“She must have been precious to them, they dug her in so deeply.”
The words came from the grave below. This complement was so much appreciated, since stress was becoming so high. It is three hours since the three men began digging with simple sand shovels. Men who were chosen from among the inhabitants of a small town – Nowogrodek. After the war on the 19th of March in the year 1945 there also was a digging and opening of a grave. But that digging was not in a cemetery… in the forest. And then not one grave but eleven bodies were exhumed. Malgorzata was the in charge of everything. She knew the exact place where, under the rubble and dead leaves, were buried her Sisters, the martyrs. She had marked the exact spot on a tree for any disturbance on the ground would have been soon smoothed out, and erecting a cross above ground was absolutely forbidden.
Until her death, on the 26th of April 1966, Malgorzata was dying in her heart. At first because she did not share the fate of her community, then of fear that she might not fulfill fully her new mission – a gift of love, no doubt, but how demanding. Malgorzata’s interior warfare walked hand in hand with her exterior activity and her decisive character. Her environment remembered her as a “heroic woman, strong and courageous.” A single bullet and an instant death was not meant for her. The agony of spirit, or in other words – a slow measured death, about which she herself used to talk, was a mystery of her mysteries.
When the Nazareth Sisters of Nowogrodek, called by the Germans, began their last journey to the Gestapo Headquarters, on July 31st, 1942, Malgorzata was not at home. However, she met them walking through the town on her way from the Hospital where she worked. She wanted to join them, but she heard from her superior, Stella, tersely and distinctly not to do that, since God had a different plan prepared for her.
So she stayed. Alone. To the very end. For the remaining twenty-three years. During the war. And after the war. When the political boundaries changed for a while, she cold have left the Soviet territory, as did many Poles. Yet she did not abandon Nowogrodek. Ever.
Other plans of God that Stella talked about were beyond Malgorzata’a imagination. First of all, no matter how many atrocities she had already witnessed, she was not prepared to accept the barbaric movements of the occupied forces. She waited for the return of her Sisters on the evening of 31st July. She waited until noon of the 1st of August. In the afternoon of this day the chaplain new the truth. The anxious inhabitants of Nowogrodek were suspicious of the state of affairs. Having been encouraged by the chaplain, Malgorzata tied a peasant babushka over her head, took the basket used in mushroom gathering and in the company of a near friend and her daughter set out to the Nowojelski Forest. There were freshly dug up mounds. Using a child’s shovel Malgorzata cleared away the edge of the mound. Not deeply. And there a piece of clothing bearing the personal mark of one of the Sisters came to view. She found them.
“At last!” The shovel struck something. “Here it is!”
What could have been a cover of Malgorzata’s coffin silently veiled her remains. Shoes were visible. Well-made shoes. Almost intact. Dust covered shoes. Sabinka sighed with relief and wiped her tear-filled eyes. She remembers these shoes. Remembers the funeral. Everything.
Before the exhumation a special swear-in ceremony was held in the Fara according too Canon Law prescription. All persons engaged in the beatification process of the Servant of God, Sister Malgorzata Banas, took the oath by placing two fingers on the open Scriptures. The last two people who took the oath were two older women from Nowogrodek. They testified that Malgorzata’s grace is in the place where it has always been. That it has never been changed or touched by anybody. Detail. Yet, every smallest detail matters in the final analysis.
The way of holiness is a journey in the light. Through the darkness of mind and soul very often, yet always in the light, because it is the way of ongoing discernment, search and responsible choices.
At this point a doctor and a nurse entered into the grave – both Nazareth Sisters. Into a small, new wooden chest they place all that the old chest preserved. Not one bone can be missed. Not one can be taken away. They are not relics yet. The Church has not spoken yet.
Other plans of God to which Malgorzata remained among the living were the same plans which God has ordained from the very beginning about the mission of the Nazareth Sisters in Nowogrodek.
