I'm back home and reflecting on my recent retreat with the Sisters of the Society Devoted to the Sacred Heart. Members of my community ask me how the retreat went and who were the Sisters whom I led in retreat. Answering their questions gives me another opportunity to reflect on what a grace it was for me to meet them.
I'm still amazed at being able to meet courageous women who survived the Nazi and Communist occupation of their country, Hungary, and hearing how they were able to find freedom in Canada and then in the U.S. The stories of the early members read like the script of an exciting movie.
Sister Hermine, now 92 years old, invited the foundress, Sister Ida Peterfy, to go on a Jesuit retreat which changed Sister Ida's life. She once spoke about the experience this way: "Suddenly I realized that God knew me and loved me, Ida, personally. To God I am not just one of the cabbages in a cabbage field. He knows me by name! Then I asked myself again; if I pursue my career as a chemist, who will take care of the children? The Church will. But who is the Church? I am the Church!" Thus Sister Ida said "Yes!" to God's call to form a community of catechists who would care for the spiritual needs of children.
This was 1940 and in the next few years other women joined the two. One was Sister Eva with whom I spoke. She told me that at the age of thirteen, when she was in a boarding school, she told a Jesuit priest about her interest in religious life. He told her that a new community was just being formed and introduced her to Sister Ida who was studying at a local university. When she was seventeen, Sister Eva took a private vow of chastity for one year. All the Sisters lived separately at this time because it was too dangerous to come together as a community.
When World War II ended, and the Soviets became the occupying army in Hungary, Sister Aurelia was arrested because she had a German surname. She was sent to Siberia where, according to Sister Eva, this frail woman shoveled coal in a coal mine for two years before a falling beam of timber broke her back and she was shipped back to Hungary. She survived, escaped with the others to safety in North America, and died shortly after Sister Ida's death in the Jubilee Year 2000.
I asked Sister Eva how they were able to get out of Hungary. It took two attempts. On the first one, she was in sight of the U.S. flag in the American occupied part of Austria when she was stopped. Her alibi was that she was on her way to visit German relatives, but her bad German gave her away and her forged passport was discovered to be false. She was arrested and sent back to Hungary where she was sternly warned not to try to escape again and sentenced to four months in prison. On the second attempt, with another false passport, she succeeded, speaking as little German as possible.
Once the other Sisters were free, Sister Hermine made her way to the West with the help of a false passport and smugglers who got her to Austria through what was then Czechoslovakia. Sister Hermine had three brothers were who Jesuit priests, one of whom, Fr. Stephen, served as a missionary in China. Sister told me about how one of Fr. Stephen's fingers was crushed by the Chinese Communists before he was released and migrated to Canada.
I also heard stories of the present good work of the Sisters of the Society Devoted to the Sacred Heart. Sister Arlene works in Taiwan at Cardinal Tien Hospital where she serves as a medical doctor. On September 3 she will be in Omaha for an International Medical Conference on NaPro Technology, sponsored by the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction on the occasion of its twenty-fifth anniversary. In her talk she will discuss her use of NaPro technology in Taiwan.
The spirit of these Sisters is contained in the following prayer that Sister Ida wrote:
"Come, follow Me." (Mt. 4: 19)
Lord Jesus Christ,
in baptism You placed Your hand upon me,
You chose me to belong to You.
You gave me new life.
Now I can respond to You.
I want You to make me holy.
I want to belong to You.
I want You to be the center of my life.
I want to love with Your Heart.
Let the splendor of holiness
shine on the world through me.
Help me to reach for more,
for holiness, for strength, for divine life,
to be like You,
to radiate holiness in the world.