You can’t find this place on any map. You can’t buy a ticket at your travel agent to go there. But it exists, even today. It is an archipelago, a geographical term that means a chain of islands. It is a chain of islands across the face of Russia. It is the GULAG archipelago, as Solzhenitsyn described it in his book of the same name. Solzhenitsyn compared it to a sewer system down which were flushed millions of people. Who would want to go there? Who could survive such a place? Yet this man smiling in the above photograph did just that.
In 1929 Pius XI was very much aware that the Russian Orthodox Church was on the brink of annihilation by the Communist regime as witnessed by the decimation of the 148,000 religious 157,000 married priests, 21,000 celibate monks, 15,000 deacons, and 53,000 nuns to would be an all-time low of 4,000 priests by 1939. The pope called upon the Jesuits to go into Russia to aid those starving in mind and body and soul.
The 1929 establishment of the Russian Center [Russicum] in Rome was the initial training ground for those Jesuits who volunteered to respond to the Pope’s call. Walter J. Ciszek, a Polish-American, born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania in 1904, was one of those early volunteers. His mother and father were of Polish peasant stock and had gone to America in the 1890s and settled in the coal region of Shenandoah.
To judge by outwards appearances, he seemed to be a bully, a street fighter, and most of the fights he picked on purpose, just for the devilment. His father once took him to the police station and begged them to put him into reform school. In eighth grade Walter made up his mind to be a priest. His father, of course, refused to believe it. But he fooled them all and entered the Polish minor seminary.
“And I had to be tough. I’d get up at four-thirty in the morning to run five miles around the lake on the seminary grounds, or go swimming in November when the lake was little better than frozen. I still couldn’t stand to think that anyone could do something I couldn’t do, so one year during Lent I ate nothing but bread and water for the forty days –another year I ate no meat at all for the whole year –just to see if I could do it. ” [With God in Russia]
Then Ciszek read the life of St. Stanislaus Kostka, another tough Pole who fought his family and at fourteen walked from Warsaw to Rome to join the Jesuits. Ciszek was three years from ordination. He hated the idea of “perfect obedience”. But at age twenty-four without asking anyone’s advice he presented himself to the provincial at 501 East Fordham Road in the Bronx and said, “I’m going to be a Jesuit. On September 7, 1928 he reported to the novitiate in Poughkeepsie, New York. Early in his first year he volunteered to go to Russia and, surprisingly, he was accepted. Only one condition, he had to finish the course of studies first.At the end of his second year of philosophy, however, he was informed that he was to sail to Rome to begin his theological studies at the Russian College. On June 24, 1937 he was ordained and said his first Mass in the Russian rite.
Since no priest could travel directly into Russia, Ciszek was sent to Albertyn, Poland to work for two years teaching ethics to Jesuit seminarians and to be “a horse-and-buggy priest”. But on September 1, 1939 Hitler invaded Poland. The novices were sent home. And then the Russians invaded from the east. Ironically, Russia came to him.
The Russians took over the college, threw the books from the library into a dump truck, and left the Jesuits with nothing but the chapel. Then one day Ciszek went into the church to say Mass and found the tabernacle open, the altar cloths strewn about, and the Blessed Sacrament gone. It was the end of the Jesuit mission in Albertyn.
Father Ciszek and his inventive friend, Father Makar, managed to con their way onto one of the jammed trains going south to Lvov, the Jesuit theologate. For awhile Ciszek got a job driving a truck, but the one idea that plagued him was that this was the perfect time for his “invasion” of Russia. The roads were aswarm with refugees. A man could easily lose himself among them. The Russians were hiring large crowds of people to work the factories in the Urals. Finally, his superior said yes.and he obtained the permission of the Ukrainian Archbishop of Lvov, Metropolitan Andrew Sheptytzky, with special powers.
For the tricky Makar false identity papers were no problem. So Ciszek presented himself at the office of a big lumber combine as ‘Vladimir Lypinski, ” a widower whose family had died in a German air raid. On March 15, 1940 he boarded boxcar 089725 with twenty-five other people, an oil-drum stove, a slop bucket for a toilet, and not much else for the fifteen hundred-mile trip to Chusovoy in the Ural Mountains. The trip took two grinding, tedious weeks.
Through the summer of 1940 Walter worked as an unskilled laborer hauling logs from the river and stacking them in long rows on the bank. He was paid by the number of logs stacked, but with old-timers juggling the tallies and lodging deducted from his pay, he was broke within two weeks and had to begin pawning his few possessions to buy food. He had to sneak out into the woods to say Mass. In his spare time he memorized the prayers of the Mass against the time when his Mass kit might be discovered and confiscated. But for the time being his apostolate was loading logs and keeping his ears open.
Then one night early in June at 3 a. m. the barracks were surrounded by secret police. They searched everything. In Ciszek’s suitcase they found two bottles of white wine, a can of tooth powder, and some sheets of paper he had used to teach a little boy how to write. The agent claimed they were “bottles of nitrogylcerine, a tin of gunpowder, and a secret code. Vladimir Lypinski was arrested as a German spy.
