A Capuchin Martyr Who Laid Down Her Life for Her Sisters, Blessed Maria Teresa Kowalska
Feast Day : 28 July
Her Martyrdom Became the Ransom that Ensured Her Conseours’ Safe Release
The Polish Capuchin Poor Clare Nun, Blessed Maria Teresa Kowalska’s whole religious life had been an offering to God for the sins of her family, most of whom had embraced atheism. Her last days of horrific suffering and torment as well as her martyr’s death were offered to God not only for the conversion of her family but also for the liberation and safety of her fellow Capuchin Poor Clares, interned with her in the Działdowo concentration camp. We do not possess the documentation to show how the Lord answered her prayers for her family’s conversion but, shortly after Sister Mary Teresa’s martyrdom, her offering of her own life as a ransom for her Sisters seems to have been accepted by God. To everyone’s surprise, all her fellow Sisters were released from the concentration camp on the 7th of August 1941 and each one was able to return to her family home. There protected by their relatives and managed to survive the horrors of the German occupation. With the end of World War Two in 1945, these scattered Capuchiness Sisters were able to regroup and return to their contemplative religious life at the Przasnysz Capuchin Poor Clare Monastery, remembering with affection and devotion the sacrifice their little sister, Sister Mary Teresa had made on their behalf.
A Pious Polish Girl who Grew Up in an Atheistic Household
Blessed Maria Teresa Kowalska was born on the 1st of January 1902 in Warsaw, Poland, and baptised Mieczysława. Her parents’ names and background are unknown. She received first Holy Communion on the 21st of June 1915 and made her Confirmation on the 21st of May 1920. Moved by socialist ideals, her father decided to emigrate to the Soviet Union with some members of the family. He had become an outspoken anti-Catholic atheist and Communist sympathiser, and his decision to emigrate stemmed partly from his resentment towards the Catholic Church’s growing influence on Polish political affairs and social life. His daughter, however, not only remained faithful to the Church but also chose to enter the monastery of Capuchin Poor Clares in Przasnysz. Her spiritual journal, which documents her membership in various confraternities and pious associations, shows that she was already leading a pious and exemplary life, but her decision to enter contemplative religious life was partly motivated by a desire to make atonement for her father’s atheism.
A Conscientious and Exemplary Capuchiness
At her investiture as Capuchin Poor Clare Novice on the 12th of August 1923, Mieczysława received the religious name ‘Sister Mary Teresa of the Child Jesus’. A year later, on the 15th of August 1924 she professed temporary vows and on the 26th of June 1928 she made her Solemn Perpetual Profession. Although she was of slight build, she was always attentive to her monastic Sisters, and ready to carefully carry out whatever task was entrusted to her: these included the ministries of porter, sacristan, librarian, Novice Mistress. Witnesses tell us that she had a soft and gentle face, that she was unpretentious and that, despite her frail health she was cheery and grateful for whatever favours she had received. She retained an aura of silence and never caused conflict or divisions in the community, striving always to live in harmony with her consoeurs. She was exercised great patience and self-control and was always sensitive to the needs of others. One of her fellow Sisters recounts: "Her way of doing things won the trust of everyone." It seems that the Community agreed with sentiments for, in no time at all, the nuns elected her as a member of the Monastery Council. In her journal, Sister Mary Teresa wrote that she chose the difficult, enclosed life of the Capuchin Poor Clares in order to serve God and to offer herself in expiation for the sins of her family that had allied itself with communism. Imitating St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, she often contemplated the crucified Christ. On the cross in her cell she wrote: "Be quiet, very quiet, because my Jesus is dying." She also had a deep love for Our Lady and, even as a Capuchin Poor Clare, she continued to do her utmost to nurture in her heart a true devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, inspired by the writings of Saint Louis Mary Grignon de Montefort.
A Courageous and Patient Victim of Nazi Barbarity
After the Germans had invaded Poland, the Capuchin Poor Clare Monastery of Przasnysz was occupied on the 2nd April 1941 and the thirty six nuns resident there were arrested and sent to the Soldau Concentration Camp near Działdowo. A number of Polish bishops and priests were also interned in that same camp. Although the sisters were closed off in a separate barracks, they were subjected to the same sufferings and inhuman deprivations as everyone else. As well as a lack of hygiene, cramped living space and next to no fresh air, they also had to endure extreme hunger and thirst. Little wonder then that after only one month many of the sisters, including Sister Mary Teresa fell ill. Even in the monastery, Sister Mary Teresa had suffered from tuberculosis and could barely walk or stand. Now extreme weakness and bedsores, as well as a continuous lung haemorrhage, exacerbated her health problems. She had great trouble breathing due to the dust-filled environment. In the concentration camp, she could neither visit a doctor nor procure the medicines she needed. All she got to relieve her sufferings, was some water from whatever soldier was on duty at the time; and, even that, she could barely swallow. Still, the young Sister endured her suffering patiently, praying both by herself and participating in the prayer of the other Sisters. Despite the countless privations, the Sisters were fortunately able to hold on to their breviaries and continue to celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours.
A Martyred Bride Calling Out to Her Crucified Bridegroom ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’
Sister Mary Teresa's physical condition continued to deteriorate rapidly. One day she said, "I will not leave here alive. I offer my life for the sisters so that they may return to the monastery." and sometimes she would ask the Abbess, "Mother, will this last much longer? Will I die soon?" Before she died she managed to make contact with a Capuchin priest, imprisoned in a neighbouring block, who promised that if she made a confession of her sins in the silence of her heart, he would synchronise his giving her absolution from a distance. This proved a great spiritual consolation to her as she prepared to meet her Heavenly Bridegroom. Sister Maria Teresa of the Child Jesus Kowalska died in prison on the night of the 25th of July 1941. Her last words were “Come. O Lord, come!” Her body was swiftly disposed of - probably by being cremated. Sister Mary Teresa of the Child Jesus Kowalska was beatified by Blessed Pope John Paul II on the 13th of June 1999. On that same day a hundred and seven other Polish Martyrs of World War Two, including five Capuchin Brothers, were also beatified. A love for the Catholic Faith and for her own kin had motivated Blessed Mary Teresa Kowalska to embrace the religious life, in the first place. And, at the end of her earthly life, it was for love of that same Faith and for her religious family, the Poor Clare Sisters, that motivated her to embrace Sister Death death with courage, expiating charity and joy-filled peace of heart.
"I offer my life for the sisters so that they may return to the monastery.... Come. Lord Jesus, come!" - Mary Teresa of the Child Jesus Kowalska