Women religious who lived through communism share their stories

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Written by LAURIE STEVENS BERTKE, Chronicle Writer   
Tuesday, 01 September 2009 05:00
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Sylvania Franciscan was writer and producer on documentary

SOUTH BEND, Ind.—Catholic sisters who endured decades of oppression under communist rule in Eastern Europe recount their stories of survival in a new television documentary airing this month.

Sylvania Franciscan Sister Karen Zielinski depicts a Ukrainian nun exiled to Siberia, praying in the kitchen before beginning the day's strenuous outdoor labor. Sr. Zielinski is the blood sister of the “Interrupted Lives” writer and producer, Sylvania Franciscan Sister Judy Zielinski. (Photo courtesy of NewGroup Media)
Sylvania Franciscan Sister Karen Zielinski depicts a Ukrainian nun exiled to Siberia, praying in the kitchen before beginning the day's strenuous outdoor labor. Sr. Zielinski is the blood sister of the “Interrupted Lives” writer and producer, Sylvania Franciscan Sister Judy Zielinski. (Photo courtesy of NewGroup Media)

Written and produced by Sylvania Franciscan Sister Judy Zielinski, “Interrupted Lives: Catholic Sisters Under European Communism” details the experiences of women religious from five different countries who suffered imprisonment, exile, forced labor and other forms of persecution during the communist era. The one-hour program is being distributed to all ABC-TV stations and affiliates Sept. 13.

The idea for the documentary came from Sister Margaret Nacke and Sister Mary Savoie, two Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kan., who had spent time collecting oral histories from sisters who lived through the Soviet regime that lasted from the end of World War II until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Sr. Nacke and Sr. Savoie, the film’s executive producers, contacted the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) about three years ago and were referred to Sr. Zielinski at NewGroup Media, a communications company in South Bend, Ind., that has produced numerous documentaries for the USCCB.

They shared their research with Sr. Zielinski and she agreed to help them translate the sisters’ stories to the screen.

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“There was always an element of ‘time is of the essence,’ that we needed to get to these sisters, because of their advanced ages, and capture the stories on film before we lost them,” says Sr. Zielinski. “Most of them were in their 80s and some into their 90s.”

In 2007, the crew made two trips to Eastern and Central Europe and Sr. Zielinski interviewed some 60 women religious from Ukraine, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and Lithuania.

They returned with “hours and hours of footage in all of these different European languages,” says Sr. Zielinski, who had to conduct most of her interviews through translators.

To bring the sisters’ stories to life, she asked women religious from several U.S. communities, including her own congregation in Sylvania, to act in reenactments and provide voiceovers.

“I knew that sisters would respond to the story of the persecution of their own religious sisters,” explains Sr. Zielinski.

Fifteen Sylvania Franciscans acted in a variety of scenes that were shot last year at St. Agnes Convent in Toledo.

Sylvania Franciscan Sister Maria Pacelli Spino, participating in a dramatic reenactment of a secret vow ceremony, looks out the window for police or informants before the ritual begins. The scene was shot at St. Agnes Convent in Toledo for the upcoming documentary, “Interrupted Lives: Catholic Sisters Under European Communism.” (Photo courtesy of NewGroup Media)
Sylvania Franciscan Sister Maria Pacelli Spino, participating in a dramatic reenactment of a secret vow ceremony, looks out the window for police or informants before the ritual begins. The scene was shot at St. Agnes Convent in Toledo for the upcoming documentary, “Interrupted Lives: Catholic Sisters Under European Communism.” (Photo courtesy of NewGroup Media)

Sr. Zielinski says the most “harrowing and challenging” scenes they took part in were shot in the basement, which was used as the set for a prison where sisters were interrogated and tortured.

She notes all of the U.S. sisters who helped were “incredibly generous,” donating their time to tell the story “in solidarity with the religious sisters of Europe who had to go through all this.”

For Sr. Zielinski, it was a moving experience to meet and speak with the European sisters who sacrificed so much for their faith and for their religious vocations.

“To be honest, in some instances I felt that — I knew that — I was in the presence of saints,” she says.

Some were exiled to Siberia in their 20s and returned in their 50s — “the whole prime of their life, gone,” says Sr. Zielinski.

They were denied the basics of community living and unable to “teach or nurse or do any of the works of mercy that they were trained to do,” she adds.

Despite these hardships, when she asked the sisters if they hated the communists or wanted to retaliate, “so many of them said to me, ‘no,’ “ says Sr. Zielinski.

She recalls one in particular, Sister Clara, who replied, “I didn’t hate those men who tortured me. In fact I prayed for them every day, that God would forgive them and that they would change their ways.”

“That’s why I named the film ‘Interrupted Lives,’ ” Sr. Zielinski explains. “Because the experience didn’t crush them, it didn’t devastate them, it didn’t take away their faith, it didn’t turn them into bitter people. It interrupted what they expected their lives to be, but as soon as they could, they resumed their lives, after 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

Sr. Zielinski, who refers to herself as a “Jill of all trades in communications,” has served as director of Faith & Values Programming at NewGroup Media since 2001. She has previously worked for Family Theater Productions in Los Angeles and the communications office of the Diocese of Toledo.

“Interrupted Lives” was funded in part by the USCCB’s Catholic Communication Campaign and the Collection for the Church in Central and Eastern Europe.

The film is airing as part of the Vision & Values series created by the Interfaith Broadcasting Commission.

Broadcast of “Interrupted Lives” is at the discretion of local ABC-TV stations. Check local listings or visit http://www.interfaithbroadcasting.com for a list of stations airing the program.

To order the program on DVD, call 1-800-235-8722 or visit www.usccbpublishing.org.

Last Updated on Monday, 09 August 2010 13:50
 
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