For two months he was kept in a cell thirty by thirty feet with about a hundred other prisoners, never the same men, since as new prisoners were shoved in, others were taken out, never to be seen again. Those who did return were battered black and blue.
Finally one day he was called to the interrogation room. ‘Who are you?” He began the sad story of the widower Lypinski. The interrogator interrupted him: “No, no, no. You are not Lypinski, you are not Russian, and you are not a Pole. You are a priest and your name is Ciszek and you are a spy for the Germans. Now why don’t you tell us about it?”
He was stunned. He had no way of knowing how they had found him out. He admitted the story but for an hour uselessly denied that he was a spy for anyone. It was the first of many interrogations. Some were accompanied with rubber clubs, pressure devices on his head, starvation of his body, rubber tubes around his mid section, interrogation at all hours of the night, drugs in his blood stream, and these first three months of solitary confinement and punishment were increased to six and a cell mate was added in order to obtain a confession. During the six-month period, Father Walter maintained his by religious thought and in fact accomplished priestly work in the religious interrogation of his interrogators. Finally, after severe, brutal mind manipulation by the Lubianka interrogator and drugging by a medical doctor, Father did signed a paper of rigged confession. He describes this as one of the darkest moments in his life and yet out of the darkness came a deep conversion, a conversion to do always the will of God. [He Leadeth Me, p. 73] Several weeks later on July 26, 1942 he was summoned before a commissar at two o’clock in the morning. He had “confessed” and had been found guilty of espionage. The sentence was fifteen years at hard labor in Siberia. He did not know then that it would be four more years before he left Lubianka.
The next four years he calls his years of education at “Lubianka University.” Besides his previous routine, he did forty-five minutes of calisthenics every day, polished the floor twice a day, and sewed his clothes with needles he had made of fishbones from his soup. Since he had been convicted, the prison officials allowed him one book at a time and he read his way through Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Gogol, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Goethe–all in Russian. There were interrogations at irregular intervals, threats, offers of “deals,” but they became little more than irritating interruptions.
It may be eighteen hundred miles as the crow flies from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk, halfway across the Russian subcontinent, but it was all part of the same archipelago. By train it is twenty-five hundred miles. By boxcar with thirty men in a car, it takes two weeks and a large can of deodorant.
But Krasnoyarsk was not his destination Two days after he had arrived there, he was herded with two thousand other men onto barges in the Yenisei River for a twenty-day journey north to Norilsk. When they left Krasnoyarsk, it had been a sweltering hot day. When they arrived in Norilsk, it was stinging cold and snowing. They were now ten degrees north of the Arctic Circle. It was a motley collection of men: thieves, deserters, murderers, political prisoners–and one convicted Vatican spy. For twelve hours a day in the bitter cold Ciszek shoveled coal into freighters, still dressed in light cotton summer clothes with rags for shoes. Winter clothing was not issued until October when the temperature was thirty degrees below zero.
But for the first time in five years he met another priest and was able to say Mass. Polish prisoners had made wine out of stolen raisins, the paten was a cover for a gold watch, the chalice was a shot glass. “But my joy at being able to celebrate Mass again cannot be described. . . . I heard confessions regularly and from time to time was even able to distribute Communion secretly after I’d said Mass. The experience gave me new strength. I could function as a priest again, and I thanked God daily for the opportunity to work among this hidden flock, consoling and comforting men who had thought themselves beyond His grace.”
In December he was transferred to mining coal, ten hours at a stretch, with no breaks for food or rest. There was no running water in the new camp, so the men simply washed their faces and hands with snow. Everything froze- -the food, the dynamite and tools, hands and feet. With the railroad tracks three feet under snow and the river solid with ice, the camp was cut off from all supplies. in the spring thaw, at the end of May, the place was a sea of mud.
Walter Ciszek worked in the mines “about a year,” then in 1947 he became a construction worker in an ore processing plant, a better job since there was water to drink and blankets on the beds. Once every ten days, the men got a shower and turned in their old underwear for a clean set. Their other clothes were washed every three months. After work he heard confessions as the men walked around the prison yard. And once the commandant’s quarters had cleared for the day, he said Mass undetected right in the offices. At times he said Mass in the hospital examination rooms. He even began giving retreats.
In October, 1953 Ciszek was again sent to work in the mines. It was bitter cold and the work was brutalizing, but he was able to make thirty dollars a month which meant he could eat a little better. He worked in the mines for two more years–in this story “years” have the danger of looking like “days.” But as his sentence drew agonizingly toward a close, his one fear was that he would have an accident in the mine within days of his release.