After many years we understand these plans better than we did yesterday. We can see more clearly than Malgorzata could see, although, even she, led by God’s intuition, confessed shortly after the execution of her community: “I distinctly feel that God has left me here to guard His Home.” To guard His Home. And this Home was God’s Presence in the Most Blessed Sacrament in the Fara Church.
And this Home was the religious and moral life of her brothers and sisters for whose freedom and security the eleven Nazareth Sisters willingly laid down their lives. This Home was endangered during the time of war. This Home was mortally endangered after the war. There was no priest in Nowogrodek, no priest in the vicinity of Nowogrodek. Some priests were forced to flee when the new boundaries were established, some were sent to Siberia. The existing church buildings were hardly desirable as a stable or a warehouse by the Reds. The abodes of the religious also underwent change. Malgorzata was forbidden by the authorities to live in her own convent. The twelfth Nazareth Sister, following the example of the eleven, goes forth!
Completely, without reservation. She is aware of the situation, makes choices using her common sense, believing that “God gives the strength,” as she often repeats. Most important to her is the Fara and the Living Tabernacle in it.
Being forbidden from living in the convent, Malgorzata finds a home in the Fara for six years. In the Sacristy. There is a little stove, a place for bedding and a small table, where through the nights she copies prayers and songs for the Faithful. She lives there with two dogs. The only guards of the Guardian.
From the grave now are handed over the Nazareth silver cross and ring – symbols of Malgorzata’s perpetual vows. Sabinka smiles again. She remembers everything. Malgorzata never talked about vocation with her openly, never uttered a word of encouragement. Instead she would walk to the wardrobe, open the door, and gaze for a long time on the habit. Then she would close the wardrobe door, reminding her that in this habit she is to be buried.
Malgorzata loved flowers. When she left the Fara for the nearby Chaplain’s home, she planted a gardenful. With these flowers she decorated the altar to please Jesus and create an atmosphere of prayer for the people. Prayer services under the leadership of Malgorzata were conducted regularly and gathered many people from Nowogrodek. ON Sundays Malgorzata would place a chasuble on the altar. In memory of the Mass. The Nowogrodek Masses without a Priest, brought tears and longing in the hearts. From time to time Malgorzata would travel to a far off parish where there was a priest.
She would bring Consecrated Hosts to Nowogrodek. In this way there was never a lack of Bread.
And the friendship with Sister Malgorzata? Sabina, at present a Nazareth Sister, known as Sister Teresa, willingly likes to reminisce about the One who became an ideal of her adolescence and adult life. Neither does Sister Teresa hide that, in the chain of God’s love and mercies, she herself is a link thought into existence by the Creator.
Malgorzata preserved and blew into a fire a spark of love ignited by the Martyred Sisters. Teresa learned from Malgorzata how to take care of God’s Living Church and priests. She became a sister of Nazareth late and in secrecy when the possibility of contact with the Congregation in Grodno and in Poland were allowed.
In cooperation with the priests of Nowogrodek she was able to negotiate the return of the school and convent of the Nazareth Sisters. She lived to take part in the beatification of the Martyred Sisters on the 5th of March 2000. She remembers everything.
Malgorzata did not want to be interred in the local cemetery. She wanted to be laid to rest next to the Fara Church, near the grave of the Martyred Sisters. But this was not possible. Even at Malgorzata’s request.
June 17th, 2003 the moral remains of Nowogrodek’s “Guardian of the Tabernacle”, Sister Malgorzata, Ludwika Banas, from the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, were placed in a niche of the Fara Church, next to the sarcophagus of the Martyred Sisters. After 60 years they are together again. All of them, to the very last one.
The Fara Church is adorned with new vocations to Nazareth. Among those celebrating … two bishops. One of them a native son. Grew up here, in Nowogrodek, under the eye of Sabinka – spiritual daughter of Malgorzata.
All is ready for Mass. In the intention of the Beatification of the Twelfth One of Nowogrodek.