Passionist Sisters
in Eastern Europe, 1873-1890

by Mary O Brien, C.P.

The year was 1871. Ignatius Paoli CP, newly appointed bishop of Nicopolis in Bulgaria, decided on a quiet trip to check out conditions in the parish of Roustchouk (now known as Russe). He arrived to find an overflow congregation waiting for him to celebrate Mass. So much for anonymity! Impressed by the eagerness of the people, Bishop Ignatius made two promises: to appoint a resident priest immediately and to establish a community of religious women with all possible speed.

To fulfill the second promise, the bishop turned to England and to Mother Mary Margaret Chambers, the energetic Superior General of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion. The institute had been founded in Manchester just twenty years earlier by Elizabeth Prout (Mother Mary Joseph), a convert from Anglicanism. As provincial of the Passionists' Anglo-Irish province from 1857 to 1866, Ignatius Paoli had worked closely with Mother Mary Joseph and with her successors. At the time of his appointment to Nicopolis, he was actively involved in the new congregation's quest for formal affiliation with the Passionist family.

Eager Volunteers

Mother Mary Margaret and her sisters did not disappoint. Though experiencing a period of vigorous growth, the young congregation was still confined to its birthplace in the industrial towns of northern England. Bulgaria must have sounded exciting! The response to Mother Mary Margaret's call for volunteers was overwhelming. The bishop had to point out that he could afford to support only three sisters.

By June of 1873 Father Jerome Smyth, CP (right), wrote from Bucharest that arrangements for the new convent were underway. He requested three sisters to begin with: two who could teach and one to manage household affairs. There was emphasis on language ability. In Fr. Jerome's opinion, this should present no great problem. “A young lady of moderate talent can in a short time and without much difficulty learn a new language.” It was not to prove that simple. Fortunately, English would also be a useful language since the construction of a new bridge over the Danube was attracting numbers of English and Irish families to the area.

Strangely, Bulgarian is never mentioned on the list of languages. It was not expected that the students would come from among the poor Bulgarian Catholics. Writing in August, 1873, to announce that a house had been obtained for the community, the bishop professes the belief, however, that the mission will eventually benefit “poor Catholics of that nationality.”

Progress, Novices

Before the end of 1873 sisters Agatha Kenny, Ignatius Stuart and Anne Joachim Flanagan had settled in Roustchouk. Over the next few years they experienced gratifying success. Their school attracted not only the Catholic children of the town, many of whom had previously attended schools run by American Protestants, but also the children of many non-Catholic families. In their “leisure” hours the sisters “devoted themselves to the care of the sick and other works of mercy and were the cause of the return of many to the bosom of the one true church.” It is not surprising that the theme of overwork is a constant theme in the correspondence regarding the mission.

The confident hopes that local vocations would be forthcoming were also realized. Soon there was a flourishing novitiate. Sister Catherine Scanlon was sent to act as “pro-provincial” and novice mistress.

Flight to Rumania

In 1876 war broke out, bringing outrages that the newspapers of the day headlined as The Bulgarian Atrocities. The sisters fled to safety in Rumania. Years later Sister Ignatius Stuart was to hold the capitulars at the sisters' 1885 General Chapter riveted with her account of what she and her companions had witnessed during their flight.

Rumania, however, opened up new opportunities, actually more in keeping with the congregation's origin in the slums of Manchester. Settled in the city of Craiova, the sisters set up a new center of Catholic education, with schools attended by over a hundred poor children. More young women joined them, some with the necessary qualifications for teaching.

Limited finances constituted the cloud on the bright horizon. In Roustchouk the sisters had become self-supporting. Now they were once again dependent. Father Jerome Smyth was commissioned to visit England and Ireland on a quest for funds. Apparently he was successful, for a new Rumanian foundation was established at Braila. It included an elementary school and a boarding school. Also, the novitiate was transferred to Braila. Meanwhile, the sisters returned to Roustchouk from Craiova at the end of the war. right: Passionist sisters at Braila

Difficulties Begin

From this point the story of the mission becomes more troubled. As early as 1877, the first death had occurred among the Bulgarian sisters, that of a novice who was professed on her deathbed. Sister Anne Joachim died in August, 1883, prematurely worn out, it is said, by the constant burden of overwork. Sister Anne Joachim is of special American interest since she had originally come from Pittsburgh to join the sisters in England.

