SISTER OF OUR GOD
It was a cold February day 2015. In the headquarter of the District Chamber of Nurses and Midwives in Lesser Poland in Szlak 61 street in Cracow, Mrs. Helena Matoga, a vice- postulator of the beatification process of Hanna Chrzanowska, was waiting for me. She had prepared some materials which I could use when writing a book about the unusual nurse, and she also invited some people who had known Hanna. The first person was Mrs. Aleksandra Opalska a student of Hanna whom she had met at the beginning of the 50s of the XX century. Nearly at once I was struck by her enthusiasm and extremely vivid, very plastic remembrance of those first meetings which took place over 60 years ago.
It was an extraordinary person – Mrs. Aleksandra said enthusiastically – she made up various things in order to bring a relief to the chronically ill. One of such ill people was a woman who had no provided care for a week. Only on Saturday did her sister use to come to her. So, Mrs. Chrzanowska came up with an idea to cut out a hole in a chair. A bucket was put under the chair so that the ill woman could use it as a toilet. At the end of the week her sister used to come, then I used to come to put her into bed till Sunday evening. There were not any pampers, there was not anything. It was the only case. In the situation of another woman Mrs. Hanna made up another ‘invention’. A kind of a tray for excrements was made from oilcloth in bed and a piece of clean lignin was added. Urine remained in this tray which was emptied during a visit in the evening. And it was how she existed. Pampers were a real revolution in the care about the ill.
When today we are reading about such situations, we can rub our eyes from surprise. And when I was listening to this story – I was rubbing my eyes (certainly, not literally) and was wondering why my interlocutor was so delighted when speaking about those primitive solutions, as if they were inventions ranking the Noble prize.
After two years of working on the book and talks with lots of nurses I understood it. This amazement was raised by a fervent love of their teacher to the ill, full of inventions and not inhibited by any obstacles, love which she passed over to her students and also hundreds of people whom she encouraged to take up this unusual work – a parish care about the chronically ill in Cracow. This love had its roots in another Love about which Hanna once wrote: ‘…I was walking, probably, at dusk, along Krowoderska street (on the side of buildings with odd numbers, still not being aware that it was the parish church of St. Florian, not Szczepan) – and then: ‘we are helping Christ carry his cross’ – I was not thinking ‘Christ in the ill’. Christ directly’.
On 28 April 2018 the author of these words is to be beatified by the Catholic church.
Hanna Chrzanowska came from a good family. Her father was Ignacy Chrzanowski, a prominent professor of Polish literature, whereas her mother was Wanda from the Szlenker family – a daughter of a known family in Warsaw – the Szlenkier family of industrialists and philanthropists. Her aunt was Zofia Szlenkier who funded the first pediatric hospital in Warsaw by her possessions inherited from her parents. She named it after her dad and her mum – Karol and Maria.
As a child, Hanna was a patient of this hospital and it might have played an important role in choosing her direction in her life:
‘…although I am thinking about doctors of the hospital named Karol and Maria with real acknowledgment, it was not them who scooped my heart.
At night I was nursed by Miss Aniela – I do not know her surname. It seems that she worked at the hospital for a short time.
If I was writing a novel, not a diary, surely Miss Aniela would have become the central character in it. A small patient gets succumbed to the charm of the nurse who raises a flame in her! Certainly she would have had to become younger by four, five or six years at least, so that the flame would have been able to gush according to the rules: ‘au milieu de sa plus tender enfance (literally: in her sweet childhood this is probably a reference to the expression – Nous nous aimions tous deux des la plus tender enfance – We loved each other early in the childhood -from Tebaida Racine).
However, I was feeling really ill and I felt the care of Miss Aniela really deeply. When I left hospital, I wrote a praise of it. Miss Aniela received the confession of my love and it helped me recall what I meant then. I meant a kind of delicacy, kindness, voice, touch, a person in the half-light of a night lamp, a quiet person, who reacted to my requests quickly.
