The Last of a Long Line of Women

(This post was originally published at the blog, Catholic Sensibility, as part of the Two Weeks of Worthy Women series.)

A group of Beguines.

A group of Beguines.

During the 12th century, groups of women began to form for common life; they were called The Beguines. At this time, when single women entered religious life because they were single, and not necessarily because they were called, the Beguines stood out. These women did not enter the same kind of enclosure, they did not take vows, they did not renounce wealth if they had it, nor were they denied entrance if they lacked wealth. What they did do was to form communities of women, dedicated to God and to one another, but in a way that was very different from monastic life at that time.

Living in groups of small houses, that together was called a Beguinage, they did go through a novitiate of sorts. They went through a period of formation and then lived alone in small dwellings in the enclosure. Apparently there was no one foundress, constitution, or rule. These women broke every boundary of propriety by their very being, yet they simply carried on. At a time when woman had no social currency, the various Beguinages that sprung up were markedly different than any other thing at the time. The women were engaged in charitable work, and did have lives of prayer. Mechthild of Magdeburg was a Beguine and mystic, whose legacy lives on today. (I mentioned Mechtild in one of my Worthy Women posts last year.) Beguines created a life where they could live freely – not under the power of marriage or of a monastery. It was an independence otherwise unknown to women of that time.

So what does all this have to do with Two Weeks of Worthy Women today?

On April 14, at the age of 92, Marcella Pattyn died; she was the last Beguine in Europe, at the end of a line that extended for over 800 years. How did she come to this?

Mont-Saint-Amand-lez-GandIn 1941 she entered the Beguinage in Ghent. Pattyn had been born in the Belgian Congo in 1920. The one thing that stood between her and her call to religious life was her eyesight; she was essentially blind, and that precluded her from entering a convent or monastery. She was able to gain entry to the Beguines at age 20, and there she stayed for her life.

It was from all accounts a simple life. She had a loom and would weave cloth; she knitted and sewed. There are some people in the world who hold something special relating to Marcella Pattyn – the Beguine dolls that she created from fabric and thread that she sold. Gifted with some musical acumen, she played the organ, as well as some other instruments. And she enjoyed making others feel loved and comforted; she often visited the sick and infirm, entertaining them with music. With all of this there was a life of foundational prayer and faith.

20130427_OBP002_0If this all sounds a little idyllic, perhaps it is. When I see this image of Marcella Pattyn, decked out in her full Beguine regalia, and I see that smile, I am reminded of the kind of freedom that cannot be bought or earned. This is the freedom of a life of total surrender in God. If the life she lived made her infirmities seem small, and the ability to live generously flourished as a result of her choices, that makes for one worthy woman if you ask me.

A Woman of Courage and Light

This post was originally published at Catholic Sensibility, for the series, Two Weeks of Worthy Women. Todd Flowerday, host and publisher over there has asked me to contribute a couple of pieces; this is the first one.

648Imagine that you are born in a place that sometimes belongs to one country, Romania, but at other times belongs to another country, Hungary. Imagine that you are born as a secular Hungarian Jew in such a place, and that you live a completely middle class life. You have the gifts and benefits of education, well being, exemplary parents who teach you about the arts and about how to live a generous life oriented to the common good. Imagine further that because of a challenge in public school, you find yourself at a Catholic boarding school, and you are attracted to Jesus Christ.

If this all sounds like a slightly offbeat and made up tale, it is anything but! Such are the circumstances of the early life of Sister Judith Fenyvesi. She was born in Salonta, Romania in 1923, the third child of a pharmacist and a musician, and lived a life that earns her a place in these days of worthy women.

The words “religious freedom” are thrown around with incredible ease these days, but what do these words really mean? How and when is our freedom impeded or curtailed? Are we killed or imprisoned for our religious convictions? How does a long history of a lack of such freedom, make itself manifest in our lives today?

d95e4310fca091f064424010.LThese are things that I thought about as I plowed through the pages of Sister Judith Fenyvesi’s biography, A Journey of Light in the Darkness. While Judith was growing in faith that was oriented towards Christ, the backdrop of history was that Romania and Hungary were in a tug of war for the place where she lived. On top of all of this, there was the growing threat of Nazism, and communism. Life was chaotic, uncertain, and fraught with danger.

Although she had become Catholic and had plans to enter into formation with the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, Judith wanted to become a doctor. Because of her heritage, she was denied entry into medical school. She studied at the School of Social Work instead, which was run by the Sisters of Social Service. It was in this way that her first efforts were directed at the catechesis of adults and children, and also of establishing a children’s home in Cluj, Transylvania. In this work, she apparently had a tremendous influence on the faithful, and on other catechists and teachers. This was all done prior to any profession into the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, although she considered this her community.

Holocaust_Yellow_BadgeIn what was to be a defining moment for Judith and for the Sisters of Social Service, Judith still had to wear a yellow star that identified her as a Jew. This was something that would put her in real danger. It was at this time that despite the danger to the sisters, they welcomed her to the novitiate, as if she was a novice. This act of charitable shelter changed the course of many things.

Judith was faced with a stark choice. Enter and possibly be spared the fate of so many Jews, or be safe. This also meant choosing to not join her family, who were back home and being moved into the ghetto, and ultimately deported from their beloved Salonta. Many efforts were made to save the Fenyvesi family, directed by the sisters, but Judith’s mother, sisters and grandmother all died in concentration camps.

Yet, Judith lived, but her challenges were not over. She continued her faith and vocation journey, and also became involved in the Catholic Resistance movement during the communist takeover in Romania. Judith and two other women religious ended up becoming carriers of secret messages between priests and bishops, whose ties to Rome were severed by the communist regime.

