Faith in face of persecution

 — Mar. 13, 201013 mars 2010

Faith in face of persecution;
Martyred nuns examples of the price of principles

How strong would your faith be in the face of persecution? That question, expressed in the theme, The Cost of Discipleship in Our Time, will be examined March 20 at a workshop hosted by the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism.

The workshop will take place at the Nun Martyrs’ Shrine, 215 Avenue M. The building was erected by the Ukrainian Sisters of St. Joseph of Saskatoon to honour two modern day martyrs. Sr. Theodosia, provincial secretary of the Canadian Sisters of St. Joseph and administrator of St. Joseph’s Home in Saskatoon, will be the keynote speaker. She will discuss how people today defend their faith and their ministry, specifically considering two members of the St. Joseph Ukrainian Catholic community who died for their principles.

The two were Sister Olympia and Sister Laurentia, members of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Western Ukraine. They served in a community outside Lviv following the Second World War, when the Ukrainian Catholic Church was outlawed by the Communist regime.

“The denomination was liquidated in 1945,” says Sr. Theodosia. “Church buildings were closed or demolished, and the authorities and servants of the church were given the option of joining the Russian Orthodox Church or being persecuted. Thousands of bishops and priests refused to adopt Orthodoxy and were executed on the spot or sent into exile to Siberia.

“The Communists kept an eye on Ukrainian Catholic nuns, especially our nuns, Sr. Olympia and Sr. Laurentia, who kept on serving and ministering to the people, and officiating at prayer services. They also grew a large herb garden and used the plants to treat the ill, fed starving children in their home, and supplied fruit and vegetables to impoverished families left fatherless by the war.”

Services were conducted outdoors in the churchyard cemetery. A couple of children were posted at the gate to watch for the Communists who came in black cars. When one was sighted, the sisters quickly handed the cross, the candles, and the Bible to villagers who scattered, leaving the sisters to deal with the police.

After years of harassment, the authorities finally arrested the two women in 1950 and sent them by crowded railroad boxcars and barge to a concentration camp in Tomsk, Siberia. Here, despite desperately poor health, they were assigned work duties: doing field work on local farms and cutting trees in the forest in summer, and in winter, hauling the cut timber to the camp.

Ignoring the commandant’s orders, the nuns also taught catechism and crafts to the camp children, and encouraged them to beautify the place where they were.

Frigid living conditions, starvation rations, hard labour, ill health, and the constant taunts and abuse from their jailers eventually took its toll and both sisters died in 1952.

In June of 2001, Pope John Paul II made his first and only trip to Ukraine for the express purpose of honouring those who were executed in defence of the Church and their faith. Sr. Olympia and Sr. Laurentia were among the 27 proclaimed martyrs of the modern church.

“When someone is venerated like that by the Church, it is customary to want something that was close to that person, or an actual part of them, to venerate. We in the Church call them relics,” says Sr. Theodosia.

Because the nun martyrs were part of their extended community, the Sisters of St. Joseph in Saskatoon financed and encouraged their sisters in Ukraine to go to Siberia and try to locate the nuns’ burial site. They were successful, and a professional team, that included forensic scientists and government representatives, exhumed the bodies and prepared them for permanent placement in a crypt in the Order’s monastery in Lviv.

“Since we in Saskatoon were so closely involved in this project, we made a petition to have a ‘crucial element,’ or a major relic, from each body,” Sr. Theodosia says. “We asked for a rib from each of the sisters.”

The elements were sealed in gold caskets, transported to Saskatoon, and on June 27, 2006, placed in the khram shrine specifically built to honour the martyred women.

At the upcoming workshop, Sr. Theodosia will use the example of these martyrs “to put a face on the cost of discipleship. We will also discuss the ways in which we are called today to defend our faith and what we believe in,” she says. “Given some of the social developments of our day and shifting societal values, there are many things now considered acceptable that go against the teaching of Jesus Christ. We are called to be defenders of the faith. It is essential,” she says, “that we as believers protect the sacred principles of humanity and human life.”

Posted: Mar. 13, 2010 • Permanent link:
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