The introduction to my novel was as follows: ‘and that night decided about her whole life’. However, it was not probably only that night, as Hanna had been brought up in the spirit of serving and helping others. Soon after her time spent in hospital, she was to receive ten rubles on the occasion of her birthday, with a suggestion of assigning them to support a patient. He was so poor that he had no clothes to wear when leaving hospital.
‘So, my Mother took to New World district – she writes – and we bought everything: underwear, stockings, shoes and clothes – I remember a navy blue sweater with a red rim.
And – what a luck! – my aunt let me pass the threshold of the paradise! I saw a big hall, animals, Mrs. Terpiłowska was putting on clothes on a baby (the baby was pale and very embarrassed – so was I and I do not remember helping her).
Today, looking at this fragment of my childhood, I evaluate the most important pedagogical method in it. I do not mean here the very gift – (I was so gifted and abundant with so many things), but a way of giving the gift, not anonymous for an ‘unknown purpose’, but a particular poor man and also a way giving me joy’. So, this woman from a good family, of high level of good manners and highly intellectual, decided somehow get down the social ladder and become a nurse. A lot of people she knew were surprised by it. ‘A daughter of the Chrzanowski family is going to serve to the ill?’It was perceived nearly as a misalliance. However, her parents respected and supported her decision. And she was determined.
However, she did not choose this way for other reasons than people. When in the 20s of the last century he was learning her job as a nurse, and then she worked as a nurse, her attitude to religion was reluctant. Many years later she wrote in her diary: ‘A sixteen-year-old girl with peritonitis was brought to me. I was looking at her suffering: the suffering of the girl and her father. I do not know what made me feel grief more.
The situation was hopeless and a priest came then. Unfortunately, I found him unnecessary in hospital, as if he was artificially. Was it caused only by my cocky negative atheism, or his way of being stiff, lack of smile towards us, lack of willingness for cooperation ?’
At that time he did not see a connection between what she did and God’s commandment of love towards a neighbor. When she reminisces her stay at nurses’ school, she writes:
‘But although I was learnt to be determined, sacrificial without any reservations, although on our school brochure among other inscriptions there was a word ‘service’- how far I was from man, serving him and being so close, how far I was from the spirit of evangelical service. I did not even think about serving to God, it was so far from me, I was far from thinking about living to the glory of God’.
Surely it was due to her upbringing. She describes her parents as atheists. Her mother spent ‘long years in suffering of pessimistic atheism’, her father was ‘a positive liberal then’.
In the inter-war years Hanna Chrzanowska wrote three novels, from which two were published. They involve autobiographic threads proving a great inner breakthrough which appeared in the author’s soul. That breakthrough was connected with suffering but it implied a perspective of eternal Love, to whom Hanna had been faithful till the end of her life.
A delicate light onto the mystery of her faith, her hope and her love is thrown by a reminiscence of Hanna’s confessor – Fr. Placyd Galiński OSB, who wrote a short testimony of her after her death. We read in it:
‘Finally, the most delicate issue about which I cannot speak clearly for understandable reasons. In her youth she experienced a tragedy. It was not connected with evil, but that tragedy had been influencing her life for many years. After some time there came calmness and ability to see matters in the light of God’s love’.
One thing is sure. When the inter-war time was ending, Hanna Chrzanowska, a known and highly considered nurse at that time, was a deeply religious person. Her faith became deeper at the time of war occupation night when she was experiencing tough events: death of her brother in Katyń and death of her beloved father, arrested with professors of the Jagiellonian University in the famous Sonderatktion Krakau, who died in the concentration camp in Sachsehausen.
The achievement of her life
From the time of her trainings at hospital, Hanna remembered her talk with a patient – an elderly man who was often visited by his wife. One day they began to ask her about her school, friends and finally, he asked a question:
And why did you decide to become a nurse?
Because I like this job – she answered.
