Mother Roza Czacka, left, and Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, two 20th century Polish saints, will be beatified together.

Profiles in courage and faith: Mother Roza Czacka, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski

  • September 9, 2021

In life, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski and Mother Róza Czacka led their Polish countrymen with courage and humble service. Now the 20th century compatriots will be beatified together.

Mother Roza Czacka

Catholic Register Special

I just finished a summer job with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, founded in 1918 to assist Canadian veterans who had lost their sight in the Great War. It has since become a place many Canadians turn to when dealing with vision loss.

But I also learned this summer about a remarkable woman who founded a religious community to provide support for the blind at about the same time the CNIB got started. The story of Róża Czacka is an inspiring story for the blind — for she was blind herself — but also for all Catholics, as she was a woman of great holiness and service.

Foundress of the Congregation of Franciscan Sisters Servants of the Cross in Poland, she will be beatified Sept. 12 alongside the colossus of the post-war Polish Church, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, Primate of Poland.

Although Róża lived a very different life from the cardinal, they knew each other and shared a common spiritual father. During the dark days of the Second World War, when Wyszyński was not able to exercise his ministry openly, he spent part of those “hidden” years with the community she founded, teaching — and he insisted, being taught by — the children. They had a deep spiritual friendship and Wyszyński conducted her funeral Mass, preaching that, despite her blindness, Róża saw more clearly than most.

Wyszyński was supposed to be beatified in June 2020, but it was delayed due to the pandemic. During the delay, Róża’s cause for beatification was approved. Happily, and fittingly, they will now be beatified together.

Róża Czacka was born in Kjiv, Ukraine in 1876 to Feliks Czacka and Zofia Ledóchowska, the sixth of seven children. The affluent family was able to provide her with the highest quality education, with elite tutors helping her to become proficient in French, English, German and Russian.

Outside of the classroom, Róża was a gifted artist and athlete. Along with being an accomplished pianist, the young child excelled as a singer and dancer. She had a passion for equestrian pursuits.

Róża’s vision had already begun to deteriorate due to a hereditary eye disease when she detached both of her retinas during a horse-riding accident. She was 22 years old and was totally blind.

Róża’s blindness was frightening and overwhelming to herself and her family. Her courage and her family’s wealth made new opportunities possible. She visited patients of ophthalmology clinics and raised funds for those with sight loss in Warsaw. There were few resources for blind and partially sighted individuals in Poland at the time. Róża travelled to western Europe to learn how to provide institutional care for the blind.

Róża returned to Warsaw in 1910 and set in motion plans to establish a drop-in shelter for young women with blindness. She aspired to teach them lessons in braille, provide management for their conditions, and provide a safe haven for protection.

As the popularity of her shelter increased, she expanded the services to men. In 1911, she officially founded the Society for the Care of the Blind. Designing a new system of providing support for the blind, Róża  aimed to teach them independence.

Róża further worked to abolish the negative perceptions applied to individuals with sight loss at that time. She wrote papers, appeals and memoranda in attempts to popularize knowledge about those living with vision loss. Ultimately, she sought to establish some semblance of dignity during a time in which visually impaired individuals were neglected and mistreated.

In 1917, Róża joined the Third Order of St. Francis and later founded a new order of nuns, the Franciscan Sister Servants of the Cross. Now known as Mother Elżbieta, she devoted the new order to provide support and education for the blind.

In 1934, her primary project, the adaptation of the Braille alphabet to the Polish language, was adopted by the Polish Ministry of Education for usage in all Polish schools for students with vision loss.

As a result of illness, “Matka Czacka”, as she is popularly known, withdrew from active work in 1950 and died in Laski, where she had established her institute, on May 15, 1961. At the funeral Mass for his friend, Cardinal Wyszyński said that Matka Czacka clearly saw Christ in those who were blind. She was part of a long tradition of religious foundresses caring for the marginalized, but was also a trailblazer who opened up new opportunities to the blind community in Poland. Moreover, in her own sufferings, she offered penance for the spiritual blindness of the world.

Cardinal Wyszyński is mostly linked in both the Catholic and secular memory to Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, the “other” Polish cardinal who became St. John Paul II. But he was a closer friend, and now a fellow blessed, with Matka Czacka.

