By Fr. Joseph, MIC
Eyewitnesses tell of how they could hear the crunch of the snow under the soldiers’ feet as a bonfire in the yard outside flickered, casting eerie shadows through the church windows. They could see the orange glow of the midnight fire illuminating the newly consecrated Host being elevated in the hands of Fr. George Kaszyra.
The soldiers’ angry words being shouted in German contrasted harshly with the peaceful words of the Eucharistic Prayer inside the parish church in Rosica, Belarus.
Most of the people huddled in the church didn’t understand what the Nazi soldiers were saying, but they knew that when the morning light crept through the frosted windows, it would probably be their last dawn before seeing heaven’s light.
Worry and anxiety darkened the face of nearly every person being held in the church. They looked to Fr. George for hope, for courage, for consolation.
The light of the bonfire outside was a constant reminder of their fate and that of the other half of their Catholic community. Their friend and pastor, Fr. Anthony Leszczewicz, along with dozens of other believers, had been burned to death the previous morning.
They expected to be next.
The people’s faith in God was inspired by the heroic example of their priests. Fathers Anthony and George had been detained by the Nazis, but were told they could go free and avoid the same fate as the flock they had been faithfully pastoring.
However, both priests — members of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception — decided to stay with their people to the end. They spent their final days hearing confessions, celebrating Mass, and baptizing converts to Catholicism.
The following morning, Fr. George, pale from exhaustion, asked for prayers as he was led out of the church. Then he and around 30 people who’d been held in the church were loaded onto a sleigh and driven to an old wooden house. After the detainees had been locked inside, the German soldiers tossed grenades into the building and opened fire. It was then set aflame.
The two Marian Martyrs were among more than 1,500 laypeople and dozens of religious in Belarus, killed by the Nazis in February of 1943. The Germans were rounding up all who resisted their occupation of the land formerly held by the Soviet Union. Many others were sent to Nazi work camps in Poland.
Ten years ago, on June 13, Fathers George and Anthony were honored for their faith and their courage when Pope John Paul II beatified them among a group of 108 World War II martyrs — diocesan priests, religious, nuns, and laypeople — in Warsaw Poland.
These men bear witness to the victory of Christ over death, the pope said to the crowd of more than one million people who gathered for the event.
“Though we see in [our] history, the painful signs of the action of evil, we are certain that in the end, evil will not prevail over the fate of man and the world; it cannot win,” he said.
“Today we are celebrating the victory of those who, in our century, gave their lives for Christ … in order to possess life forever in His glory,” he continued. “If we rejoice today for the beatification of 108 Martyrs — clergy and laypeople — we do so above all because they bear witness to the victory of Christ, the gift which restores hope.”
For the Marians, the 10-year anniversary of the beatification provides an opportunity to reflect upon our own call to share in the triumph of Christ. The Martyrs’ heroic stand for Christ is a reminder of what all religious are called to — whether or not they are called to martyrdom.
Both Blessed Anthony and Blessed George lived out their vocation and imitated Christ in their decision to remain with their people to death. Their decision underscores how that which you have received as a gift, you’re called to give as a gift to others. The Marians have already received so many gifts. We’re called, then, to give them back for the building up of the kingdom. Jesus did this perfectly and completely on the cross.
Both Blessed Anthony and Blessed George embodied that. They lived that Marian charism, staying with their flock and not running away. That inspires us to persevere to the end. Like these two martyrs, we’re called to humble service in the Church — to obediently go wherever the need is greatest and stay there until the job is done.
Their faith and works of mercy are a valuable lesson for all of us — both Marians and Marian Helpers. God calls us to a daily witness of faith, and that witness is going to cost us something. It may not mean our death, but some kind of discomfort, hardship, or even humiliation.
Finally, for us as Marians, I think that these two martyrs are a timely reminder of the charge of our Renovator, Blessed George Matulaitis-Matulewicz (1871-1927), who called us to go and serve wherever the need was greatest “For Christ and the Church.”
The martyrs went to this place in Belarus where no one else wanted to go. There, they served their flock faithfully under trying wartime conditions — even to the point of giving their lives.
I wish to share two of the many first-hand accounts of their deeds, published in the book The Marian Martyrs of Rosica(Marian Press). The first is from Sr. Hedwig Wirszuto, SJE, of Slobodka:
Father Anthony Leszczewicz, as the Superior of the mission in Rosica from 1941 to 1943, felt responsible for us Sisters. It was at his request that Mother Superior sent young Sisters to do missionary work. Therefore, he asked us officially if we wanted to go back to Druja or to stay despite the impending danger.
