THE TRUE STORY OF THE NUNS OF MINSK
THE CZAR has still some partisans left in England; not many, certainly; but some, both influential and sincere, who believe in the generosity of his protection, and the truth of his religious zeal; who accept his version of the history of the war, and see him only as the conscientious defender of his Church, regarding his occupation of the Principalities as the simple demand for tolerance towards his co-religionists, and the slaughter at Sinope as the energetic expression of his philanthropy. We would convert these men – many of whom are worth converting – and prove to them what religion and toleration mean with the Czar. We will tell them a story of some nuns at Minsk; a story which was denied by the Russian minister at Rome, with Russian veracity; but which both public and private documents in our possession establish and confirm.
Towards the end of the sixteenth century – for it is well to go back to the origin of things, - a large body in the Greek Church separated itself from the orthodox or State establishment; and, under the name of the Uniate, or United Greek Church, entered into communion with Rome, placing itself under the spiritual supremacy of the Pope, in opposition to that of the Patriarch, and afterwards of the Sovereign. This schism struck the deepest root in Lithuania, and modern Poland; and, since the partition of the empire, has had powerful political influence, in keeping up the feeling of Polish nationality; being held as synonymous; while the Polish adherent to the Russo-Greek, or orthodox Church was generally assumed to be an apostate to his faith, and a traitor to his country. It was therefore a matter of great importance to the Czar to destroy this schismatic branch, and the usual machinery of threats, bribes, and cajolery was put in motion. Laws were passed, which forbade the hearing of mass, excepting on Sundays and great festivals; which forbade the teaching of the Catholic religion to the children of Catholic parents; which prescribed the sermons that were to be preached, and the catechisms that were to be used in Catholic churches; and which allowed of no theological explanations of theological differences; which, later, dispersed the Catholic priests with violence, shut up their churches, and refused all spiritual consolations to their flocks; which excommunicated as schismatic, all Catholic children not baptized according to the rules of the established church within four and twenty hours after their birth, and which offered entire pardon and indemnity to any Catholic convicted of any crime whatsoever – murder, robbery, no matter what – who recanted, and became orthodox. So much vigorous legislation was not without its effect. In the spring of eighteen hundred and thirty-nine, the whole of the Episcopal body of the Uniate signed the act of recantation, petitioning the Emperor graciously to re-admit them into the bosom of the orthodox Church, and asking pardon, both of him and of God, for their long blindness and obstinacy.
Amongst these petitioners, the Bishop Siemaszko distinguished himself as particularly ardent in his professions of orthodoxy; and as proof of his zeal – or as its reward – he undertook the task of converting the Basilian nuns of Minsk, with whom is our present story, and of whom he had been “bishop and shepherd.” He began his mission with moderation, even with kindness, calling on them affectionately, as their pastor, to renounce the communion of Rome, and the acts of St. Basil; but, as their refusals were more vehement than he had looked for, his behaviour suddenly changed; and one Friday, as the nuns were going to prayers, Siemaszko, accompanied by Uszakoff the civil governor of Minsk and a troop of soldiers, burst open the convent gates, to offer them their final choice between honours with the orthodox religion, and constancy to their communion with forced labour in Siberia. The nuns despised his threats as they had rejected his bribes. The reverend mother, Makrena Mirazyslawski, answered generally in the name of all, and Siemaszko then ordered them, angrily, to prepare instantly for a march. With difficulty they obtained permission to offer up a few prayers before their departure. They flung themselves before the Host, the renegade prelate cursing them as they prayed. Thirty-five knelt on the church flags; but, when they rose up to go, one was found dead, Rosalie Lenszeka. Her heart had broken between fear and grief.