(Trolio is a member of Frassati House, Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ont.)

Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski

The Catholic Register

If Canada has too much geography and not enough history, as the saying goes, then Poland has too much history and not enough geography — and in the wrong place.

Poland lived the 20th century sandwiched between German Nazism and Russian communism. Nevertheless, grace abounded all the more in the heroic figures of St. John Paul II, St. Faustina, St. Maximilian Kolbe and Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, to name only the most famous Polish saints.

Not as well known, but prominent among their ranks is Venerable Stefan Wyszyński, Archbishop of Warsaw and Primate of Poland, and about to be “Blessed” with a Sept. 12 beatification service.

The great primate led the Polish Church for 33 years and upon his death in 1981, St. John Paul II praised him as “the keystone of the unity of the church in Poland” and “the protagonist” of so much recent Polish history.

Stefan Wyszyński was born in Russia-occupied Poland in 1901. Despite suffering from chronic poverty, poor health — bouts of tuberculosis and typhus — and the loss of his mother at nine, Wyszynski remained strong in his faith due to his father, a parish organist. On his 23rd birthday, he was ordained a priest and celebrated his first Mass at the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa, a devotion his learned from his father’s piety.

Czestochowa is the spiritual capital of Poland. Some two decades later, Karol Wojtyla — later Pope John Paul II — would celebrate his first Mass at St. Leonard’s Crypt under Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, the cultural capital of Poland.

From the first days of their priesthood, those two priests would lead the spiritual and cultural resistance to the totalitarianisms imposed on Catholic Poland.

Wyszyński was made bishop of Lublin in 1946, and then only two years later archbishop of Warsaw and Primate of Poland. Over the next three decades he would do daily battle with Soviet-imposed communism for the faith, culture and liberty of his people.

“The eighth sacrament in the life of the Church is martyrdom,” Wyszyński would write. Poland had martyrs in abundance. Poles had shown that they could die. Now the challenge was to live.

“I was of the opinion,” writes Wyszynski, “that the modern world needed another kind of martyrdom — the martyrdom of work, not of blood.”

In 1953, the same year he was created a cardinal, Wyszyński was seized by the Communist regime and kept under house arrest for three years. During that time, he kept a record of his experiences in a diary later published, A Freedom Within: The Prison Notes of Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski.

The Polish government incarcerated eight bishops, 1,000 priests and more than 1,000 nuns. The communist regime confiscated Church property and spread discrediting propaganda. But it was not enough. Wyszyński kept his ministry alive while under confinement.

By 1956, the regime’s strategy had failed. The Church was not broken. Poland’s communists wanted to release Wyszyński; the wily primate knew that he, temporarily, had the advantage. So he negotiated the terms under which he would agree to be released.

During his three years in confinement, he conceived an audacious program of pastoral renewal that would strengthen the Church under communism. He proposed the “Great Novena” — nine years of preparation for the 1000th anniversary of Poland’s “baptism” in 966.

Architect of the Great Novena, which touched every single village and parish in Poland, Cardinal Wyszyński became known simply as the Primate of the Millennium.

The novena included a “pilgrimage” of a replica of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa to every parish in Poland. The pilgrimage was temporarily thwarted when communist security services arrested the painting.

No matter. Cardinal Wyszynski ordered the pilgrimage to continue with an empty frame, simultaneously embarrassing and enraging the regime.

As part of his release in 1956, Cardinal Wyszyński upheld the right for the Polish Church to nominate its own bishop-candidates in a back-and-forth negotiation with the government. The process would produce an archbishop of Krakow whom the communists thought “lacked leadership qualities” — Karol Wojtyla.

For the great Millennium itself in 1966, the communist authorities blocked Wyszyński’s invitation to Pope St. Paul VI. Cardinal Wyszynski celebrated the Millennium Mass with empty throne before the hundreds of thousands who had gathered. On the throne was a portrait of Paul VI. Thirteen years later, that seat would be filled by a Polish Pope during his first papal visit to Poland in 1979.

St. John Paul II was the great hero of the defeat of Soviet communism. The Primate of the Millennium had prepared the way.

Comments (0)

There are no comments posted here yet

Leave your comments

  1. Posting comment as a guest. Sign up or login to your account.
Attachments (0 / 3)
Share Your Location

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.