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Historical Overview

1. The Origins of Non-Habit Religious Institutes in Poland.

After the loss of its political independence in 1795, the nation of Poland was divided up and remained under the foreign domination of Austria, Prussia and Russia for 124 years. In 1864 the Russian government suppressed all religious orders within the Polish territory under its control. All novitiates and formation houses were ordered closed; young sisters and brothers were sent back to their families, while the elderly religious of various congregations were crowded together into a few remaining convents to await their deaths. In this way the government intended to eliminate all forms of religious life in Poland.2007 tuksnesnamaa

The new laws also affected the Capuchin friars of Warsaw. They were forced by the Tsarist police to leave their friary and to relocate in the small town of Zakroczym. Among the friars included in this move was Father Honoratus Kozminski, already known as a zealous preacher and exceptional spiritual director Fr. Honoratus lived under house arrest: he was forbidden to leave the friary, to preach or to meet with the people. He was only allowed to celebrate Mass and to hear confessions. Yet he quickly became an outstanding confessor because of his rare ability to penetrate deeply into the hearts of his penitents.

It was in the lives of these penitents that Fr. Honoratus came to recognize the work of God. A marvelous phenomenon was taking place: despite a decade of suppression and severe persecution of the Church, the number of religious vocations was increasing. Fr. Honoratus met and guided countless young people who desired to live the religious life. He knew from the experience of the dispersed religious orders that it was possible to a faithful religious even without the support of monastery or convent. In addition, he believed that the Gospel could not be fulfilled without the continuation of religious life. The form of religious life may and sometimes must undergo a change, but it could not disappear all together. So Fr. Honoratus set about developing a new form of religious life in Poland.

Hi took as his model the Holy Family of Nazareth, which had lived a life of total commitment to God in a quiet, hidden way. Fr. Honoratus founded 26 religious congregations, all based on the Third Order of St. Francis. They were “hidden” communities, in that their members were not known publicly as religious, nor did they wear a distinctive religious habit. Fr. Honoratus promoted this “hidden life” as a path to Christian perfection by a living out of the evangelical counsels in intimate and total dedication of self to God, without making one’s religious vocation known to the world and without displaying any exterior or distinctive signs of religious consecration.

To each of the congregations the Founder entrusted a particular field of apostolic activity in the secular world, including: teaching in secondary schools, higher education and vocational schools; providing religious education for families in rural villages; working alongside others in factories, in guilds and other institutions, as well as in courts and government offices. In all these settings the religious were active among the people without formal recognition as religious. By founding so many distinct congregations, Fr. Honoratus intended that each congregation’s members might become a part of the daily lives of the people of their particular apostolate, and so come to understand more fully their concerns, needs and personal struggles. He was convinced that only such committed entry into the everyday life of Poland’s people would effect a re-birth of moral living and true religion in Polish society. Fr. Honoratus expresses his enthusiasm about these hidden workers in the Lord’s vineyard in these words:

These are pillars supporting the wavering structure of faith in the world; these are anchors strengthening the framework of the building, preventing it from collapse; these are the disguised missionaries of Christ, working among modern pagans and apostates from the Christian faith; these are flames of fire which the Savior cast upon the earth, to enflame our languishing love; these are the models of evangelical perfection appearing in the midst of our society …; these are the fruits worthy of the Gospel, on whose behalf the heavenly Landlord, in the hope of continued growth, takes mercy on the tree doomed to be cut down. (see Luke 13,6-9)

 

2.      The Foundation of the Congregation of Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate and its Apostolate until 1918.

The Congregation of Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate was founded by Fr. Honoratus Kozminski in Zakroczym, Poland on October 7, 1878. The inner life of the Congregation was to be built upon a combined Marian and Franciscan spirituality. He called the Congregation to a more perfect imitation of Jesus and of His Mother Mary, the perfect example of a authentic “hidden life”, for she chose to live in a hidden silence as she served her Son in the work of Redemption and united with Him plays an ongoing role in the history of salvation. In addition, drawing upon his own Capuchin heritage, Fr. Honoratus recommended to the sisters the Franciscan spirit of poverty, of humility and of joy in the service of others in and through the Church.