They were marched through the town; the orphan children, of whom they had forty-seven in the convent, following them with tears and lamentations, and many of the inhabitants crowding round them, weeping too; for, according to various depositions, these nuns of St. Basil were much beloved. Their kindness and benevolence to the poor and the afflicted was a matter of public notoriety and of public benefit. The soldiers were afraid of a popular demonstration if they attempted any personal violence in the town, so that the nuns were not ironed until they came to their first halting-place, about a league from Minsk. There they were chained in couples, with irons on their hands and feet, and in this manner they marched for seven days, until they reached Witebsk. They were placed in a convent of Czermick, or Black Nuns, chiefly widows of Russian soldiers; women of coarse habits and cruel feelings, to whom they were appointed servants, or rather serfs and victims. Their coupling chains were removed; but their irons remained on their feet; and these they wore for the seven years of their persecution. At this convent – which had formerly been Basilian, and had belonged to the Uniate Church – they found thirteen of its former owners, Basilian nuns, subject to the same treatmens which they themselves were about to undergo. The whole of the sisterhood united was placed under the charge of the Father Ignatius Michallwiez, who had formerly been their own almoner; but who was now orthodox and renegade.
Before six o’clock in the morning, the nuns performed the service of the house, drew the water, carried it, prepared the wood, lighted the fires, and, in short, did all that was required in the establishment. At six they went to hard labour: breaking stones and carrying them in wheelbarrows, to which they were chained. From noon to one o’clock the rested; from one until dark, hard labour again; and, after dark, household work and attending to the cattle. Then to rest, such as they might find, in a low damp room, where a few whisps of straw was their only furniture, and where their clanking irons were not removed. Their food was so scanty and so wretched that the beggars used to bring them bread, and often they shared the provender of the cattle when serving them, a crime the Black Nuns punished with blows, telling them they did not deserve to share the food of their hogs. One of their most painful duties was, cleaning the high leather boots worn by the Czermicks, with a certain preparation called “dziegiec,” which was overpoweringly sickening. But the poor nuns of Minsk lived to remember their leather boots and the “dziegiec” with regret.
After two months of this life – finding them still persistent – Siemaszko ordered them to be flogged twice a week, fifty lashes each time. These floggings took place in the courtyard, under a kind of shed, in the presence of the deacons, the priests, the children, the nuns: “of everything,” says the Mother Makrena, “that lived and blasphemed in this dwelling.” Their flesh often hung in strips from their bodies, and the way to their work was tracked with blood; but they made neither resistance nor complaint, and only wept when they did not pray. It was in the winter; and they were not allowed any fire; so that the cold froze their limbs, and poisoned their wounds, making their punishment still more severe. After one of these flagellations, a nun, Colomba Gorska, fainted on her way to work. They beat her until she recovered her senses; when, staggering to her wheelbarrow, she attempted to move it, and fell dead. Another nun, Baptista Downar, was buried alive in a large stove. The Czermicks shut her up in it after she had lighted the fire. Another, Nepomucena Grotkowska, was killed, perhaps accidentally, by the Czermick abbess, who “clove open he head, striking it with a log of wood, because she had dared to make use of a knife to scrape from a plank a stain of tar, which she could not remove any other way.” It was a breach of discipline, and disobedience to a rule of the abbess. Another nun, Susannah Rypinska, died from the flogging; and a fifth, Coletta Sielawa, was also killed accidentally, by a Black Nun, who broke her ribs by knocking her down violently against a pile of wood.
