Sisters Reunite: Sisters of Social Service from Taiwan to Slovakia Converge on Hungary to Mark Community's 75th Anniversary. (Religious Life)

Article excerpt

Last August, a group of Sisters of Social Service found ourselves in a small cemetery in Cluj, Romania, the town where our community had its district headquarters before religious life was declared illegal by the communist government in 1947. We were from California, Canada, Taiwan and Slovakia, on an extraordinary pilgrimage in search of our roots.

We were taken to the sisters' plot, surrounded by an iron fence and bordered by flowers. Here lay our deceased sisters in Romania, all interred together. A memorial plaque the size of a desktop contained their names and dates of death. It was an emotional rendezvous.

We Sisters of Social Service have, since called upon by the Second Vatican Council, examined our history and charism in the light of our own times so that we may be of service to the world. Our case, however, was different from most other congregations. Communism had cut us off, not only from our roots but from our own sisters, who were in turn cut off from each other.

Being in the presence of these valiant Romanian women, therefore, who during 40 years of religious suppression had lived their religious lives in secrecy, moved me to tears. Memories went around. Of Sr. Augusta, for example, foundress of the Romanian branch of our community, who for years harbored a strong desire to bring the sisters together for Pentecost, our feast day. But, given the political situation and her own experience as a prisoner for her faith, she knew this was out of the question. Her heart's desire was unexpectedly granted when she died in 1973 near Pentecost and all the sisters gathered for her funeral, in spite of considerable danger.

Now here were 180 of Augusta's sisters gathered to celebrate our 75th anniversary in the birthplace of our community.

The Sisters of Social Service were founded in Hungary in 1923 to address urgent social needs of the time. Observing the Benedictine balance between work and prayer, the early sisters worked among the people, wearing uniforms rather than habits -- a progressive gesture in those days -- and developing innovative services such as a summer camp for Gypsy children and a probation program for women.

Margaret Slachta, one of our founding sisters and the first woman elected to the Hungarian parliament, was a strong advocate for women, children and families. With the spread of anti-Semitism in the 1930s and 1940s, hers was one of the few voices to speak out for the Jewish people. She and the sisters are credited with hiding and saving 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust.

Slachta aspired to bring her vision to other countries. In 1923 she and some sisters traveled to Buffalo, N.Y., to raise funds: The community back home was itself suffering the very economic and political pressures it sought to alleviate. Within three years, a permanent house had been established in Buffalo and two new groups were formed in Canada and California. Since then, communities have been founded in Cuba, Mexico, the Philippines and Taiwan.

Given our congregation's social and political activism, it is no wonder the communist government in Hungary found the sisters threatening. From 1947 until the collapse of communism in 1989, the Sisters of Social Service were forbidden to practice their vocations or admit new members. …