On 11 February 1869, Mother Irena Makrina Mieczyslavska (1784-1869), the Ihumena, or abbess, of the nuns of the Order of St. Basil the Great in White Ruthenia (today the Republic of Belarus), died in the odour of sanctity in the Roman convent of the Trinitè dei Monti, under the watchful protection of the miraculous image of the Mater Admirabilis venerated there. Many years before, she had offered herself to God as a victim of expiation for the sins committed during the time of the carnival, and God had granted her yearly an excruciating affliction during these days, which she offered to Him with the greatest patience. This year, God was pleased to end her life of sufferings and prayers for the Church in Ruthenia and in the world, and to call her to her eternal reward. His Providence had brought her to die in the centre of Catholic unity as a witness to the almost unbelievable story of the sufferings for the Faith of the 245 Basilian nuns of what is today Belarus and Lithuania.
The story had begun three decades previously. Czar Nicholas I, the self-styled “Minister and Lieutenant of God,” had decided to liquidate the union of several millions of his Ruthenian subjects, and had found in the notorious Josyf Semashko, a willing tool in the work of subjecting these poor souls to the combined political and religious control of Moscow. This unworthy Catholic priest, having received the episcopate from the Czar in exchange for his soul, waited until the death of Metropolitan Josaphat Bulhak in December, 1838, before delivering over his flock to the wolves. “In 1839,” wrote Pius XII, “the union of the Ruthenian Church with the dissident Russian Church was solemnly proclaimed. It is impossible to describe the miseries, perils and hardships with which the most noble nation of the Ruthenians was afflicted at that time, for no other crime or guilt but that of crying out against the wrong done it and striving to retain its faith, when it had been driven by force and fraud into schism. . . . The Catholic Church had to lament the tearing by iniquitous violence from her motherly embrace of these her children.”
Before his formal act of apostasy in Polotsk, on 24 February, 1839, Semashko had been chaplain to a convent of Basilian nuns in Minsk who occupied themselves with schooling the children, and so one of the first acts of his episcopate was to present them with an act of submission to the Orthodox religion which they were to sign. Neither his promises of imperial favour, however, nor his threats of forced labour in Siberia could move them from their fidelity to the holy Union with Rome into which their ancestors had entered in 1596. One morning in summer, 1838, a troop of soldiers, with Semashko at their head, forced their way into the convent of the Blessed Trinity, and, finding the nuns before the Blessed Sacrament, gave them a final ultimatum. Their superior, Mother Makrina, had already prepared them for this moment expressing their choice thus:
“Death, here below, in persecutions and in tears, and eternal glory in heaven, my dear daughters, or life in this world and death in the next: Choose!”
They had chosen: “Siberia rather than abandon Jesus Christ and His Vicar!”
At their unanimous refusal to apostatize, Semashko gave the order to his guards to seize the thirty-five sisters and bind their hands and feet in irons. One very old sister remained. She had at that moment died on her knees; she was left on the floor where she had expired. Now the sisters thus bound and chained together, two by two, were led from the city to cries of compassion from its outraged citizenry. Mother Makrina had obtained one favour from the civil governor: She was permitted to carry their large, wooden crucifix with them. A forced march of seven days to Vitebsk, the city of St. Josaphat’s martyrdom, followed. Exhausted, they arrived at what had hitherto been another convent of their order, and which was to be their place of imprisonment.
There they found thirteen of their sisters in irons; the abbess of Vitebsk, Mother Eusebia Tyminska, and four other nuns already having died from the torments they had undergone, the remaining nuns begged Mother Makrina to adopt them as her spiritual daughters. The convent had been turned over to a group of women of ill repute and ex-wives of soldiers who under the loose grouping of a religious community were the partners of the nightly drunken excesses of the dregs of the Russian and apostate Ruthenian clergy.
