April 15, 2016

Meet the Only Nun Sentenced to Death by a Nazi Court: Her Crime? "Hanging" Crucifixes*

IT MAKES SENSE TO ME

By Larry Peterson

*An edited version of this article appeared in Aleteia on April 12, 2016.

Just imagine being arrested on Ash Wednesday for the crime of “hanging Crucifixes”. I cannot imagine how I would handle it. Maybe I would have taken the Crucifixes down. Honestly, I do not know. Helena Kafka, who became known as Sister Maria Restituta, refused. She was sentenced to death. The following year, on Tuesday of Holy Week, she was executed .

May 1, 1894, was  a happy day for Anton and Marie Kafka.  Marie had just given birth to her sixth child and mom and her daughter were both doing fine. The proud parents named their new baby girl, Helena.  Devout Catholics, Anton and Marie had Helena baptized into the faith only thirteen days after her birth.

The ceremony took place in The Church of the Assumption, in the town of Husovice, located in Austria.  Before Helena reached her second birthday, the family had to move and settled in the city of Vienna.  This is where Helena and her siblings would remain and grow up.

Helena was a good student and worked hard. She received her First Holy Communion in St. Brigitta Church during May of 1905 and was confirmed in the same church a year later. After eight years of school she spent another year in housekeeping school and, by the age of 15, was working as a servant, a cook and being trained as a nurse.

In 1913, she became an assistant nurse at Lainz City Hospital. This was Helena's first contact with the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity and she was immediately moved to become a Sister herself.  On April 25, 1914, Helena Kafka  joined the Franciscan sisters and on October 23, 1915, became Sister Maria Restituta. She made her final vows one year later and began working solely as a nurse.

When World War I ended Sister Maria was the lead surgical nurse at Modling Hospital in Vienna.  She and all other Austrians had never heard of Adolf Hitler and could never have imagined that one day, because of this man, their beloved nation would be annexed into the German Republic.
Blessed Maria Restituta

On  March 12, 1938, the Austrian Nazi Party pulled off a successful coup d'etat taking control of the government. These unforeseen and unimagined things had come to pass. The Nazis, under Hitler, now controlled the once proud Austrian nation.

Sister Restituta was very outspoken in her opposition to the Nazi regime. When a new wing to the hospital was built she hung a Crucifix in each of the new bedrooms. The Nazis demanded that they be removed. Sister Restituta was told she would be dismissed if she did not comply. She refused and the crucifixes remained hanging on the walls. 

One of the doctors on staff, a fanatical Nazi, would have none of it. He denounced her to the Nazi Party and on Ash Wednesday, 1942, she was arrested by the Gestapo after coming out of the operating room. The "charges" against her included, "hanging crucifixes and writing a poem that mocked Hitler”.

Sister Maria Restituta, the former Helena Kafka, loved her Catholic faith and, filled with the Spirit, wanted to do nothing more than serve the sick. The Nazis promptly sentenced her to death by the guillotine for "favouring the enemy and conspiracy to commit high treason".  The Nazis offered her freedom if she would abandon the Franciscans she loved so much.  She adamantly refused. She would be the only Catholic nun ever sentenced to death by the Nazis.

An appeal for clemency went as far as the desk of Hitler's personal secretary and Nazi Party Chancellor, Martin Bormann. His response was that her execution "would provide effective intimidation for others who might want to resist the Nazis".  Sister Maria Restituta spent her final days in prison caring for the sick. Because of her love for the Crucifix and the Person who was nailed to it and died on it, she was beheaded on March 30, 1943 which also happened to be Tuesday of Holy Week. She was 48 years old.
                                                   
Pope John Paul II visited Vienna on June 21,1998.  That was the day Helena Kafka, the girl who originally went to housekeeping school to learn how to be a servant, was beatified by the Pope and declared Blessed Maria Restituta.  She had learned how to serve extremely well. But the one she served best of all was her Savior. She gave Him her life.

Blessed Marie Restituta, please pray for us.
    

          ©LarryPeterson  2016