After they had been many months at Witebsk, Siemaszko wrote angrily to Michallwiez, asking why he had not been able to overcome their obstinacy. The superintendent answered that they were “soft as wax in his hands,” and ready to recant, and that Siemaszko might come to receive their confession. To bring this about, and substantiate his boast, he began new tortures. They were suddenly seized, and divided into four parties, shut up in damp dungeons, and given scarcely enough to exist on. The dungeon in which the reverend mother and her eight sisters were confined in was full of worms and vermin, which crawled about their persons when they slept. Their only food was half-putrid vegetables. The other three divisions had for the first two days a pound of bran bread, and a pint of water each, which was then reduced by half. Every day, Michallwiez attempted to induce them to recant; now with promises, and now with threats, and now with a false paper, which he asserted in turn to each party that the others had signed, and were then warm and comfortable, “enjoying their coffee.” “Would it not be better,” he used to say to the mother, “to be abbess again, than to be eaten alive by the worms? Come! sign, as all your children have done.” The brave old woman still persisted, though trembling lest any of her nuns had given way; but, seizing the paper from his hand, she opened it, and found it blank. Heaping reproaches on his head, she flung the false petition in his face; and this “traitor, - Judas, envoy of Lucifer, - went back to his master, quite ashamed,” leaving her and her children triumphant. Siemaszko, however, arrived. He spoke to them gently, congratulated them on their decision, promised them grand honours, and appointed the mother, Makrena, Mother General of her orthodox charge. Eagerly, yet in terror lest they should find a traitor amongst them, they all denied their conversion; and the reverend mother refused her office with more energy, doubtless, than policy, flinging back the superb cross, with which he wished to decorate her, telling him to wear it himself, and then “instead of, as in the old times, a thief hanging on the cross, they should see the cross hanging on a thief.” Finding that he could make no impression on them, Siemaszko, indignant at the useless trouble he had taken, and the unnecessary civility he had shown, ordered them to be severely flogged beneath his own windows: and so ended this prelatic visitation.
Among other more revolting, but not more severe cruelties, was the manner in which they were made to bring water from the river. To “prevent the Polish spirit from passing into the water,” the nuns were obliged to hold the heavy copper jars at arms’ length. It was a great distance between the convent and the river, especially in winter, when they had to go a long way round; and the poor creatures were sometimes unable to keep the jars held out at the required distance. If they drew them nearer, the water was polluted; and the Czermick Nuns, who were always with them, armed with whips and sticks, flung it over them, and they were obliged to go back to the river for more. This happened perhaps many times in the day, and as they were not allowed to change their clothes – indeed they had none but what they wore – they were sometimes the whole day and night enveloped in a sheet of ice, for the water froze in the clothes, instead of drying. Another misfortune, which affected them more than others, that seemed more difficult to bear, was the loss of their only cooking utensil: and earthenware pot given them by a Jew, in which they used to cook the only warm food they had to eat, namely, the “braha,” the grounds of a sort of spirit made from corn. Michallwiez shattered it with the iron heel of his boot, and the poor nuns found all their patience and resignation necessary to enable them to bear this loss cheerfully. However, “they carried it to God,” with the same marvellous patience they showed throughout; and afterwards another Jew gave them an iron kettle.
Again Siemaszko came among them; this time to reconsecrate the old Uniate Church at Witebsk to the orthodox faith. He tried to make the nuns assist in the ceremony, which would have been equal to a public profession of faith; but they steadfastly refused, and suffered themselves to be cut, maimed, bruised, ill-treated, and wounded, rather than commit what they believed to be a mortal sin. The abbess had her head laid open, and there was not one of the nuns who was not bleeding from one or many wounds. At the church door, as they were being forced in, one of the nuns snatched a log of wood from a carpenter at work, and threw it at the bishop’s feet; and the abbess Makrena offered him a hatchet, crying, “Thou hast been our shepherd, become our executioner! Like the father of St. Barbe, destroy thy children!” the nuns kneeling before him. Siemaszko dashed the hatchet from the mother’s hands; and, in falling, it cut the leg and foot of one of the sisters. With a blow of his hand he knocked out one of Makrena’s teeth and beat her brutally about the head. Then, perhaps from the excess and reaction of his passion, he fainted: so the barbarous scene ended. But after this their persecutions were greatly increased, and the death of Michallwiez, who fell, when drunk, into a pool and was drowned, only added to their sorrows; for the Pope Swanow, who succeeded, continually blamed his moderation, and repeated daily, “I am no Michallwiez!”