These latter, known to all as the “black women,” were to be the overseers of all the cruelties which Semashko had planned in order to induce his former flock to apostatize. Seven years of living martyrdom were to pass here and elsewhere for the sake of the Unity of the Church. Initially their daily routine consisted of restoring the house to order, after the previous night’s debauchery, every morning before 6 a.m. At this time they went to work in chains, breaking rocks in a quarry and transporting them in wheelbarrows to which they were further chained. This continued, with an hour’s break at midday, until nightfall, when they returned to look after the livestock and to be abused by the “black women” before retiring to their prison, still in chains. Malnutrition and frostbite followed in winter, when they were unable to supplement their meagre diet with the grass of the fields, and had to try to share the fodder of the pigs in order to survive.
But worse was to follow. Semashko, believing that the nuns would “become more reasonable” when he had “taken [off] the skin in which they were born and replaced it with another,” began to have the nuns flogged twice a week. Each received fifty lashes, and was forced to assist at the scourging of all the others. They prepared themselves for this ordeal by meditating on the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and while the torture lasted, they thought they saw Him suffering, and so gathered strength rather than terror from the sight. Their greatest pain was that their torture took place exposed in the sight of the Russian clergy and other men, but even this grief only united them the more closely to the shame of Jesus at the pillar. The onlookers waited eagerly for some sigh or groan, but all they heard after each lash was the prayer “By the Cross and Thy Passion, Jesus, save my soul!” When a sister ceased to say this, it was because heaven had opened its gates to another martyr.
Others sisters died one by one during their labours, which they were forced to continue despite the wounds of the scourgings. Some were beaten to death by the wooden staffs of the “black women”; one was burnt alive when forced into an oven by them when they were intoxicated. But still neither Semashko nor his henchmen could force Mother Makrina or any of her sisters to sign the act of apostasy. Then he tried separating them, incarcerating them in a damp and freezing cellar where they had to share a few rotten vegetables with the worms which crawled all over their body, rendering sleep impossible. So great was the confidence of Semashko that some, if not all, of the community would sign the document of apostasy he so badly needed to show the czar, that he came in person to the scene of their misery bearing a jewelled cross and the offer of a new title and position for Mother Makrina. His divide-and-conquer tactic having failed, she told him to take the emperor’s cross and hang it on his own already richly-decorated chest the better to hide his “apostate heart,” adding: “Once a thief hung upon a cross, now a cross hangs upon a thief!”
New torments and scourgings followed, until one day Semashko came to the area to “reconcile” a Greek Catholic church to the Russian Orthodox Church, and forced the nuns to assist at the ceremony. Despite their vehement refusal, they were dragged bleeding and bruised to the door of the church. Then, in a dramatic scene, Mother Makrina seized an axe which she saw lying on the ground and knelt down, presenting it to Semashko with the words “You have been our pastor, now our executioner: Cut off our heads and roll them into your church, for never shall our feet walk in. Here is the axe! Here are our heads!” Knocking the axe out of her hands and wounding a nearby sister, Semashko struck the kneeling abbess across the mouth breaking one of her teeth. She presented it to him saying: “This is the noblest action of your life, monster; and in remembrance of it take this diamond and set it in your heart of stone. Believe me, it will outshine all the jewels for which you have sold your soul!” After fresh blows, the sisters returned to their labours singing a hymn of thanksgiving to God, in which many of the people who had gathered to witness the scene joined.
After two years, the Sisters were ordered to go to the town of Polotsk, where St. Josaphat had been bishop, and where Semashko was to have himself a palace constructed through their labours. To their great sorrow, they were separated from their wooden crucifix which had been to them the source of so much consolation in their prison, and before which they had prayed for fortitude, perseverance, and the conversion of their persecutors, and sung the hymns which they had composed. But a consolation awaited them at Polotsk where, to their joy, they found ten Basilian sisters still alive of the twenty-five who had been brought there from Vilnius, and who took Mother Makrina as their superior. Because the people of Polotsk began to throw bread over the walls of the prison, the community was taken to a nearby village called Spas. They were to begin the construction work by levelling a stony hill, and this they were to do without tools, Semashko decreed , using stones to break stones. By summer 1841, nineteen sisters had died at Spas either from a combination of the tortures and exhaustion (the backbreaking work had resulted in such pain and dislocation that the sisters could no longer lie down at night, and had to ‘rest’ seated back to back), or from falling rocks and landslides. Another two had perished in the floggings which ensued in reprisal when it was found that an indignant villager scratched the following words on the wall of the Russian Church:
“Here, instead of monasteries,
Are Siberia and the galleys!”
