Daring to Risk a Caring Response: Sisters remember their Central and Eastern Europe missions
By AJ Keith, Communications intern
In 1995, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops sought the help of women religious with their intended goal of religious expansion and education on Vatican II. Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, Armenia and Georgia were among the many countries that the Sisters of Charity served. As the Sisters ventured to Central and Eastern Europe to spread their mission of peace and love on a global scale, they experienced firsthand the sincerity of the human spirit that transcends the oppression of violence, poverty and tyrannical rule.
History always runs the risk of repeating itself, but when Sister of Charity Judith Metz went to Lithuania in 1996, she taught the Sisters of St. Casimir how to take note of their history to benefit the future of the congregation. To make sure that history didn’t repeat itself, her companion and fellow Sister of Charity Mary Joyce Richter was tasked with teaching the Sisters basic computer skills. Though Lithuania endured religious oppression for decades, the Sisters experienced compassion from the Sisters of Charity. The result was a mutually beneficial relationship that taught both the American and Lithuanian Sisters about freedom.
Sisters Judith and Joyce recall hearing “wonderful and moving” experiences from other Sisters who had visited Central and Eastern Europe the year prior to their mission trip, which convinced them to offer their services to the movement. The Sisters arrived in Kaunas, Lithuania, to a weary but optimistic nation in June 1996. Despite their milieu, the Sisters of St. Casimir were ready and willing to learn from the Sisters of Charity. But what had become a part of the daily life of the Lithuanian religious was a shocking revelation to the American Sisters.
Like much of Europe, Catholics in Lithuania were forced underground to avoid persecution solely on the basis of faith. In what was probably the most disturbing part of the journey, S. Judith recalls visiting a K.G.B. jail where Catholics were taken by the Communist rulers. She describes seeing empty padded rooms and bloodstained walls from the years of torture that people underwent prior to the fall of communism. Their only crime was their beliefs. “I know the blessings of freedom now,” S. Joyce says.
Though they came together, Sisters Judith and Joyce had different responsibilities: S. Judith was tasked with helping the Sisters begin an Archive, while S. Joyce was in charge of teaching the Sisters how to navigate the software on their new computers. S. Joyce taught the Sisters how to operate some of the new technology of the time and programs like Word Perfect (the predecessor to Microsoft Word). Together, they helped the Sisters preserve their history as a congregation that survived the Communist regime and helped take them into the future with new opportunities by becoming technologically skilled.
The Sisters of St. Casimir were thrilled to be able to explore their faith and encounter Sisters from the West after the weight of communism had been lifted. Their gratitude was immeasurable, as they found comfort in the Sisters and even shared personal stories with them about what they endured. Sisters Joyce and Judith were moved by the experience because of their willingness to learn from younger generations. Amazed by their courage to maintain their faith, the Sisters were pleased to see the future of the Church in these areas was in good hands. “They were willing to risk everything for their faith,” S. Judith says. “That’s what courage looks like.”
Their trip ended in a few weeks, but the Sisters have carried the memory of the Sisters of St. Casimir with them in all of their ministries. Through this experience, the two have learned to not take their faith or their opportunities for granted. S. Judith realized the benefits of being able to learn from the past through preservation of the present, while S. Joyce learned the privileges and services that computers can offer. They both learned, however, that freedom is not fully appreciated until you see someone who does not have it. S. Joyce says, “There’s a whole world that I have not experienced that I don’t know unless I listen, talk and lead with others.”