Then that kind man looked at her with a frown and asked:
And what do you like? The hospital itself or ill people?
Today when we are looking at her whole life, the answer to this question does not bring any doubts. After the war Hanna worked in the State Nurses School in Cracow where she held the post as a director, but her passion was helping chronically ill people at home. She engaged her friends and also her students – among the others, the aforementioned Mrs. Aleksandra. Hanna had a rare talent of finding the ill and could not stay calm if she did not provide them at least a simple help. However, there were more and more ill, but there were less helpful hands. Even, on contrary, there appeared more and more opposition towards engagement of her students, that after some time Hanna began to face up a difficulty:
‘I knew that it was not permitted to take them away from opened or closed buildings of the Social Health Service. After all I did not mean any work on the margin of permanent duties but only treating our work at home as a permanent, paid job. I hoped for gaining willing women, not nurses who could learn how to fulfill the simplest activities. It was for the ill so that they would not suffer any more than they have to, so that they would not be lying in dirt, in stuffiness, decubitus ulcers, in loneliness, neglecting their body and soul’.
Hanna was looking for life lights in Tyniec, in the Benedictines’ monastery, where she was an oblate nun. It was just during her walk along the defensive wall in Tyniec when an idea came to her mind that she could base her care of the ill at home on the Church. But how could she do it? She had taken up some attempts before, but all of them failed.
Then her friend, Zofia Szlendak, came with help, as she knew a priest sensitive to ill people and open to the groups of health service. That priest was called… Karol Wojtyła. In this way they met for the first time – the future saint pope and the future beatified nurse. Their meeting was brief and concrete: Fr. Wojtyla said that in three days they would go together to the parish priest of Mariacka street, Fr. inf. Ferdynand Machay. Hanna had prepared a whole ‘quiver of shots’ for that meeting, and she was fully equipped with the ‘quiver of shots’ – as she wrote about herself. Those were stories about the ill whom she knew, shocking stories:
‘An unmarried mother in an obstetric clinic. She does not want to have her baby. We decide to take care of the baby after her leaving hospital; because she does not have any conditions allowing for her return home with her baby – we place her child in an orphanage (as in the House of a Mother and a Child it is not possible for a while). But the most important thing is arousing motherhood feelings in the mother. A young nurse takes her to hospital everyday to feed her baby. After a few days the mother goes there on her own and nothing can prevent her from it. We know the child’s father. The same nurse persuades him (with difficulty) to see his child’s mother. There is nowhere to meet – so all of them meet somewhere in the street. It takes them a long time to decide about their common life. After a few days the father states: ‘Damn it, I do not know what happened but this lady (that is, the nurse) has such an influence on me that I may get married’. Difficulties, lack of documents for the civil registry office – were all overcome. But the lack of trousers for the groom. We find some trousers. Finally a triumph: a wedding – certainly for free, as neither of them have money – in a church lit with a giorno.
A psychically ill woman, in a dark hovel without a window covered with rags, holes in the floor, broken bars, a burning stove,. We are entering it – we can see nothing but smog through which a dog is attacking us. After a while we see a person with her spiky hair, with her face black from dirt, covered in scabs. Her dog is her heating only in winter. The ill woman is fed ‘by people’ from time to time, has no family, only a brother living outside Cracow who has not taken care of his sister for months. The nurse found her by accident. We are taking her to hospital. She dies soon’.
As it turned out Hanna did not have to take out a ‘shot’.
‘I told him briefly about the situation of the ill. Lack of home nursing within health service. An unappreciated nursing school. Necessity of engaging a permanent paid nurse of the ill by a parish priest. The tall and grey-haired priest was looking at me calmly with his eyes which were so poor later but still healthy then.
Yes! He knows the issue of the ill still from the parish church of Holy Salvator. he understands. Later he asks: ‘Will 1000 zloties monthly be sufficient?’