Mothers Catherine Scanlon, Ignatius Stuart (then Superior at Braila) and others traveled to England to attend the 1885 General Chapter of their congregation. They succeeded in arousing such enthusiasm for the mission that the chapter passed a decree laying on the Superior General a special mandate to promote its “improvement and extension.” Just three years later, in 1988, another chapter decreed the suppression of the mission.

The chain of events leading to this sharp reversal had already been set in motion before the 1885 capitulars dispersed. Word was received of the sudden death of Ignatius Paoli, who was at the time Archbishop of Bucharest, Rumania. Before the sisters left for the chapter, Archbishop Paoli had authorized Sister Ignatius Stuart to recruit new members for the novitiate while she was in England. She succeeded in doing so.

Mixed Signals in Rumania

However, there apparently was a failure to communicate the arrangement to the new archbishop. The result was that he ordered the returning sisters with their new postulants to vacate the convent in Braila with about a month's notice. Seven of the fifteen in community went to England, the rest to Roustchouk, where the income was not sufficient to support so many.

The maps above show Bulgaria's location in Europe and in the world

While the community was absorbing this blow, the Roustchouk Superior, Mother Agatha Kenny, died. From the beginning she had been the mainstay of the group. Of the four sisters sent from England during the sixteen-year life span of the mission, she was the one who could “in a short time and without much difficulty learn a new language.” She had become fluent in French and German. Moreover, she was greatly loved. In spite of failing health during the last five or six years of her life and the chronic lack of sufficient help, Mother Agatha had continued to work with zeal and energy.

When news of her death was reported, crowds flocked to express their condolences. Father Louis Irwin, CP, who had been with her during her last days, wrote that “her funeral was a public manifestation of sympathy such as has never before been witnessed in Roustchouk. Crowds of mourning citizens, without distinction of creed, went before the hearse.”

Deaths and Suppression

Sister Claire Dzuriuvitz was appointed as the new superior, and for a short time life went on smoothly. Then Sister Claire suffered a stroke. Before the arrival of the letter informing her of the chapter's decision to suppress the Bulgarian foundation, Sister Claire was dead. Her death on September 19, 1888 was one of three to occur during that month of September. Her illness seems to have been the blow that finally demoralized a community already suffering under a severe burden of stress and loss.

Nevertheless, however solid the reasons for leaving Roustchouk looked from England, the decree of suppression was painful to those directly affected. The bishop of Nicopolis, Hippolyte Agosto, a Passionist, was bewildered by the rapid change in attitude since 1885. The Superior General, Mother Benedicta Hynes, patiently explained the rationale behind it. Among the sisters themselves opinions differed. There was some talk of staying behind as a new institute living under a Passionist rule. In the end, however, all chose to go to England. The letter announcing their decision is dated August 24, 1890.

“What Future Graces Were Won?”

On one of the mission's final days, Sister Mary Cecilia Holzer celebrated her twenty-first birthday. A memoir written in her uncertain English not long before her death in 1955 is a poignant picture of life in a disintegrating community, yet it glows with her joy in being a Passionist. It is she who has preserved Bishop Agosto's last words to the sisters: “Whatever nuns will come here, I never will be as I was to you, your father and brother in Jesus Christ.” Sister Mary Cecilia also informs us that to the very end the school was in a thriving condition.

In her 1960 history of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion, Sister Olivia Curran concludes her account of the mission by asking, “Who knows what future graces were won for the congregation by the trials plentifully meted out to these brave daughters of the Passion.” Writing in the depths of the Cold War, she could hardly imagine that the “graces” might include an actual return to eastern Europe, but in fact over the past five years sisters have returned to respond to the pressing needs of post-communist Rumania. That, however, is the material of another story.

At the time of the writing of this article, Sr.Mary O'Brien, C.P. was novice directress at the Passionists Sisters novitiate community in Farmington, CT.

Photo credit: Bread on the Waters

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