Finally on April 22, 1955 with three years off for work quotas surpassed, his sentence was up. He walked out of the prison a free man. The scene was quite humorous. [He Leadeth Me, p. 168] He had survived fifteen years of hell. He had survived the GULAG but now he was cast adrift on the vast sea of Siberia. His freedom of movement was limited to the town of Norilsk, so for three years he worked there in a chemical factory. Most of the girls in the plant knew he was a priest and they covered for him if he came in late or had to leave early for a Mass or wedding or baptism. He even made several converts among them. After awhile he became so busy that he had to rotate the places for his three Sunday Masses.
One of the first things Ciszek had done when he was released from the labor camp was to get permission from the secret police to write to his sisters in America. Suddenly a letter came. They were astonished that he was alive. For the first time since 1939, almost twenty years, someone in America knew that Walter Ciszek was still alive.
By Easter of 1958 there were so many people in Norilsk for his midnight Mass that there was hardly room in the converted barracks for anyone else. Several men from the secret police, however, found space. The following Wednesday he was summoned by the KGB and given ten days to leave Norilsk “and never think of coming back.” Ten days later a KGB jeep took him to the airport and put him on a plane to Krasnoyarsk. After twelve years he was leaving the Arctic.”By my second month at Krasnoyarsk, I had thriving mission parishes on the Pravi Biereg and in the outskirts and suburbs of the city. One German settlement out beyond the Yenisei station took over a whole barrack when I said Mass. More than eight hundred people attended, and there were baptisms and marriages before and after Mass sometimes for hours. I served another German community in a kolkhoz farther out and, since I still had my regular parish and the ‘missions’ on the Right Bank, I had to hold these suburban services on Saturday. . . . I worked sometimes around the clock, getting no sleep at all for more than seventy-two hours.”[With God in Russia] He was called into the KGB office, his passport was canceled, and he was given forty-eight hours to get out of town.
He got a job as an auto mechanic in Abakan, one hundred miles south of Krasnoyarsk and remained there for four more years. Once again “‘years” begin to sound like “weeks.” In April of 1963 he received a letter from his sister Helen saying she had finally received a visa to visit Russia in June. The KGB which had denied it over and over again, miraculously gave Ciszek permission to meet his sister in Moscow, but only for twelve days. June came and went. There was a delay in his sister’s visa. He waited.
Then, abruptly, in early October he was summoned late at night by the KGB, told to quit his job, and be ready to leave for Moscow in three days. He left the meeting knowing nothing of where he was going or why. The prison camps again? Lubianka? Merely to meet his sisters?
He was met in Moscow by agents of the KGB, taken to a hotel, and for three days, inexplicably, given a VIP tour of the capital. They still refused to answer his questions. Without warning on October 12, 1963 Ciszek was told to pack; he was taken to the Moscow airport and introduced to a man named Kirk from the American consulate. “I couldn’t figure anything out. The KGB agent was nervous. Kirk was nervous–but about what? Everybody stood around for a moment in silence, as if they were at a wake. Finally, Kuznetsov said, ‘Well, shall we get it over with?’
“‘Good,’ said Kirk, ‘let’s get it over with.” The two of them shook hands, then Mr. Kirk turned to me. ‘Father Ciszek, would you come over here?’ I went over to the table as Mr. Kirk pulled a paper from his inside coat pocket. ‘Would you sign this?’ He handed me a pen and I signed; I was so badly confused I hadn’t even the sense to notice what I was signing.
“‘Now, Father Ciszek,’ said Mr. Kirk, ‘you’re an American citizen.’
“‘Really?’ I asked, momentarily stunned. ‘It’s all like a fairy tale,’ I mumbled.
“‘Yes, it’s a fairy tale, but a fine fairy tale. And it’s true.”‘ Even at that moment, he had no idea that he was to be exchanged for a Russian spy apprehended in the United States. Numbly he boarded the plane. “Suddenly, the plane gathered speed. I blessed myself, then turned to the window as we took off. The plane swung up in a big circle; there were the spires of the Kremlin in the distance. Slowly, carefully, I made the sign of the cross over the land that I was leaving.” [With God in Russia]
Father Ciszek continued his priestly work in the John XXIII Center at Fordham University [which now is known as the Center For Eastern Christian Studies and is located at the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pennsylvania] by giving retreats, talks, counseling to many people who came to see him until his death on the feast of Our Lady, December 8, 1984.
Almost immediately after his death, a petition to recognize his heroic virtues and outstanding holiness was circulated by Mother Marjia, the superior of the Byzantine Carmelite monastery Father Ciszek had helped to found. Five years later Bishop Michael J. Dudick began the official diocesan process of investigation for the Eparchy of Passaic and the Father Walter Ciszek Prayer League was formally incorporated as the Official Organization for the Promotion of the Cause of Canonization of Father Walter Ciszek. With the arrival of Bishop Andrew Pataki as the head of the eparchy of Passaic, the cause was transferred to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown [in which see Shenandoah is located]. The Father Walter Ciszek Prayer League is now located at 231 North Jardin Street in Shenandoah, PA 17976-1642.
This article taken from the website of The Father Walter Ciszek Prayer League. (www.ciszek.org)