It was the beginning of the activity of Hanna. She wanted the ill to have professional health care full of love (hence it was necessary to be employed full time and be paid). Reason and heart, skills and love, secular attitude (competence) leaned out towards eternity (supernatural motivation of carers and bringing the ill to God) – it is the short description of the spirit of her activity, which began with taking care of twenty five ill people, so as to register growth by ten times after ten years. In the beginning of the 70s in parish groups over seven hundred ill people were under care and other five hundred were visited!
The saints give the saints
‘13 XII 1966
Dear Reverend Archbishop!
The day after tomorrow I am having an operation. I feel really well inside, no matter what will happen, will be good.
Before going to clinic, I wanted to be in Tyniec, but Divine Providence sent Father Leon here, to Cracow, who created my personality. It is difficult for me to express how much I owe to Tyniec and I still do and I thank God for it’.
Hanna wrote this letter to archbishop Karol Wojtyła, but the addressee read it six years later. For, the letter was delivered to him only after her death. In 1966 she had already expected to die when cancer was diagnosed in her. However, at that time, after lots of suffering, she overcame her illness which relapsed in the beginning of 1973 and caused her death on 29 April. It was the first Sunday after Easter, today – thanks to the decision of John Paul II – it is celebrated as Sunday of Divine Mercy.
There are lots of letters between Hanna and Karol Wojtyła have remained till now. Reading them, and, mainly the development of the cooperation of these two people confirms the significance which the future pope emphasized in the activity of Hanna, as well as their close spiritual relation between them.
This last letter throws a light onto the mystery of Hanna:
‘Once, as the Archbishop liberates my sincerity to myself through His personality, I said that at the source of my current (for nearly 10 years) work there is deep suffering that I could have gone to a very beloved and very loving man, but I renounced it. I want to explain it: I did not renounce it for the sake of my work, about which I had not even thought yet, or for another one, but only for God. (This work – the most beloved of all – may be a reward. I do not know).
This renouncement was terrible for both of us, and I had a terrible feeling that I was hurting him. I had to do so. I somehow got to know that I had to do so, in my inside suffering towards Christ. Archbishop said then: love gives love. I must add: love and suffering give love. Love to the ill.
I feel well in my heart. How much I would like to return to work where I am needed. And I want to look at the beauty of the world which during my sinful and godless youthful life used to be the most important motif for me. (But it is some time I have known, since the recent wander on the Bieszczady mountains that this beauty is nothing when compared to what I am going to have after my death).
My God, how happy I will be if I can pass away now. No, no, I do not mean any beauty. I mean Love in which, once, after penance I do, I will live there’.
Cardinal Wojtyła came deliberately from Wrocław to preside over the funeral of Hanna Chrzanowska. During his homily he said:
‘Thank you, Mrs. Hanna, that you were among us, that you were as such. Carers of the ill, nuns, nurses, academic youth – the whole Cracow church thank you for that. As the bishop of the Cracow church I say thank you. You were my great help and support.
And we rather thank God that you were among us as such, with your great straightforwardness, your inner peace and also with you inner fervency; that you were among us as a kind of incarnation of Christ’s blessings from the Sermon on the Mount; especially the one which says: ‘The blessed who are merciful’….That you were a kind of a presage to those last words which we all hear – You also heard them; Jesus emphasized it in these last words: ‘I was ill and you took care of me’. First I was ill in clinics and hospitals in Cracow; I was ill at homes, in attics and basements; I was ill and forgotten by people for weeks – and you found me either by yourself or by your sisters and took care of me…’
Twenty years later, during an interview with the Szlenkier family – cousins of Hanna Chrzanowska – John Paul II confessed:
She has always been dear to me. And having begun attempts for acknowledging Hanna beatified, he told Fr. Antoni Sołtysik, the first postulator of the beatification process of Hanna: ‘This is a very important matter, take care of it’.
Translated by Aneta Amrozik
Niedziela 17/2018 (29 IV 2018)