In response to Mary’s apparition to several young girls at Gietrzwald in 1877, the Founder entrusted to the new Congregation the special care of the people in rural areas, “wherever the need is greatest” among them. Their main task was the revival of Christian life among these often neglected and heavily burdened families, in their homes, in the parishes and in various places of work. The sisters performed their charitable and apostolic service wherever the people’s need and struggles called for their care.

In spite of the ongoing persecution of the Church in the Russian-controlled section of Poland, the Congregation grew in numbers. Just ten years after its founding, there were 926 sisters working in various localities around the countryside. They lived out the charism of Fr. Honoratus’s “hidden life”. While at first most of the sisters lived at home with their own families, soon secret convents were established, where sisters could live together in small groups, supporting each other and providing care and guidance for the sisters who continued living at home. Thou two branches of the Congregation evolved: sisters living in community houses and those living with their families. The second group were called the “Auxiliary Sisters”. While those in community made a formal one-year novitiate, the others completed a longer formation period at home with regular contact with a novice director, at the completion of which they made only temporary, and not permanent, vows. Nevertheless, both branches of sisters formed a single, united Congregation, all of them equally committed to an immediate apostolic influence among the country people.

In 1907 the Congregation reached a historical milestone of maximum growth: there were 705 sisters living in community houses and 3,652 sisters living separately, all dedicated to the Congregation’s mission in various work places in 343 parishes. Sadly, early in 1908, the Holy See recognized and approved only the branch of the Congregation which lived a structured common live. The sisters living and working outside community houses were relegated to the Third Order Secular, and as a result, the Congregation lost the majority of its members, as many of the “Auxiliary Sisters” were unable to comply with the newly-issued Vatican regulations. Much of the apostolic influence of the Congregation was thereby curtailed. Only many years later was this new form of religious life outside community confirmed in the apostolic constitution Provida Mater of Pope Pius XII, in the development of contemporary Secular Institutes and in the teaching of Vatican Council II on the role of religious in the modern world.

From its foundation in 1878 until the end of WWI in 1918, the Congregation carried out its apostolic mission in a variety of works such as:

a)      Socio-Charitable Ministry: providing spiritual and material aid to the poor, the sick and

Material aid to the poor, the sick and dying, the neglected and forsaken people of villages and small towns; establishing some twenty-five Christian hospices for travelers, to help combat a growing problem of alcoholism in the land;

b)      Pastoral Ministry and Spiritual Formation: conducting religious instruction and sacramental preparation for children and adults, along with retreats for those unable to attend parish churches; organizing of “Living Rosary” groups, some 760 of which were developed during these years: supervising the work of the Third Order St. Francis, Secular; and distributing books and pamphlets dealing with moral life, ethics and religion.

c)      Formal Education Ministry: inaugurating more than 120 “secret schools”, in addition to nursery centers and workshops for all professions and trades.

 

3.      The Further growth and Development of the Congregation.

In 1919 Poland regained its independence, and the whole nation entered a new era with great enthusiasm. The Sister Servants of Mary Immaculate continued to focus its apostolic efforts upon the re-birth of moral life among the people. With the opening of new horizons of political and religious freedom, the Congregation revealed itself as a religious institution and openly engaged in various fields of apostolic activity. Particularly concerned about education, the Congregation now legally sponsored its own secondary and vocational schools. The sisters, however, continued to live the “hidden life” among the people they served, without taking up a religious habit or other exterior signs of religious consecration. The Congregation kept growing right up to World War II. In 1935, the first mission house was established in Baltimore, Maryland, to care for the needs of recent Polish immigrants to the United States, especially the elderly and pre-school children.

