EUROPE/CZECH REPUBLIC - A Samizdat for the Council: Story of Sister Eliška and her “secret printing press”

Thursday, 4 January 2024 local churches   nuns   ii vatican council   persecutions

by Chiara Dommarco
Rome (Agenzia Fides) - "He who does not know how to speak with love to his neighbor shows that he has not learned to speak to God in prayer". With these words, Sister Eliška Pretschnerová describes the source of her work for the people around her. Her simple and extraordinary missionary life, marked by the experience of tribulation experienced by so many Christians in Eastern Europe in the 20th century and by the great ecclesial hope of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, is reflected today, thirty years after her death, by an exhibition with rich documentation in Italian in the chapel of the Roman hospital “Villa Betania” and in Czech in the Bohemian Order Center “Velehrad”, the pilgrimage center for Czech believers visiting the Eternal City. In February 2024, the exhibition in Italian will be on display in the Church of the Holy Roman Protomartyrs (Chiesa dei Santi Protomartiri Romani).

Anna Pretschnerová was born on September 26, 1911 in Nové Zámky, a small village near Nymburk in Bohemia, where her father managed a Count's lands. Despite her parents' Christian faith, Anna was influenced by the anti-Catholic cultural climate of Tomáš Masaryk's First Czechoslovak Republic and began attending the Franciscan-run teachers' college in Chrudim, where she had been sent by her father to continue her studies: "I promised myself that if there were too many prayers, my father would take me back within a year," one reads in her diary. But then things changed. The direct acquaintance with the sisters dispels prejudices and leads Anna to her own choice in the Congregation of Franciscan Sisters: in 1930 she began her training, the following year she took the name Eliška and in 1938 she took her perpetual vows. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, Sister Eliška stopped studying at the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at Charles University in Prague and devoted herself to religious education in the city's slums. Despite the confiscation of the order's motherhouse, Sister Eliška managed not to hate the occupiers and she also established good relationships with some of her German teaching colleagues. After the war, she completed her university studies and taught mathematics and physics at the congregation's high school in the Vinohrady district of Prague. After the communist coup in February 1948, the administration of the congregation was moved to Rome and the Czech Province of the Franciscan Teaching Sisters was founded. Eliška, who was elected provincial vicar, introduced herself to the sisters with the words: "Sisters, I have come to serve you. Please help me." And in 1950, when the StB (communist police) forced her to sign the "voluntary" handover of the monastery and high school in Vinohrady to the state, she added a few words to her signature: "I surrender in the face of violence." On November 14 of the same year, the sisters were forcibly taken to the internment monastery in the city of Krnov. Circumstances also led them to adapt the sisters' missionary care, which had previously focused on teaching, to their new situation: they began to devote themselves to nursing in the city, in a hospital that was closed after the expulsion of the German sisters who worked there and was left without care. Sister Eliška also completed training as a nurse and worked in the hospital from then on. She and her fellow sisters then worked in the asylum for the mentally ill in Budeničky. In 1954, Sister Eliška was appointed provincial superior, and in the following years she became a reference person for the sisters in other institutions. Between 1967 and 1969, she organized meetings for the sisters to discuss how best to deal with the StB's interrogations and searches, and encouraged them to secretly accept new candidates for the consecrated life, who one way or another, kept knocking on their doors.
In those years, her vocation and her mission were rekindled by the experience of the Second Vatican Council. Thanks to the relative political relaxation of that period, Sister Eliška, together with some young priests, took an active part in the establishment of the Secretariat for Religious Communities. She writes in her diary: "The Council and the Holy Father John XXIII have opened the windows, and now a fresh and healthy wind is blowing in our lives. This process of renewal will not be without crises and struggles, but the Gospel of Christ's love and peace is slowly but surely penetrating people's hearts." In order to spread the council documents in Czechoslovakia, Sister Eliška, with the help of her fellow sisters, opened a secret printing press, where she initially managed to print the decree "Perfectae Caritatis " (1965) on the renewal of religious life and then the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963) on the renewal of liturgical life. Sister Zdislava Nosková (OSF), postulator of the beatification process opened for Sister Eliška, reports to Fides: "It was a real samizdat workshop (literally: self-publishing, editor's note) in which the sisters translated the council documents into Czech and reproduced them on copied paper, working at night to avoid controls on the one hand and to give assistance to the mentally handicap in Slatiňany, Bohemia, during the day".
Meanwhile in Rome, on 28 September 1968, the day on which Saint Wenceslas, patron saint of the Czech and Slovak lands, is celebrated, the Velehrad Bohemian Religious Center, located just a few hundred meters from Saint Peter's Square, was approved by Pope Paul VI, and wanted by Cardinal Josef Beran. The Center was founded to provide spiritual support to Czechoslovak Catholics living abroad. For Sister Eliška, the "return to the sources" of the Second Vatican Council also meant a confirmation that the path she had taken in her relations with non-Catholic Christians was the one indicated by Rome. Her faith and her strong human sensitivity had led her to establish bonds of friendship and mutual respect even with those who were far from the faith. This had also earned her the dislike and criticism of some Catholics. "Many," she later wrote, "accused me for being on good terms with those who were 'on the other side', who, on the contrary perceived my appreciation for them and behaved in a friendly manner towards me. I lived in the uncertainty as to whether my opinion was correct. And then Rome spoke: The Holy Father's generous gestures, his love for all people, the Second Vatican Council, the Holy Father's relationship with the separated brothers and sisters, all of this strengthened in me the conviction that my view of the Christian life was correct. I thank you, Lord Jesus, I thank you!". In 1970, during the General Chapter in Rome, Sister Eliška was elected Superior General. When she returned to Czechoslovakia in 1974 to renew her passport, she was detained there for 14 months and subjected to several interrogations, until she was allowed to return to Rome. She was re-elected superior general for a second term, she also contributed to the drafting of the new version of the Rule of the Third Order of Franciscans. In 1983, Sister Eliška met John Paul II during a visit by the Pope to “Villa Betania”, the hospital that was then run by the Franciscan Teaching Sisters and where a community of the Congregation still provides pastoral care to the facility's staff and patients. In 1983 she returned to Czechoslovakia and spent her last years in Hoješín, where she worked in the garden, helped the older sisters and translated articles into Czech for the younger sisters' education. She died on May 4, 1993. The Czech Bishops' Conference opened the beatification process for the Servant of God Sister Eliška on June 1, 2001 in Hradec Králové. Since June 2022, the process has been transferred to the responsibility of the Dicastery for the beatification and canonization processes. The Congregation of the Franciscan Teaching Sisters was founded in Graz (Austria) in 1843 and quickly spread throughout Bohemia. Today it counts 50 communities represented in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, the United States and Chile. (CD) (Agenzia Fides, 4/1/2024).