At the end of eighteen hundred and forty, two years after their arrival at Witebsk, they were suddenly marched off to Polosk. By this time their clothes were completely worn out, and they received a fresh supply; namely, two petticoats of sacking, and a half square of linen for the head. This was all they had. At Polosk, they found other Basilian nuns, whose persecutions had begun at the same time as that of the nuns of Witebsk, and who had lost fifteen, out of their former number of twenty-five, from the barbarities they had suffered. Of the remaining ten, two were mad, who yet were chained, fastened to the wheelbarrows, and compelled to work like the rest. One died soon after the arrival of the nuns of Minsk, and the other was one day found covered with blood, lying dead on the floor of the prison. In Polosk, or rather at Spas, which is about a league from the town, the nuns were set to work on a palace about to be built for Siemaszko. They first had to break the stones, not with hammers, but with the stones themselves, which dislocated their arms, so that they were often obliged to help each other to replace them in their sockets; tumours came on their necks and heads, their hands were swollen, chapped, and bleeding, and their bodies were one mass of open wounds and festering sores. At night they could not lie down nor sleep, and often passed the whole night leaning against each other, weeping and praying. Their numbers were sadly thinned during this period. It might be truly said that they moistened the foundations of that prelatic palace with their blood. Three died in eight days; two of over-fatigue; and the third, too weak to guide a bucket of lime, let the rope slip through her hands, and the bucket, falling on her head, crushed her to death. Five were buried alive in an excavation they were making for potter’s earth. The pit was very deep, and cracks and crevices had already warned them there was danger; but the papas (priests) would not allow any precautions to be taken, and the bank giving way, buried them as they worked, without an attempt being made to save them. Nine other nuns died by the falling of a wall they were building. The mother herself escaped, only by the fortunate accident of exchanging her own labour (she was up on the scaffolding with the rest) for the harder task of a sister, named Rosalie Medumecka, who was carrying gravel. Rosalie called out, “My mother, I can do no more!” and the mother descended to relieve her, the sister taking her place on the scaffolding. In a few minutes a fearful crash, a cloud of dust, a piercing cry, and a moaning prayer, startled her from her labour; the wall had given way, and the nine sisters were crushed beneath the ruins. When she recovered from the faintness into which this terrible sight threw her, she was scourged, and driven to work again.
One morning, a Russian verse was found written on the walls:
Here, instead of a monastery,
Are Siberia and the Galleys.
The Basilian nuns were accused of having written this, and were flogged so brutally that two died: one that same evening, and the other the next morning. On this occasion word was again sent to Siemaszko, telling him that, terrified at their losses, they were prepared to recant. He arrived at Polosk in the autumn of eighteen hundred and forty-one, to receive the same answer of firm and vehement denial, the Abbess Makrena passionately reproaching him with being “apostate, traitor to the Church and to Jesus Christ!” It was on this occasion that he read to them the ukase signed by the Emperor, which “approved, confirmed, and found holy, holy, thrice holy, all that Siemaszko had done, and that he may do for the propagation of the orthodox faith, commanding that no person dare to resist him in anything, and commanding also that in cases of resistance the military be placed under his orders on his simple demand.” It was on this occasion also that he broke the upper cartilage o the mother’s nose, and that he flogged the sisterhood as he had threatened, “till he had taken off three skins, one that they had received from God, and two from the Emperor, that is to say those that will come after;” when he affirmed they would be less obstinate, and would repent. After this scourging, another nun, Baselisse Holynska, died, like so many others before her. But Siemaszko had not yet scourged them into pliability; and still they resisted him and stood firm.