The changing political and social situation during the war years (1939-1945) moved the Congregation toward new kinds of apostolic and patriotic activity. During the German occupation of Poland, the sisters conducted some vocational schools, especially to protect young girls from being deported to work-camps in Germany. The sisters also offered their services in field hospitals and in the private care of the wounded; they provided food and shelter for hundreds of homeless and oppressed victims of the war. They assisted Jews and priests fleeing Nazi persecution by smuggling them across the borders. Priests imprisoned in concentration camps were provided food and clothing from the Congregation’s sisters in both Poland and the Unites States. Some of the sisters supported the Polish Underground, while others took an active part in the Resistance.

World War II took an enormous toll on all the people of Poland and the Congregation, too, endured great personal and material losses. Some sisters were lost, some killed in the fighting, others evacuated or taken to concentration camps. Although some young sisters remained in community houses during the war, many of the novices were sent back to their families for their own protection, never to return to the Congregation when the war ended.

The post-war reconstruction of the Congregation and its forced adaptation to the policies of the new government were very difficult. Schools once owned and conducted by the sisters were now taken over by the government; three provincial houses were also confiscated and transformed into Headquarters of Communist Party officials. The sisters were left to find housing and jobs for themselves. Thus restricted in their educational apostolate, they then engaged more exclusively in parish work: taking care of churches and shrines, instructing children and youth in catechism, and serving the poor and sick of the parish.

The Congregation of Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate received its final approval and ecclesiastical approbation in 1949 under Pope Pius XII.

Challenged by the Church’s call for a renewal of religious life, the Congregation drew upon the dynamism of its foundation by Fr. Honoratus in the Franciscan spirit to take up its responsibility of developing a future apostolate more effectively suited to the present age and a modern environment. Widening the scope of their apostolic activity, the sisters have been involved in various ministries to youth, adults and the elderly. Widening the scope of their apostolic activity, the sisters have been involved in various ministries to youth, adults and the elderly. In all their endeavors, they have encouraged the laity to become more conscious of their responsibility to the service of its members’ needs.

Through monthly and yearly retreat programs, the sisters share with the laity a vision of the post-conciliar Church. They instruct people how to live out the Council’s charge “to exercise in the midst of the world and its concerns an apostolate of evangelization and sanctification of the world, acting as gospel – leaven among the people”.

Catechetical instruction at all levels and weekly meetings with youth were conducted by the sisters, all designed to awaken an awareness of church and to develop a true Gospel spirit. In many parishes teams of young people are organized and taught how to show forth their faith through service to the needy. The sisters strive to foster among youth a conscious commitment to live as active members of the People of God.

Drawing upon its past experience, the Congregation has once again developed an underground dimension. The sisters have been prepared to take positions in various public institutions (day nurseries, schools for normal and handicapped children, health care centers and hospitals), all with a secret mission: to protect children and students from  atheistic propaganda and to encourage the people in their struggles in a materialistic and secularistic society opposed to Christian attitudes and values.

 

4.      The Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate Today.

Today the Congregation numbers 800 members in five provinces: three in Poland, one in Lithuania and one in the United States; two delegacy: in Latvia and Rwanda-Congo, Africa. There are also mission houses of the Congregation in Belarus, France and Italy. The General House remains at Mariowka, Poland.

The Congregation’s Founder, Fr. Honoratus Kozminski, Cap. Died at the age of 87 in 1916. In response to his outstanding life of faith and his tireless energy for the care of the faithful in Poland, the process for his beatification was initiated at Warsaw in 1949. 16th of October 1988 it took place in Rome his beatification.

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T. Honorāta vārdi:
„Cilvēks, kuram ir dzīva ticība un dedzīga mīlestība, visur saskata Dieva mīlestību, Viņa spēku un gudrību.”
Sv. Francisks:
"Mēs esam solījuši lielas lietas, un vēl lielākas ir solītas mums; pildīsim vienas un ilgosimies pēc otrām. Bauda ir īsa, bet sods mūžīgs; ciešanas ir nelielas, bet godība nebeidzama; daudz ir aicinātu, bet maz izredzētu, atmaksa ir visiem."-- Toms no Čelano, Dzīves apraksts, II (2C 191)