COLUMN ONE : For Exiled Nuns, It’s Too Late : Banished by the Communist regime, Czechoslovakia’s sisters of Bila Voda were symbols of persecution. Now most are too old or weak to benefit from the revolution.
This country’s “velvet revolution” came too late for the ideologically battle-scarred nuns of Bila Voda.
Banished to this isolated corner of Czechoslovakia in the early 1950s by an atheistic regime, the 400 nuns who constitute more than two-thirds of the village’s population are said to represent the largest concentrated collection of disparate religious orders outside the Vatican.
For years they longed to return to teaching and the other activities for which they were trained before the Communists took over after World War II. But now that a new government dominated by the Civic Forum democratic movement has committed itself to religious liberty, most of the nuns are too old to go back.
While happy with the “bit of freedom” that has finally come, said Sister Marka Raskova, superior of nine nuns from the order of the Blessed Virgin, “we’ve struck roots here by now.”
The situation for all 12 orders of nuns in Bila Voda is the same, said Raskova. “We are feeling how our strength is ebbing. We are just about able to do what we have to around the house and a little work in the garden, and that’s about all. We had three funerals before Christmas, three more between Christmas and the New Year, and three since then.”
There were 13 orders of nuns in the village until one of those December funerals, which was for the last survivor of the Carmelite community, who died at the age of 98. She joined more than 600 other nuns buried in the village cemetery.
While Bila Voda has slowly changed from a place of religious exile to a place of religious retirement, the spark of spiritual battle reappears when Raskova, 72, and her contemporaries joyfully regale unexpected visitors with tales of their stormy history.
Czechoslovakia was essentially a Roman Catholic country when the Communists took over in 1948. And in their drive to wean the population from organized religion, “the Communist society didn’t want to have nuns in the center of the country,” said Sister Maria Illuminata Vavrova, provincial vicar of the Notre Dame sisters here.
Large convents were abolished, their inhabitants sometimes evicted with only a few hours’ notice and the premises given over to other uses ranging from old people’s homes to a police museum.
The authorities sent the youngest nuns to work in factories, said Vavrova, who was assigned to a flax processing plant. “The idea was: ‘We’ll put these young sisters with other young people. They’ll see how the other young girls live, go dancing with them and so on,’ ” she said. “But instead, the other young ones started going with us to the churches. There was a terrible commotion about it!”
Raskova was assigned along with 109 other nuns to the Benar textile factory in Nad Ploucnice. On their first day of work, she recalled, the nuns were herded into an open truck for the half-hour trip from the home of the former factory owner, where they were housed, to the plant. They sang religious songs at the top of their lungs all the way, and soon they got the closed buses they had demanded.
“The fights we had there not to work on Sundays!” Raskova recalled with obvious relish. In the end, she said, it was God, or fate, or some outside force that decided the matter. An entire Sunday’s production was lost in a fire, probably caused by an electrical short-circuit. But the factory manager, convinced that it was an omen, ended Sabbath shifts.
Nuns who were not sent to factories were mostly shipped to small villages along the northern border that had been stripped of their original German populations--villages such as Bila Voda.
“There were several such centers that they set up,” said Vavrova. “In all cases, they were isolated villages. They totally abolished male (religious) orders; the female orders were recognized, but congregated in these isolated places.”
Bila Voda, tucked into a hilly, wooded finger of Czechoslovakia surrounded on three sides by Poland, certainly qualifies. “I always say that Bila Voda is the end of the world,” commented the spiritual adviser to the nuns for the last 22 years, who asked to be identified only as Father Kajetan.
The village is in a part of Silesia that was in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its huge church dates from the 18th Century, and the first nuns to come to Bila Voda, the Notre Dame Sisters, were fleeing Prussian repression in 1876. A large monastery located here at the time offered protection.
But it was not until after the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia following World War II that other orders were sent to the village and it took on its uniquely ecumenical character.
“This is the only village in the whole world where there are so many orders,” boasted Vavrova. “It’s a small Vatican. Only here we are really together--we have a joint kitchen, common administration, a common health service. We are really united together.”
The various communities live in large houses clustered around the village center. Elderly nuns in a multicolored variety of different habits identifying their particular orders stroll with the help of canes past an outdoor bulletin board that still carries Christmas greetings from the local Communist authorities.
There is no evidence of any Civic Forum presence in town, although, as Raskova points out, a photograph of “Mr. President” Vaclav Havel smiles out at passers-by from one shop window. A visitor can distinguish the convents from Bila Voda’s private homes by the sound of singing female voices often emanating from the convents. Many of their buildings have been tastefully remodeled, with fresh paint on the outside and well-crafted pine paneling inside. But it was not always like that.
“The nice house next to us was a stable when we came,” said Raskova. There is still a collective farm nearby, and at the time, she said, “all the machinery was there. It was a mess!”
Like their peers elsewhere in the country, the nuns of Bila Voda have managed to clandestinely admit a few girls into their orders over the years. And about 18 months ago the government finally permitted some open recruitment.
Bishop Jan Lebeda, the Catholic general vicar in Prague, said in an interview that a recent check turned up more than 3,000 nuns in the country, several times more than had previously been acknowledged. “And the mothers superior may still have some tucked away that they haven’t told us about,” he added.
But Lebeda said hundreds more are needed simply to care for their elderly peers, like those in Bila Voda.
While their lives may not have turned out as they had once wished, the elderly nuns here say things are improving under the new government. “Previously, if a foreigner like you came, it would have to be written down immediately and reported to Prague,” confessed Vavrova.
Even earlier, she added, Communist tactics were only partially successful. “We completely lost contact with the children,” she said. “And that’s what they really wanted--to cut us off from the children.” On the other hand, Vavrova noted, “we have managed to maintain our vocations.”
And Raskova remains irrepressible. “I have one principle,” she said. “One must not grow old mentally. One has to be an optimist and think, ‘What good can I do?’ ”
“I am not sorry for any of these interventions by the state,” Raskova added with an animated smile. “It’s been a very interesting life.”