All the Sisters filed a declaration in writing that they had decided to stay with the priests and didn’t want to go back to Druja. He presented this declaration to our Mother Superior. This shows how experienced in life and prudent the priests were. At the end of 1942, we could tell that danger was near. The partisans began to intensify their activities. We went through a difficult moment in Borsuki when they assaulted the house where we slept, and again in Rosica itself when they stormed the rectory at night just before the All Saints Day celebration. A few times they also harassed Fr. Leszczewicz to make him meet with them.
But even though the priests knew well that danger was approaching, they did not leave the parish but continued to do their pastoral work. We were even traveling around less, concentrating more on work within the church. The faithful were seeking more and more support at church, so how could we leave them without help?
On Sunday, February 14, 1943, Fr. George Kaszyra was left alone in the church in Rosica because Fr. Leszczewicz went to Dryssa where there was no priest. People were warning him of the danger. They even tried to keep him there because the special troops were already beginning their march from the Latvian border. Still, Fr. Leszczewicz went back to his post. His religious brother, younger friend, and vicar, Fr. Kaszyra, was there. The Sisters he had brought for missionary work were there. His parishioners remained there. So, like a good shepherd, he went back to his flock. On his way he was met by partisans, but they let him go because he was a priest.
On Tuesday, February 16, bells began to ring. The Germans rounded up the first groups of people and held them in the church in Rosica: Mothers with babies, children, youngsters, and old people. They also herded us Sisters inside. In the church there was shouting, crying, and despair. At the request of Fr. Leszczewicz, a German read out our names and ordered the Sisters to leave the church and go to the rectory. The priests stayed in the church during all of Tuesday and all night. They celebrated Holy Masses, listened to confessions, and administered other sacraments.
On Wednesday, February 17, Fr. Kaszyra came to the rectory, heard our confessions, and gave us Holy Communion. During the day, the priests persevered in their priestly ministry in the church. We kept bringing bread, milk, and whatever we had to the church, especially for the children.
In the afternoon of February 17, about 4 p.m., Fr. Leszczewicz appeared. He said farewell to us. He was full of joy. He said with a smile: “Bear up and pray. I am going to show them the warehouse.” And he never came back. When we tried to return to the church, the officer stopped us and didn’t let us in. He said that Fr. Kaszyra would come right back. Late in the evening, Fr. Kaszyra actually returned and said to us: “Father Leszczewicz is already dead and tomorrow I will be dead, too.”
At night, from Wednesday to Thursday, February 17-18, the Sisters were continually praying in a bedroom. In the dining room, Fr. Kaszyra kept vigil all night long. He was praying, walking around, kneeling, and prostrating himself. On Thursday, February 18, he brought the Blessed Sacrament from the church and distributed it among us. At 10 a.m., Fr. George Kaszyra was taken away. In front of the church, he was ordered to mount the sledge. He was taken away among many other sledges. He bade farewell to us, turned toward Druja, and then said: “Pray and ask forgiveness from God for my sins, because I will face God’s judgment in a few minutes.”
Together with Sister Rozalia Marcilonek, we went back to the rectory and we looked through the window at the entire convoy. Father. George Kaszyra was in the first sledge. They went uphill and turned right. A moment later, the entire hut erupted in flames. Rosica and the neighboring villages were being burned. The whole sky was on fire; and when the fires burned out, partially burned bodies, piled together, could be seen.
I am unshakably convinced that the priests consciously and voluntarily stayed with the people and didn’t want to leave their flock, even though they had a chance to gain their freedom many times. They wanted to remain with their parishioners until the end, until death. They accepted martyrdom for the Faith.
The following is another eyewitness account, from Domic Marchel, of Rosica:
From 1941 to 1943, I attended religion classes in Rosica, taught by the Sisters and priests. At this time, I met Fr. Leszczewicz and Fr. Kaszyra. We attended classes very eagerly, and listened to the stories about Jesus and His mother with great interest. As children, we could see the great faith of the priests and the Sisters and their love of God, and we also experienced their love for us. We were poor, rural children and we felt that the priests loved us. We loved them too. All we could see was goodness and kindness. They addressed us in our local language. They never raised their voices to us. It was enough to say silence — and we were immediately quiet. This instruction prepared me for my First Confession and Holy Communion.
During the pacification, the Germans apprehended me and I found myself in the church as early as February 16, 1943. Father Leszczewicz was saying Mass and then he climbed the pulpit and gave the sermon. He tried to calm and console us since there was great wailing and lamentation. Germans walked around the church and formed groups of people. They subsequently took them to the school and burned them there. The priests were allowed to come and distribute bread and water among the children. So, they were free.
I heard from people that the Germans wanted to set the priests free. They actually ordered them to leave Rosica. The priests pleaded and begged on behalf of the people. They pointed out their innocence. They said: “If you set everybody free, we will go with them. If you don’t, we will stay too.”
May all of us — Marians and Marian Helpers — be inspired by the faithfulness and mercy of these men. May their prayers aid us as we seek to follow their inspiring example. Blessed George and Blessed Anthony, pra