National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 19, 2003

Preserving the gospel stories of today

Project seeks to record Catholic experience under communism


Sr. Mary Savoie and Sr. Margaret Nacke recently received a letter that underscored the importance of their efforts to preserve the history of the Christian experience in Central and Eastern Europe under communism.

“Your project is very necessary and I also would say urgent, if you wish to gather information from sisters who experienced religious life not only under the Soviets, but also those that had to go underground after their experience of ‘free’ religious life,” wrote Sr. Igne Marijosius from Lithuania. “Just last week we buried one of our sisters, age 99, who was for 25 years superior general in the underground. Her stories went with her to eternal rest.”

The desire to rescue such stories from the dustbin of history has galvanized Nacke and Savoie to begin collecting the personal recollections of those who suffered for their faith during the communist era. The two sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kan., are still in the initial phase of their new ministry, but it develops out of experiences that go back to 1993 when they first began traveling to Romania to help with the re-establishment of the Catholic church after the fall of communism. Nacke and Savoie were among about 200 women religious who took part in efforts to help local churches in Central and Eastern Europe at the invitation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

At the time, Nacke and Savoie said they had no thoughts of establishing the ambitious undertaking to which they are now devoting themselves. The idea for a center occurred to them only this past spring when the two women had a meeting in Kansas City, Mo., with the director of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, a daughter of Holocaust survivors. It was while listening to the director recount her family’s history that the two sisters realized there was a need to establish a similar center that would preserve the stories of Catholics who had suffered persecution under communism because of their religious faith.

“When I was taking notes with her [the director], I kept putting in my notes the names of sisters who survived oppression and suffering and imprisonment,” Savoie said.

Realizing that the accounts of those they had talked to over the years in Central and Eastern Europe would otherwise be lost, the two women decided to launch a drive to record, write and preserve the memories of those who testified to their faith and often suffered prison and even death because of it.

“We thought, ‘Who is collecting their stories?’ Just to honor their stories and to make them available to other people for our day and in the future. Their stories are so inspiring,” Nacke said.

“These are the gospel stories of today,” Savoie said.

The two women are beginning their project with a focus on women religious in Central and Eastern Europe and are contacting the leadership conferences of women religious in the seven countries that they have targeted: the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovakia and Ukraine. They hope to identify local nuns who can interview sisters active during the communist era and are raising funds for the costs of two years of research.

In time, Nacke and Savoie plan to expand the project to include the experiences of not only Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic sisters but priests, monks and lay people.

The result could be a treasure trove for historians, ethicists and spiritual theologians, a vital resource for studying the communist era in different countries and what led some people to acts of resistance when so many remained mute. Nacke and Savoie are currently in conversation with several colleges and universities around the country to see which institution might be interested in housing the materials they gather.

The two sisters say so far the response they have met with has been overwhelmingly positive. They have established a resource council that includes two historians and are proceeding rapidly to make contact with historians and archivists on both sides of the Atlantic.

“There’s an urgency about it because so many of the stories are of the elderly and dying,” Nacke said.

Margot Patterson is NCR opinion editor. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, September 19, 2003

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