The Nazis showed the world the worst side of human nature during World War II, but there were also people at that time who showed the best side, even those willing to sacrifice their own lives for others. Of course, St. Maximilian Kolbe immediately comes to mind. Also among the martyrs of that era are the lesser-known Blessed Mary Stella and her Ten Companions, more commonly known as the Blessed Martyrs of Nowogródek.
Members of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, the order first came to Nowogródek at the request of the Bishop of Pinsk in 1929. The town was originally a part of Poland; it was under Russian occupation in the 1930s, and then invaded by the Germans in 1941. (It is now called Navahrudak and is part of Belarus.)
The sisters became beloved members of the town, working in local schools and hospitals and meeting the liturgical needs of the faithful. Prayer life was very important to the people of Nowogródek especially during the Russian and German occupations. The sisters provided a beacon of hope in hard times. Life under Russian rule was difficult, since the government had little tolerance for religion, but nothing prepared the people of Nowogródek for the atrocities that would be committed by the Nazis after they invaded.
The Germans arrived in 1941, and early in their occupation slaughtered more than 9,000 of the town’s Jewish residents — almost half the population of the town. More than 500 more were sent to work camps. Harassment and arrests of the remaining townspeople became routine in the following years. During this dark time, the sisters kept the faith, holding prayer services for the people in the town and fostering a fervent liturgical life.
On two days in mid-July, 1943, the Nazis rounded up 120 men to be executed. The women of the town came to the sisters, desperately seeking prayers for the release of their family members. The sisters prayed on the matter, and in turn unanimously decided they would offer their own lives in sacrifice in place of the prisoners.
Sister Stella, the superior, told Father Zienkiewicz , the parish pastor, of their decision, saying: “My God, if sacrifice of life is needed, accept it from us and spare those who have families. We are even praying for this intention.” Interestingly, the German army changed their plan afterward, and the prisoners were sent to work camps instead of being killed. Later, when Father Zienkiewicz’s life was threatened, the sisters again offered their lives, saying: “There is a greater need for a priest on this earth than for us. We pray that God will take us in his place, if sacrifice of life is needed.”
On the evening of July 31, 1943 the Gestapo ordered the sisters to report to the local police station, without giving a reason. In the early morning hours of the next day, they nuns were taken by van to a secluded forest three miles outside of town. There, the soldiers lined the sisters up and executed them by gunning them down, then buried them in a mass grave.
Sister Malgorzata Bana was the only survivor from the community. Dressed in street clothes because of her job at a local hospital, Sister Stella had asked her to stay behind on the day of the summons to care for the parish and the pastor if anything bad should happen. It was three days before Sister Malgorzata or anyone else found out what had happened to the sisters. Eventually, she located their gravesite, and tended to it until she died.
In 1966, the sisters’ bodies were exhumed. They were given a proper funeral Mass and moved to the cemetery in the Church of the Transfiguration in town.
The names of the Sisters who were martyred are:
- Sister M Stella of the Blessed Sacrament, C.S.F.N., Superior; born Adelaide Mardosewicz, 54 years old
- Sister M Imelda of the Eucharistic Jesus, C.S.F.N.; born Jadwiga Karolina Żak, 50 years old
- Sister M Rajmunda of Jesus, C.S.F.N.; born Anna Kukołowicz, 50 years old
- Sister M Daniela of Jesus, C.S.F.N.; born Eleonora Aniela Jóźwik, 48 years old
- Sister M Kanuta of the Agonized Jesus in the Garden, C.S.F.N.; born Józefa Chrobot, 47 years old
- Sister M Gwidona of Divine Mercy, C.S.F.N.; born Helena Cierpka, 43 years old
- Sister M Sergia of Our Lady of Sorrows, C.S.F.N; born Julia Rapiej, 42 years old
- Sister M Kanizja, C.S.F.N.; born Eugenia Mackiewicz, 39 years old
- Sister M Felicyta, C.S.F.N.; born Paulina Borowik, 37 years old
- Sister M Heliodora, C.S.F.N.; born Leokadia Matuszewska, 37 years old
- Sister M Boromea, C.S.F.N.; born Veronika Narmontowicz, 26 years old
The sisters were beatified by Pope John Paul II, along with 33 others, on March 5, 2000. At their beatification, he said of them: “Together and unanimously they offered their lives to God, asking in exchange that the lives of the mothers and fathers of families and that of the local pastor be spared. The Lord graciously accepted their sacrifice and, we believe, abundantly rewarded them in his glory.”
Their feast day is August 1.
The Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth have more information here:
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