In 1951 she was arrested for her activities and held under the harshest conditions for 28 months of interrogation and deprivation. This yielded her an authentic blow to religious and any other kind of freedom – a ten-year sentence as a political prisoner.

In all this time she apparently never turned to hatred, and while she struggled with how cruel humans could be to one another, she persisted. Her faith and commitment to God and to God’s people was profound, and her suffering was not without redemption. That said, her suffering, physical and emotional, was quite intense.

During her imprisonment, her prayerful presence was a consolation to other prisoners. She had befriended two women in prison, who were sisters, not religious but biological, and they were instrumental in a later chapter of Judith’s life. Nonetheless, she did suffer greatly, felt the pain of losing everything.

A release from prison in 1961 offered little in the way of real freedom or consolation. Now Judith found herself with little or no support on the outside, with almost no contact with her congregation. She was truly alone and it was yet another very difficult chapter of life. Approaching 40, she was unsure of where she would go and how she would live.

The years of prison and isolation from her community and the loss of her family, truly created someone who was adrift. The authorities forced her to live in a particular place and it was difficult to find work. Her life as a sister was still not fully realized in any way. As a former political prisoner she was always suspect and under observation. Despite some periodic visits to her community in Cluj, she remained disconnected. Yet her faith persisted, and she was blessed with people who did support her in various ways.

In a strange turn of events, she found herself among a group of Jews who were being released to Austria. The Romanian communist government would be paid for this act, and thus their false humanitarian action came to be! Once in Vienna, she established contact with her community and the tide began to turn for Judith. In an ironic situation, her Jewish roots, which led to her first persecution, also gained her freedom.

In Vienna Judith studied English and prepared for a new life; in 1964 she was able to move to Buffalo, NY to live with the Sisters of Social Service. It is here where her life truly turns, but that is not the story that I am here to tell you today. You can read all about that in her autobiography. (If the Sisters of Social Service sound familiar to you, it is because they have their own worthy story. Sister Simone Campell of Nuns on the Bus fame belongs to this order.)

What strikes me is that in Judith we find a woman, persecuted at many levels – for being a Jew, for being a woman religious, for being a Catholic. And even at her worst, she found the light of Christ to guide her on through many circumstances.

Always relying on God, Judith prevails. As we consider these two weeks of worthy women, Judith holds a place of honor among them. May she rest in the peace of the God that gave her a long and rich life, of many chapters, may her memory forever be a blessing. May she and others inspire us all.

“The song to my God continues to be sung. It is a song of gratitude for the blessings I have received as a member of the Sisters of Social Service.”
Sister Judith Fenyvesi

My empty word file mocks me and other tales of writing (updated)

tumblr_inline_mjpyglF4VQ1qz4rgpLately I have been at many events where writing comes up, and people say things like, “tell me about your blog?” *sigh* My ego happily grabs my business cards from my purse and tosses them like a spray of confetti on New Year’s Eve. Simultaneously my seemingly unstoppable jaw flaps with phrases like “Oh, I just write about faith and real life, that kind of thing.”

Except for when I don’t. You see, I haven’t written too much lately. Kind of like one of my favorite anti-heroes Peter Gibbons, from the movie Office Space, I stare at my computer a lot, along with all my notes, and it might look like I’m working. But I am not.

If you are a regular reader, you know this. If you are among those who picked up the confetti, you will quickly notice this. And I have been struggling with this off and on for some time now. Oh, the writer’s life!

First it was finishing up that last semester. Then it was graduation. Now it is… well, it is… I have a very big deadline approaching. Things were going along, and then thought I was there, but then I started to revisit and edit. So, about being there? Maybe not so much.tumblr_m1tmz8sgIp1r82bbmo1_500I do have things that I want to write about and I will be back. Hope versus optimism, a thought I got from a post written by Bridget at Women In Theology. Other thoughts focus on the catholicity of being a Catholic Christian, which got a boost from this post by Jana Bennett at Catholic Moral Theology, inspired by an editorial from Matt Malone, SJ, editor of America Magazine. There are a lot of short scriptural reflections on my mind, but never on paper these days.

BPA0305RF1238-MAnd what about the sacraments that I want to write about? There is a big draft about baptism that I have been wrestling with. Wisely or not, I would like to write about LGBT issues in the Church, and that is rolling around in the back of my brain. Pope Francis provides me with endless fodder, including the recent flap about who gets saved.  (Updating by adding this link from Stephen Colbert.) And my desires to write about Holy Orders, or how we might be church going forward, and why the Eucharist matters, are far greater than my ability to do so, as of this moment. The list goes on and on.

And what about the posts about hearing three great theologians in recent times? From Elizabeth Johnson CSJ in April, to Anthony Gittins C.S.Sp.,  and Richard Gaillardetz PhD in May, I am awash in thought about all of them.

Family_Guy_Get_Me_Started_Black_Shirt_POPPlus, the Fortnight for Freedom is coming, and I have promised to submit two pieces to Catholic Sensibility during those dates. No – not about the Fortnight for Freedom, which you do not want to get me started about – but for the Two Weeks of Worthy Women series that blog host Todd Flowerday initiated during the first Fortnight for Freedom. Last year I wrote about Thea Bowman and Gertrude of Helfta. This year… well, you will have to wait and see.

And I do have a family, the desire to spend time with them, as well as read books, garden, walk my dog, and sleep. Let’s not forget the full time employment either!

So that’s where I’m at. If you are a reader, I beg your patience. If you are new, maybe you will poke around and see what I have said before. Things like this, or this, or maybe this?