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 CNS Story:

NUNS-DOCUMENTARY Aug-11-2009 (800 words) With photos. xxxn

Plight of Europe's 'secret sisters' depicted in documentary

By Carmen Blanco
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Women religious in Central and Eastern Europe who kept their faith alive clandestinely for more than 40 years during communist rule, undeterred by threats of torture, exile and imprisonment, will be featured in a TV documentary produced by three nuns.

The documentary focuses on the plight of Eastern-rite and Latin-rite Catholic nuns, many of whom are now in their 80s and 90s. Through extensive interviews with the "sister survivors," viewers are brought stories of courage, hope and fidelity during a time of political and religious repression.

"We asked ourselves the question, 'Who is saving and recording these stories?'" Sister Margaret Nacke told Catholic News Service during a phone interview.

Sister Mary Savoie added, "We were told the accounts couldn't be preserved in archives. There were no records about what was happening. We thought, 'This will be a lost history.'"

Sisters Margaret and Mary, members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kan., have been collecting oral histories and researching the experiences of East European sisters for nearly six years. Their findings form the basis of their documentary, "Interrupted Lives: Catholic Sisters Under European Communism," a project that grew out of their larger project titled "Sister Survivors of European Communism."

The one-hour documentary "Interrupted Lives" will be released to ABC-TV stations and affiliates Sept. 13. Broadcast is at the discretion of the local station.

"We spent three years just collecting testimonies, photographs and anything we could get a hold of in the five countries we visited. What we found is archived at Chicago's Catholic Theological Union in the Paul Bechtold Library," Sister Mary told CNS.

The sisters, who also are the executive producers of the documentary, volunteered in Romania after the fall of Soviet communism and worked in curriculum development. While in Romania, they heard testimonies from the women religious describing their experience during communist times.

"Last October, the film crew took two Romanian sisters, Sister Clare and Sister Josefa, who both worked in Bucharest, back to Jilava Prison, where they were sentenced during Soviet rule. The prison is still functioning today," Sister Margaret told CNS.

Sister Clare, a member of the Congregation of Jesus, worked in the nunciature in Bucharest before she was arrested on the accusation she was a Vatican spy. She spent 14 years in prison where she endured beatings and torture.

Sister Josefa, of the Religious of the Assumption order, worked as an administrator in a Bucharest hospital when she was arrested for allowing a priest to say Mass in her office. She was sentenced to six years in prison and given amnesty, then was rearrested and sent to a re-education camp for two years of forced labor.

"Sister Clare spent some time at the Jilava Prison with Sister Josefa," Sister Mary told CNS. "On the way to the prison, they picked wildflowers. When they arrived at the prison, they went into an empty prison cell, which is still in use, and laid flowers on the window sill and prayed in Romanian for the forgiveness of all that had happened there."

"Sister Clare said she could now die and go to heaven," Sister Mary told CNS. "She was bound and determined to go visit the prison. She remembered her fellow religious sister's burial site and had her body dug up saying, 'She is one of ours and deserves a proper burial.'"

Atheistic sentiments marked Soviet communism but the degrees of religious oppression varied from country to country.

From the 1940s until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Catholic Church and other religions were suppressed and driven underground. Church property was seized and destroyed, catechetical teaching was banned and members of the religious community were urged to either renounce their faith and relinquish their vows or face imprisonment, exile or forced work on farms or in factories.

The documentary was funded in part by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Catholic Communication Campaign and the Collection for the Church in Central and Eastern Europe, which is part of the USCCB's Committee on National Collections. A total of $185,000 was donated for the sisters' documentary project.

Shortly after the fall of communism, the USCCB established the Collection for the Church in Central and Eastern Europe to help the church in the region restore its pastoral capacity and regain the strength it lost during the decades of communist oppression.

Franciscan Sister Judy Zielinski, writer and producer for NewGroup Media, assisted with the documentary. She has written and produced documentaries both domestically and internationally, including two public TV broadcasts set in the Holy Land and the NBC-distributed documentary, "Jesus Decoded."

Sister Mary told CNS, "My hope is that people will be inspired by the courage and commitment it took for these Catholic sisters to sustain themselves and live through ... that part of history."


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