta, Heliodora, Kanizja and Boromea. They ranged in age from 26 to 54.
Sister Margaret, the twelfth member of the community wore civilian clothes because she was helping out every day in the hospital and looked after the sacristy. She was not with the group that went to the headquarters. She remained at home, since it was impossible for everyone to leave the convent and church unattended. She and the Parish priest awaited the return of the other Sisters, but night passed and dawn appeared without a sight of them.
It became known later that after the eleven sisters went to the gestapo headquarters they engaged in discussions with its occupants. Sometime afterwards a large covered truck drove to the headquarters and under escort the Sisters were taken into the truck. The vehicle departed towards Nowojelnia, in the direction of the army barracks. After about three kilometres the truck stopped and the soldiers descended to assess the situation. There was too much activity in the vicinity hence a decision was taken to return to their headquarters where the Sisters were ordered to leave the truck and led to a lower level of the building, into a room that was unused for some time. It was here that the Sisters spent part of the night in prayer, some prostrating themselves on the floor. Around 3.30am a truck and a car drove to the headquarters from where they were taken down the Nowojelnia Road to a woodland named Bartorowka. About 100 feet from the road in a small area of birch and pine trees a grave was dug.
It was later learned that on Sunday, Aug. 1, 1943, the Sisters requested to be allowed to remain in their habits and after receiving a blessing from the Superior, Sister Stella, they knelt and bid farewell to each other. Sister Stella was shot first and subsequently each of the other ten Sisters. Their bodies were thrown into the open grave.
For a considerable time afterwards, the Gestapo looked for the twelfth Sister. Because Sister Margaret wore secular clothes, she managed to elude their attention.
Some time passed before Sister Margaret Banas located their grave. She remained as the quiet custodian of the burial site while working in the hospital during the war years and during the post-war Soviet occupation, until her death in 1966.
In 1945, the Second World War ended. Fr. Zienkiewicz, Sister Margaret and all those 120 whose lives were spared because of the sacrifice of the survived the war. On 19 March 1945, the bodies were exhumed from the mass grave, each body being placed in a coffin. The coffins were placed on sleighs as it was winter, and returned to the Church of the Transfiguration, called Biala Fara, where they returned home. Initially they were buried in the ground but later the bodies were transferred into the church where now lie.
Fifty five years later in the year 2000 on 5 March, Pope St. John Paul II beatified Sister Stella and her ten companions. He said:
“No one has greater love than this – that one lays down his life for his friends.”