Young folk are fairly quick to rag on the Catholic Church in the modern age. Catholicism is way out of fashion, with an entire generation lining up to climb onto the soapbox and denounce the awful culture of sexual abuse that is a rotting tumour inside the Church. You can’t really argue with the anger either, as the abuse of influence and power throughout the history of the Catholic Church doesn’t paint it in the greatest light.
Religion is what religious people do after all, and we do like to hyper-zoom in on the negative side of that aphorism. History is full of religious individuals performing tasks of incredible kindness and positivity however, and receiving nothing but a kick in the teeth and isolation for their troubles. Such is the story of Cecília Schelingová, who died 62 years ago today.
Schelingová was born on Christmas Eve 1916 in the small Slovak town of Kriva, not too far from the border with Poland. She was born into a religious family and was one of 10 Schelingová kiddies. I’ve been writing about this subject for five years now, so the shock of large families has long dissipated. The Sisters of Charity of the Holy Cross came into her life early, and Cecília found her calling.
At the age of 15 she went with her own mother to sign up to the order, but was told to train as a nurse before taking her vows. Cecília specialised in radiology, and returned to the order at the age of 20. On January 30, 1937, Cecília became Zdenka. She initially did hospital work in the eastern Slovak town of Humenné, before being transferred to Bratislava in 1942.
World War Two was keeping Europe (and, well, the world) busy at that time, and Zdenka lived through the conflict in the Slovak capital. Communism came to Czechoslovakia following the war, and the persecution of the faithful began. Priests were arrested left, right, centre and left again. The questions they were asked were brief, and were based more on violence than words. When the violence subsided the poor priests were sent off to hospital to get something vaguely approaching treatment. It was one such priest, accused of being a Vatican spy, that changed Zdenka’s life.
The man of the cloth was in a state that can best be described as miserable, and Zdenka was charged with taking care of him in the Bratislava. It soon became apparent that the Ecclesiastic had a one way ticket to the end of his days, and Zdenka hatched a plan to save the life of the Man of God. She slipped some sleeping pills in the guard’s tea, allowing the priest to sneak out the back door. Or the front door. Or maybe even a window. He snuck out, that much we know.
The terrible reality of the patients she was treating came home for Zdenka. Her commitment to helping others meant she could not stand idly by, so she tried again to help others flee the hospital. Her luck ran out on February 29, God’s aberration, when one such plot was discovered by the authorities. It was Schelingová’s turn to face the misery of prison beatings.
Stories of communist torture and very rarely (ie; never) pleasant, and Zdenka’s certainly isn’t the exception that proves the rule. She was kicked and beaten with exceptional vigour, brought to the point of drowning in freezing water over and over again, before being left to freeze to death overnight. She was tried as an ‘enemy of the people’s democracy’, and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Zdenka only served three of those 12, but don’t for a moment think that this is a positive thing. The beatings continued, as she was moved from prison to prison. She was eventually shipped to the Oncology department of a hospital in Brno, and those of you aware of that word will know what that means. For the unaware – oncology is the study of tumours.
The constant beatings had left Zdenka with a malignant tumour in her right breast, which was then amputated without anaesthesia. The ruling government had no desire for her to die on their watch and become a martyr in the process, so she was released from prison in 1955. Zdenka returned to her congregation, who thus rejected her because of her supposed treason. The hospital in Bratislava wanted nothing to do with her either, meaning Zdenka Schelingová was left with nowhere to go.
That nowhere became somewhere with the intervention of a friend in Trnava, and this led to Zdenka being admitted to the hospital in Slovakia’s 7th largest town. On July 31, 1955, Zdenka Schelingová passed away. She was 38 years old.
15 years after her death, a regional court in Bratislava declared that she was actually innocent, and further reconciliation came in 2003. In that there year, Zdenka Schelingová was beatified alongside Vasiľ Hopko, a Carpatho-Rusyn priest who also suffered terribly at the hands of the Czechoslovak communist government.
Zdenka Schelingová’s story is ostensibly the story of an individual doing good things and receiving nothing but grief for those actions. An argument can of course be made that she helped a criminal (in the eyes of the ruling government at the time) escape his punishment, and as such became a criminal herself. This removes all moral and ethical humanity from the situation, but that is what the robots will eventually bring to us.
Schelingová died young because she felt it was her duty to save the life of an individual in peril. Sacrifice is an easy word to throw around, but backing it up with action is something we often fail to appreciate.
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