If they had been able to or even desired to write graffiti, they would probably have recorded such sentiments as these, which we find in the words of one of their hymns:
“My God, change our sadness into joy: deliver our country from schism – that is our only prayer! Let us suffer, slaves of Our Lord!
If we fight for Him, then one day He will dry our tears by making the Faith triumph!”
In autumn, Semashko arrived to try anew to force the sisters to sign his document. This time he brought with him a decree from the Czar. “All which the Arch-arch-archhierarch Semashko has done, and all which he will yet do for the propagation of the Orthodox religion, I approve, confirm and declare holy, holy and thrice-holy,” it read, granting Semashko unlimited recourse to military power. He was enraged that they had written a petition to the Czar in which they begged to be allowed to die in their religion, and he showed them the refusal of Nicholas I written in his own hand. This time he struck Mother Makrina so hard across the mouth that the cartileges of her nose were damaged and she could not speak distinctly for more than a year. (All in all he knocked out, on various occasions, nine of her teeth.) Then he subjected all of the nuns to outnumbered lashes until nightfall in order to make them reveal whence they had obtained the necessary materials to write and send their petitions. He was not answered, but another sister perished.
That winter the sisters would all have died of starvation but for the local Jewish merchants, whom the Russian clergy and “black women” could not prevent from giving to the nuns the residue of the wheat used in distilling, since they were themselves deeply in debt to them for the alcohol they consumed. The news of the expiry of three more sisters in 1842 (one, the 72-year-old Sr. Seraphina, having expired at the thirtieth lash, had her corpse scourged until the sentence was completed) under the lash reached the ears of a general of the Russian occupation forces. His personal intervention led to the cessation of the floggings, but Semashko was to exact a terrible revenge. Doubly angered by this development and the news that some Basilian priests imprisoned nearby had made good their escape during the intoxication of their jailers (the sisters had witnessed with their very eyes the martyrdom of five of the older Basilian priests there), he arrived at the house of the “black women” and incited, in his anger, all of the local clergy, and indeed, all the men in the establishment, to outrage the poor nuns in their drunken fury, offering the rank of archpriest that very day to any who should consummate his crime.
The intoxicated horde came, fell upon their prey, and, the more the nuns resisted, the more they beat, kicked, tore at and bit them. But despite the infernal cries and blasphemies which pierced the night. God heard the sighs and prayers of his servants, and miraculously preserved all of them from a fate worse than death. Three indeed, perished, and eight had their eyes torn out and their faces mutilated; one had had her nose bitten off. All were covered in blood and wounds, but the next morning they were made to work as usual. Neither the visits of apostate priests, nor a terrible period of six days without water could force any of them to waver. The works continued, the blind sisters being made to knit all day.
