He was demolishing the Bolshevik ‘paradise’
Fr Mariusz Traba
The region of Zaglebie Dabrowskie, i.e. the industrial district founded under the Russian partition at the border with the Prussian Silesia in the 19th century, was the little homeland of the future priest and bishop. In June 1882, Fr Jan Cieplak received the title of Master of Sacred Theology at the Theological Academy in Petersburg. He planned to return to pastoral work in the Diocese of Katowice. However, the Senate of the Theological College and lecturers had different plans for him. They wanted him to lecture at the Academy. Thus his over 20-year scientific and didactic work began. In the years 1882-1908 Fr Cieplak lectured liturgics, biblical archaeology and other subjects in Petersburg.
The years of Fr Cieplak’s lecturing and conducting pastoral work were greatly appreciated by the Poles who lived in the capital of the Russian state. The authorities also had a high opinion of his work and so did the other believers. In June 1908, Pius X appointed him Titular Bishop of Evaria and Auxiliary Bishop of Mohilev. The new bishop became engaged in pastoral ministry at once. In Petersburg he initiated the conferences of St Vincent a Paulo, dealing with charity. At the turn of 1908/09 the Archbishop of Mohilev Apolinary Wnukowski managed to gain the consent of the Tsarist authorities to visit parishes and pastoral centres in Siberia where ca. 250,000 Catholics were estimated to live. Unfortunately, in the spring of 1909 it turned out that the archbishop had heart problems and his disease was as serious as to make him unable to conduct that visitation. He was replaced by Bishop Cieplak who set off to Siberia. His journey lasted five months. The Poles who were transported to Siberia, refugees and deportees, awaited the Polish bishop with great faith. In February 1910, Bishop Cieplak set off again. This time his destination was Lithuania and the Belarusian lands where he was to visit Catholic parishes. However, the awaited visitation evoked anxiety of the Russian authorities and irritation of the Orthodox clergy. Since it happened that after the bishop’s visitation there were conversions to Catholicism. There were some people who accused Bishop Cieplak of pro-Polish propaganda activities during his visitation. He was accused of evoking the Polish spirit. The local authorities demanded to expel the bishop administratively from the Guberniya of Minsk. The result of those accusations and calumnies was very drastic activities of the Tsarist government. Bishop Cieplak was suspended from his membership of the Theological College, deprived of his salary and professor’s retirement allowances. It happened so although no evidence proving the accusations was given.
Facing World War I and the revolution in Russia
In August 1914, the Metropolitan Chapter of the Archdiocese of Mohilev chose Bishop Jan Cieplak as the administrator of this diocese. He did his best to help the victims of the war, especially the Polish refugees. He supported the development of education, associations and charity committees as well as the Polish press in Russia. After the victory of the revolution in February 1917 he was elected a member of the Religious Commission of the Temporary Government; its task was to work out new regulations concerning the status and functioning of the Catholic Church in Russia after the fall of the Tsar. In December 1917, Bishop Cieplak gave the administration of the diocese to the new Archbishop of Mohilev Edward Ropp. In the autumn of 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. They recognised religion as one of the main enemies of the new system. In August 1918, the state authorities issued new regulations according to which the whole property of the Church, including churches, parish houses and cemeteries, was confiscated. Archbishop Ropp who had protested against such violation of the law was arrested and imprisoned on 29 April 1919. He passed the administration of the diocese to Bishop Cieplak. On 25 May 1919, the Catholics organised a big manifestation in defence of the imprisoned Archbishop Ropp in Petersburg. A Mass in the intension of his release was celebrated and after the Mass the gathered believers sang the supplication song ‘Holy God’ and marched to the building of the security services, demanding to release the archbishop. The authorities announced that he would be released and transported to St Catherine’s Church. When the crowd returned to the church they faced units of the Bolshevik police that began arresting the demonstrators. In November 1919, Archbishop Ropp was transported to Poland within the framework of prisoners’ exchange between Poland and Bolshevik Russia. The administration of the diocese was still in the hands of Archbishop Cieplak who had received such a title from the Pope at the beginning of 1919.
The attitude of Archbishop Jan Cieplak, who openly fought for the rights and freedom of the Catholic Church in the Bolshevik ‘paradise’, could not be accepted by the new rulers of Russia. Firstly, they decided to frighten him. On Holy Thursday, during the night of 1-2 April 1920, he was arrested for the first time. It was done secretly and deceitfully. Under the pretext of a sudden and extremely important phone call with Moscow he was summoned to the headquarters of the authorities. Unfortunately, none of his closest collaborators and household members knew what had happened to him. Archbishop Cieplak was arrested for two weeks and put in the prison in Szpalerna Street in Petersburg. Since the agitation related to the Archbishop’s imprisonment intensified among the Catholic community in Petersburg he was suddenly and silently released. In June 1922, the Bolsheviks arrested him for the second time. It took place at the railway station in Petersburg when the archbishop said good-bye and blessed the repatriates – Poles returning to their homeland, according to the treaty of Riga. When Archbishop Cieplak wanted to leave the station a few policemen blocked his way. They took him to the railway office of the political police. There he was accused of inciting the repatriates to disobey the communist authorities. One of the Chekists stated, ‘On behalf of the Soviet Republic I arrest you, Citizen Cieplak.’ This time the imprisonment lasted two days.