In eighteen hundred and forty-two, they were again flogged twice a week, fifty blows each time; and again three nuns died from the torture: one died during punishment, and the twenty blows that remained on her number were struck on her corpse; one died two hours after; and the third lingered in great agony till night, when she expired in her mother’s arms, pressing the crucifix to her bleeding lips, and murmuring, “I love thee with all my heart!” as she died. After they had been scourged thus six times, the Russian General and his wife interfered. They came to the place as the executioners were about to begin, and the General commanded him to desist, telling him that he should be hung. “The Emperor,” has said to their proto-papa Wierowkin, “has no knowledge of the horrible torments you inflict on your victims; and when he learns that I have hung thee, he may think, perhaps, ‘The good old man has lost his senses;’ but you will be hanged none the less for it.” He did not know that all this was done under the express permission of the Emperor, and with his knowledge. But Siemaszko returned, and by virtue of the ukase inflicted fresh cruelties on them; all the more bitter because of the temporary cessation. One evening they were brought home from work sooner than usual. As they entered their prison they were surrounded by a crowd of ferocious men, whom drink, and rage, and cruelty, and viler passions still, had transformed into worse than wild beasts. The nuns defended themselves – effectually though the place swam with blood, and the barbarities used that fearful night were such as make one tremble. Two nuns were trampled to death, their countenances so disfigured by blows and the iron heels of the men’s boots as to render them scarcely recognizable as human beings. One nun died from a bite in her shoulder, coupled with other wounds, and one had her nose bitten off; eight others lost their sight, and the mother’s head was laid open, her side gashed with a knife, and three wounds inflicted on her arms. It was one prostrate mass of blood and agony that those drunken fiends left groaning on the floor of their prison. During the night, a sister, Scholastica Rento, died: Wierowkin and the Czermicks saying, “See how God punishes you for your obstancy!”
Some months after this, a new punishment was devised. The remaining sisters were shut up for six days, and given only salted herrings to eat, without a drop of water or any other kind of food. This was one of the most painful tortures they had undergone, and made many of them fear for their reason. In the spring of the year eighteen hundred and forty-three their place of residence was again changed. Between soldiers with fixed bayonets they were marched off to Miadzioly. Here again they were placed with the Black Nuns, in a convent formerly belonging to the Carmelites, and here it was that the infamous murder and torture f the baths took place. The nuns, excepting those eight where were blind, were placed into a kind of sack, with both arms thrust into a single sleeve, so that they could neither defend themselves nor assist each other. They were marched up to the lake, flung in, and when up to their chests in water, with ropes fastened round their necks, men in boats dragged them along. This punishment lasted for about three hours. Sometimes the boats drifted on shore, and the poor women were then able to gain their feet for a moment, but the papa, under whose charge they were at Miadzioly, would then order the boatmen to row out into the lake, crying, “Drown them like puppies! drown them all!” They had these baths six ties, twice a week for three weeks. They were not allowed to change their clothes all the night, and thus their old wounds were poisoned, and opened afresh, while new ones appeared all over their bodies. Three nuns were drowned in the baths, and buried without rites or service by the side of the lake. At last the punishment was discontinued, partly because the waters began to freeze, and partly because the Jews – who seem to have been always compassionate – entreated, and petitioned, and agitated, the town, until the authorities thought it best to put an end to what was ceasing to be a warning, and becoming a martyrdom. But seven of the nuns had become entirely infirm, and at the end of the second year’s residence at Miadzioly, only four remained of the three united sisterhoods of Minsk, Witebsk, and Polosk, who would still use their limbs or work. The rest were either blind or crippled. During the last year, two nuns died; one suffocated by a badly acting stove, which they were allowed sometimes to use, and the second was frozen to death in the forest, when sent out to gather firewood.
