By GRACE BOYS
Last August, a group of Sisters of Social Service found ourselves in a small cemetery in Cluj, Romania, the town where our community had its district headquarters before religious life was declared illegal by the communist government in 1947. We were from California, Canada, Taiwan and Slovakia, on an extraordinary pilgrimage in search of our roots.
We were taken to the sisters plot, surrounded by an iron fence and bordered by flowers. Here lay our deceased sisters in Romania, all interred together. A memorial plaque the size of a desktop contained their names and dates of death. It was an emotional rendezvous.
We Sisters of Social Service have, since called upon by the Second Vatican Council, examined our history and charism in the light of our own times so that we may be of service to the world. Our case, however, was different from most other congregations. Communism had cut us off, not only from our roots but from our own sisters, who were in turn cut off from each other.
Being in the presence of these valiant Romanian women, therefore, who during 40 years of religious suppression had lived their religious lives in secrecy, moved me to tears. Memories went around. Of Sr. Augusta, for example, foundress of the Romanian branch of our community, who for years harbored a strong desire to bring the sisters together for Pentecost, our feast day. But, given the political situation and her own experience as a prisoner for her faith, she knew this was out of the question. Her hearts desire was unexpectedly granted when she died in 1973 near Pentecost and all the sisters gathered for her funeral, in spite of considerable danger.
Now here were 180 of Augustas sisters gathered to celebrate our 75th anniversary in the birthplace of our community.
The Sisters of Social Service were founded in Hungary in 1923 to address urgent social needs of the time. Observing the Benedictine balance between work and prayer, the early sisters worked among the people, wearing uniforms rather than habits -- a progressive gesture in those days -- and developing innovative services such as a summer camp for Gypsy children and a probation program for women.
Margaret Slachta, one of our founding sisters and the first woman elected to the Hungarian parliament, was a strong advocate for women, children and families. With the spread of anti-Semitism in the 1930s and 1940s, hers was one of the few voices to speak out for the Jewish people. She and the sisters are credited with hiding and saving 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust.
Slachta aspired to bring her vision to other countries. In 1923 she and some sisters traveled to Buffalo, N.Y., to raise funds: The community back home was itself suffering the very economic and political pressures it sought to alleviate. Within three years, a permanent house had been established in Buffalo and two new groups were formed in Canada and California. Since then, communities have been founded in Cuba, Mexico, the Philippines and Taiwan.
Given our congregations social and political activism, it is no wonder the communist government in Hungary found the sisters threatening. From 1947 until the collapse of communism in 1989, the Sisters of Social Service were forbidden to practice their vocations or admit new members. Undeterred, they continued to live their religious lives in secret, in apartments, convening only in small clusters. New members could be accepted only with great caution. In fact, many older members were unaware that new members had been prepared in secret. During the years of oppression, there was almost no international contact among the sisters.
In 1993, 28 sisters from Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, and five from Cuba traveled to Ontario, Canada, for the first gathering of the groups that had become a federation. Then, as the political climate in Hungary stabilized, we decided to celebrate our 75th anniversary in our birthplace.
A few days before the federation meeting in Budapest, several of us toured the Castle District overlooking the Danube Riber. A Hungarian woman took our picture in front of the Trinity Pillar where Slachta took her oath of office for parliament. I admire her very much, our volunteer photographer said, a reminder of how different things once were and what might have been.
Pannonhalma Abbey, a 900-year-old monastery, is a hallowed spiritual center in Hungary as well as a place of lasting influence on the life and spirit of our community. As Sr. Anne Lehner, president of the federation, said in her opening welcome a few days later, We are at the place of our beginnings, where the blessed spirituality of the Benedictine tradition was offered to us.
The meeting was held in four languages, Spanish, Slovak, Hungarian and English, with simultaneous translation. The formal business was interspersed with morning and evening prayer reflecting our different languages and cultures. Eucharistic liturgy was available daily in the abbey church.
Lehner opened with a proclamation of the 75th jubilee of our founding and the admonition that this was, and is to be, about the social mission of the church.
After the formal meeting, some of us traveled throughout Romania, Hungary or Slovakia. A sister told how she couldnt have any friends during the suppression because friends would ask intrusive questions such as Why did you need to be away for a week? Another sister had to delay her first vows for a year as punishment for saying something about the community to a priest during confession.
Our three-week sojourn in Eastern Europe came all too soon to a close. Although translaters were not always available, we discovered a common language of the heart with which there were few difficulties in translating the things that really mattered. Our entire journey was a roots-exploring experience. Together we heard the stories of those who demonstrated with their lives our communitys dedication to the Spirit and to social justice. We celebrated our past and, as a multicultural microcosm of our world, anticipated the future -- a future in which we resolved to continue our work for justice within our distinctive local areas, even as we collaborate with each other to address the challenges of globalization in a world that we all must share and cherish.
Sister of Social Service Grace Boys teaches social work and cross-cultural perspectives in the Social Work Department of Fu Jen Catholic University in Taipei, Taiwan.
National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999