At the beginning of March 1923, Archbishop Cieplak together with 14 priests and one layperson received summons to come to the supreme revolutionary tribunal in Moscow. There was a common conviction that it was the first step to imprison the archbishop. He himself gave orders concerning the administration of the archdiocese since he had supposed that he would not return to Petersburg. On 4 March, the feast of Saint Casimir, he celebrated Mass in his private chapel and said good-bye to his closest collaborators and alumni. In the evening he took a train to Moscow. The crowds who bid him farewell were so numerous that he could hardly get on the train.
The trial in Moscow and death sentence
Archbishop Cieplak stayed in the parish of Saint Apostles Peter and Paul in Moscow. On 10 March six armed soldiers appeared to arrest the archbishop and his companions. At first, they were placed in the prison arranged in the palace of the former Russian princes. But after two days they were transported to the Butyrka prison, which was a place of ill repute. On 21 March 1923, their trial began in the Supreme Tribunal of the Soviet Federal Republic. The accusations made against Archbishop Jan Cieplak and his companion during the trial were groundless and false. Archbishops Ropp and Cieplak as well as their collaborators-clergymen were accused of counter-revolutionary activities. Until today the last words of Archbishop Cieplak uttered during the trial on 25 March are extremely powerful, ‘Standing at the threshold of death I can only confirm with words of honour, as a priest and as a bishop, that we have never founded any secret conspirational organisation, nor strove for any political aim. None of us have ever conceived any thought of counter-revolution. My priests and I have always tried to be loyal citizens of the Russian Federation and followed the decrees of the government as much as we could. If sometimes they were too difficult to realise, if there were some exceptions, we, Catholics, were convinced that we could follow our own dogmas and rules of the canon law. We were glad to have heard this solemn principle of the freedom of conscience because since that moment we could live according to the laws of our Church, which had been made difficult for us during the Tsar’s times. It is the obligation of every Catholic to obey his spiritual superiors and to guard the laws of the Church.’ The sentences in the Moscow trial were very severe. Archbishop Jan Cieplak and Fr Konstanty Budkiewicz were sentenced to death by firing squad; five priests were sentenced to ten years in prison and eight priests were sentenced to three years in prison. One layperson was to be in prison for six months. The convicts listened to the verdicts in silence. When the capital penalty was announced there were cries and women’s tears in the court hall. When the archbishop was leaving the hall where he heard his death sentence he blessed the gathered. The trial in Moscow echoed all over the world. Because of the huge and sudden agitation of the public opinion, connected with the unfair verdict, there was a common conviction that the Bolshevik government would yield to the protests and the diplomatic pressure and would give up the executions. It was in the case of Archbishop Cieplak whereas Fr Budkiewicz was murdered on the night of the Holy Saturday before Easter (31 March – 1 April). He was shot in the back of the head. The true aim of the trial in Moscow was the liquidation of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the territory of Bolshevik Russia. The imprisonment of Archbishop Cieplak factually deprived the Catholic Church of any voice concerning the persecutions and limitation of the freedom of worship and religion. At first, Archbishop Cieplak was in the Butyrka prison. In the middle of March 1924, he was transported to the famous Lubyanka prison. In both prisons he suffered from slanders. His prison cell had a little wooden table, a little bench and a metal bed with a straw mattress. The cell was opened only three times a day and the prisoner had the right for one hour walk under the supervision of armed soldiers. The archbishop spent time in his cell reciting the breviary and the Rosary, reading newspapers and books from the prison library and tirelessly learning Italian.
On 9 April 1924, the political officers took the prisoner out of his cell. He was convinced that it was the end of his life. But he was transported to the train station and brought to the train going towards the Latvian border. Then he got on the train to Riga himself. And on 12 April, Archbishop Cieplak set off from Riga to Poland. Crowds greeted him at all places on his way to Poland. Solemn welcome celebrations were prepared in Warsaw where he was greeted by Cardinal Lorenzo Lauri, the Apostolic Nuncio in Warsaw, and Cardinal Aleksander Kakowski. He also had an extremely solemn welcome in Czestochowa (where he thanked Our Lady for his release) and in Katowice. In May 1924, he went to Rome. He was greeted as a martyr of faith by the Polish community living there and by the faithful. Pius XI welcomed him at a private audience on 8 May. Following the Pope’s request he prepared a large report on the condition and situation of the Church in Bolshevik Russia. After almost one year and a half in Rome he decided to answer one of the many invitations from the Polish community and the American bishops. His 12-week stay in the United States was a triumphant tour since all people regarded him as a martyr. 10,000 Poles and 200 priests appeared in his welcome ceremony in New York. The US President Calvin Coolidge himself received Archbishop Cieplak at an audience. Being there he was informed that the Pope appointed him the Archbishop of Vilnius on 14 December 1925.
Archbishop Jan Cieplak died on 17 February 1926, i.e., 85 years ago. His way was very long – from Zaglebie Dabrowskie where he was born, through schools in Kielce, Petersburg where he studied at the Theological College and conducted pastoral work, through Siberia where he visited Catholic parishes, through prisons in Moscow, through Rome, the United States to the Cathedral in Vilnius where he was laid to rest. In 1952 the efforts to raise him to the altars began. A native of Zaglebie is to be raised to the altars. His figure is a symbol of big persecutions that affected the Catholic Church in the territories under the communist rule. The martyrdom of the Church in the former Eastern Lands of the Polish Commonwealth and in the territory of Russia is still being discovered.