From Gulags to Monasteries

Author: Emilia Vandyc


Emilia Vandyc
Religious of the Congregation of the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate

Testimonies on the power of the prayer of the Holy Rosary

The most noble gift the Ukrainian people have inherited is a love for the Mother of God. Already at the dawn of Christianity, Prince Yaroslav the Wise entrusted the Rus' of Kiev to Mary's protection. The Ukrainian land is covered with famous places where honour is rendered to our Lady in a special way.

Devotion to the Mother of God is also revealed in popular songs, in literary works, and above all, in sincere prayer. The Akathis, which is a hymn to Mary in the fifth week of Lent to commemorate the deliverance of Constantinople in 626 A.D., as well as Litanies and Canons were all composed to extol Mary.

Among many religious practices, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Western Ukraine, more than anything else, has used and still uses even now the prayer of the Holy Rosary. In addition to the monastic orders and religious congregations, Christian associations have made this wonderful experience their own.

For one, the Fraternity of the Apostolate of Prayer has spread the Rosary among families. The faithful of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church have demonstrated love and fidelity to the Mother of God, not only in favourable times, but also during persecutions when it was forbidden to profess the Christian faith. This prayer has always been a clear affirmation of the resilience of the Greek Catholic faith.

During times of persecution, the Rosary was part of the forbidden practices of the people. Atheists would treat with great contempt those caught with a Rosary in hand.

For example, Rosary beads were confiscated from Bishop Sofron Dmyterko twice: first at Ivano-Frankivsk and then in a concentration camp of the region today called Luhansk. But despite the prohibition, the people sought to obtain Rosaries, many of which had been brought from Rome, blessed by the Holy Father.

In times of persecution, praying the Rosary was the people's only hope. The Rosary would be recited in unison during "night" prayers, almost in silence. It would often happen that when people were praying the Rosary in the evening, the atheists, having knocked on the doors of houses, would leave thinking there was nobody inside. The Rosary would inspire people with a liveliness and a happiness which strengthened the mystery of the faith in souls.

Confidence in the Mother of God protected Christians in exile and in the prisons of Siberia. Here is a simple and "hidden" example.

Fr Antonij Masjuk, O.S.B.M., a diligent promoter of devotion to the Most Holy Mother of God, relates that in 1944, KGB agents appeared at their family's home to take his mother to Siberia. Some time before, Fr Antonij had given his mother a set of Rosary beads, telling her: "Pray with this Rosary and the Madonna will protect you!". When agents burst into their apartment, they were unable to find the woman: she was hidden behind the stove, reciting the Rosary. Neighbours told the agents she had died, and in this way, she was saved.

The prayer of the Rosary provided spiritual strength to those serving prison sentences and to those deported to perform forced labour, condemned as "enemies of the people."

Hanna Sokaliuk, a resident of the Huzulia region, recounts that she was held in gulag "Number 243" in Kazakhstan. The people, she says, had a great desire to talk about God and, for this reason, even during working hours, they used to get together to say the Rosary, especially on Sunday. In this way, they would have the strength not only to work, but also to bear witness to the value of Christian life. The camp guards, Hanna Sokaliuk affirms, "did not have any problem with our people, because we certainly weren't criminals and we knew how to forgive".

Testimonies like this are numerous and are really impressive. In fact, those "Hail Marys" transformed the gulags into sanctuaries, into "monasteries" of prayer.

Above all, the people who had dedicated themselves to God were reciting the Rosary; every Religious prayed the Rosary with passion, and had no hesitation in turning with intimacy to the Mother of God.

Sr Modesta Firmianuk, S.S.M.I., relates that the prayer of the Rosary would sustain and unite many Religious women. The Sisters were almost always praying the Rosary, gathering together in the late evening when they would return to their communities, at least those who had the opportunity of living in community, even if secretly. As they prayed the Rosary, they would turn to St Joseph and to God's Mercy.

When the Sisters were in particularly dramatic situations, they would recite the Rosary nine times. Often, when the circumstances were severe, they would carry out their work in State entities without disclosing that they were Religious, and some would recite three Rosaries while meditating on the Mysteries of faith. It is obvious that they truly felt God's protection and saw how God's Providence protected and accompanied them.

They experienced all this especially during interrogations. Sr Modesta bears witness that in those moments, God provided a special strength, courage and peace.

With their personal testimony, the Sisters would suggest love for prayer and the Rosary to the people who came to them. For example, people were going to Sr Modesta to be cured because she was an expert in herbal medicine; and apart from the physical aspect, she would cure the spirit.

In the years of persecution, people felt a great need for spiritual conversion and support. It happened, for instance, that at funerals, singing was banned, so the people would softly recite the Rosary. And the priests who were celebrating religious functions in secret would always lead the recitation of the Rosary after the Liturgy.

People were living in an atmosphere of terror, and, at times, not even neighbours knew that a gathering to pray the Rosary was taking place in a particular house. Thanks be to God, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church knew how to withstand persecution, and love for the Most Holy Virgin has not grown cold in hearts.

Today, many of the faithful go on pilgrimage to Marian shrines, both in Ukraine and abroad. There are no more restrictions.

I feel a great spiritual joy today when I enter a church and see an old woman, with head bowed, moving her lips whispering the Rosary. How much history of faith is contained in the wrinkles on her face! Her heart unceasingly says with great happiness: "Hail Mary!". And I would like to sit beside her and kiss her hands. Perhaps she is the very one who, by passing the Rosary between her fingers, sought the grace for me to become a Sister Servant of Mary Immaculate.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
14 May 2003, page 10

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