In 1843, the surviving sisters were made to march to Myedzyoly, a town near Minsk, where they were imprisoned in what had been a Carmelite convent. Here it was that Semashko carried out his final attempt to make the sisters apostatize. He commanded each of those who could still see to be bound in a kind of sack which rendered movement of the arms impossible. Then, with ropes placed around their necks, they were led through the town to a nearby lake. The apostate priests – two Basilians were amongst them – offered them the choice of accepting their religion or “drowning like dogs.” As each one refused, she was dragged out into the lake, the rope around her neck and tied to a boat. When the water reached chest level, the ultimatum was repeated and they were dragged into the deep. When their victims seemed on the point of either drowning or being strangled by the rope, they were dragged back to shallower waters. This continued for two or three hours; it was repeated on five occasions over a three-week period; three sisters were drowned, but none apostatized. Only the protestations of the Jews in the area caused this torture to be stopped when the water began to freeze over. That winter, one more sister died, and seven became too debilitated to work. By the winter of 1844-45, frostbite had reduced the number of sisters who were able to work and look after the others to five, including Mother Makrina, who was a pillar of strength to all despite a terrible wound she had received in her head, which was now crawling with worms. When one of these sisters died of asphyxiation, being unable to move through frostbite, the end for all seemed nigh.
Then it was that their deportation to Siberia with a group of Basilian monks was decreed. Mother Makrina knew that if God wished any of them to escape to the free world in order to make known the persecutions of the Ruthenian Catholic Church, then Divine Providence would have to arrange such a seeming impossibility soon.The four able sisters scrutinized their opportunities until it came to pass that their persecutors indulged in drunken excess for three consecutive days. At the end of the third day, not a single man or woman in the establishment was left conscious, and so, the night of March 31, 1845, the four bade their sisters a tearful farewell until eternity, and, accompanied by their prayers, began an epic escape which commenced by their having to jump from a third-story window onto the snow-covered ground below. First Mother Makrina, and then two more sisters landed safe and sound. An anxious wait followed for Sr. Irena, who joined them some minutes later, having delayed to remove the coat from a guard lying in a drunken stupor. The sisters made their way to the ruins of a nearby chapel and gave thanks to God. They decided to split up, the better to elude their eventual pursuers, and agreed to meet up in the Eternal City.
Only one of them was to reach that destination, and the Divine Providence assured that it was Mother Makrina. The venerable abbess survived, by God’s grace, a three month ordeal of being hunted – at the age of sixty -like a wild animal, through the forests of Russian-occupied Lithuania, suffering from hunger, thirst and cold, until she reached the border of Prussian-occupied Poland, passing as a shepherdess. Welcomed by the Archbishop of Poznan, she was conducted, after her recuperation, by Church officials through France and to her final destination, the feet of Pope Gregory XVI. The fate of her three companions is unknown, except that they appear to have reached Austrian Galicia alive. Of those who remained imprisoned, the death of two more in rapid succession after the departure of the escapees saw Semashko obliged to have them taken to a hospital, under the strict condition that they would not have recourse to the ministration of any Catholic priest. Their subsequent fate is unknown.
Mother Makrina’s story shocked the civilized world. Her physical condition (a medical report declared that her skull had been broken, and that in one place was covered only by skin; her deformed body showed all the ravages of irons and ropes) testified to the truth of the solemn deposition she was able to make to the Sovereign Pontiff. Providence had arranged her arrival on 6 November 1845, just in time for Gregory XVI to be well-informed before his historic meeting with Nicholas I in Rome, on 13 December, 1845. It is a matter of historical record that the Czar emerged from his audience covered with shame and confusion, having had his denials as to the persecution of the Ruthenian Church refuted by documents written in his own hand, such as the one declaring Semashko’s deeds “thrice-holy”. The tyrant, facing the opprobrium of Europe (the Irish statesman and Catholic leader Daniel O’Connell compared Nicholas to Nero and Diocletian) was forced to sign a Concordat with the Church. The latter, alas, was to prove to be very short-lived, as subsequent persecution was to show.
Of the 245 Basilian nuns of White Ruthenia, not a single one is known to have apostatized, whether under the lash of Semashko or in labour camps of Siberia. Then, as now, it was the women of Belarus and Ukraine who gave an example of courage to the men. Many priests, religious, and laymen were martyrs and confessors for Catholic Unity under Semashko (including his own father, a priest), but the record of Mother Makrina and her companions stands out, even in an order which was to give so much more glory to God under, first, the later persecutions of the Czars and then the Communists.
(Reprinted with Permission)