In March eighteen hundred and forty-five, they received warning from a friend, a priest of their own communion, who told them that they were all to be sent off to Siberia, and who advised them to make their escape if possible. A good opportunity presented itself at this time; for the birthday of the proto-papa Skrykin was approaching, when the whole convent would probably be given up to drunkenness and excess. So it happened; and on the night of the first of April – when guards, deacons, nuns, and priests were all lying drunk and incapable – the mother Makrena and three of her nuns made their escape from the convent, having first filed off their irons. They parted beneath the convent walls, giving each other rendezvous at a house where lived some sisters of another order; and here the reverend mother and one of the nuns did meet; but their hosts showed so much uneasiness at harbouring such guests, that the poor women took to flight again, each in different directions. After enduring great hardships and privations, Makrena arrived at Posen, where she presented herself at a convent of the Sisters of Charity; and where, on the fourteenth of August, eighteen hundred and forty-five, her depositions on oath were taken before S. Kramarkiewicz, and the “Mediczinee Rath Herr,” S. Jagielski, in the presence of the chaplain of the convent, Albin Thinet. These depositions, signed with the name and sealed with the seal of the Archbishop of Gresna and Posen, attested also by the imperial police of Posen, are now in our possession. Count Dzialynska, a Polish gentleman, certifies to the reception of the reverend mother in his chateau at Kornik, on her way through the grand duchy of Posen to Rome by way of Paris. Count Dzialynska says: “The abbess gave me the history of her lengthened sufferings; the truthful character of her relation, the persons who she named to me, and other circumstances which my position allow me to appreciate, inspired me with the most absolute faith in her words. She showed me her head, which bore on the top of the skull – at the left side, I believe – a large depression, covered with a newly-formed skin. The cicatrice exactly resembled those of severe saber-cuts: it was nearly an inch broad, and in length equivalent to the half of the last joint of the little finger. Her walk was feeble (chancelante) and the superioress (who accompanied her) assured me that her legs bore the marks of her fetters.” This certificate we have seen.
The first person who published the story of the Abbess, was a little too hurried to be quite accurate. Instead of at Minsk, he placed this convent at Kowna. This the Russian government made a great point of, and denied energetically – with truth, as to the mere locality: with unblushing falsehood as to every thing else. But we have the deposition on oath of a professor at Posen, Jean Rymarkiewicz, who asserts that he was one of a hundred prisoners lodged for a whole winter in the Basilian convent at Minsk; and that the nuns who had been driven out to an outhouse, to make room for the prisoners, “procured comforts for them, both in food and clothing.” Finally, we have the account of an English Protestant lady, who saw and conversed with the mother Makrena in February, eighteen hundred and forty-eight, in the convent of the Santa Trinita at Rome. At that time she was still suffering; but vigorous, stout-hearted, energetic, and determined as ever. To this lady she gave some curious details not published; one of her escape through the gates of the frontier town. Unprovided with a passport, she was sure of being stopped, and if stopped, discovered. A herd of cattle were passing, and the Abbess hid herself among them, passing through on all fours unperceived. Before she had thus escaped from the Russian territory, she went one day to church, where she heard her description given in the sermon; for the government set a large price on these poor fugitives, whose escape and freedom of speech might bring more ugly things to light. After service, she went boldly to the house of the priest and proclaimed herself. But, instead of delivering her up to the authorities, he gave her bread and money, and set her in the right way to the frontier town.
Her personal appearance, says our English lady, is decidedly “handsome, her profile something like Mrs. Siddons in Hayter’s Queen Katharine,” swelled to such an “immense size as she is, that she looks in the last stage of dropsy.” In character she is “gay, vigorous, even merry, nothing graceful or sentimental about her,” speaking “abruptly, awkwardly, without commentary or reflection. She is like a rough old covenanter, despising the world and the evils as well as in the goods it had to offer her. She is a brave old soldier of her faith, with a true touch of the woman in the extreme interest which she takes for other people’s scratches, while her own wounds are forgotten. She manufactures lint as well as gun-cotton. She has none of the pedantry of martyrdom. ‘She should regret all her life,’ she said, ‘having shown the marks of the chains, to a friend, upon one occasion.’ Makrena has acquiesced, because she thought it ungracious to refuse, but she had a fit of remorse afterwards for having paraded the cross she bore. There is something of greatness in her rough humility, and this vulgar simplicity is her best certificate.”
The Abbess Makrena is probably now the sole Popish representative of the order of St. Basil. She is more than sixty years of age, and is about to found the order of St. Basil at Rome, in a house near the Scala Santa, and has already four novices, three Poles and one Italian. “Her conversation is vehement, rapid gesticulative” (we are again quoting our English lady), “here spirit as strong to bear persecution as it was likely to attract it and ready to forget it. Like a female Luther, or St. Ignatius, she seemed violent, daring, uncompromising. I kissed the hand of the brave ‘guerriera,’ and departed, feeling that she was one who did fight
As they fought
In the brave days of old.”
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