This morning I woke to an email from a dear friend at Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario.
She wrote of the sunflowers and morning glories she planted yesterday. She spoke of the six years she spent in Magadan, Russia, helping to establish the first Madonna House there.
She reminded me of a saint I wrote about a few years ago. My friend is a bit of a saint herself. And in honor of the great feast of Corpus Christi, here’s the piece.
SERVANT OF GOD ADELE DIRSYTÉ (1919-1955), tortured and martyred in Communist Russia, wrote the prayer book “Mary, Save Us” while imprisoned in Siberia.
Born in Lithuania to parents who were farmers, Adele was the youngest of six children. At college she majored in philosophy, then worked for various youth organizations. Among them was Caritas, which served widows and orphans. She taught German at a girls’ school, leading her students in prayer and retreats.
The Soviet occupation of Lithuania began in 1940. In June 1941, Germany attacked the USSR and soon occupied the Baltic territories. During the Nazi occupation, Adele lived with a woman who was harboring a Jewish girl.
By 1944, the Soviet army had reoccupied the capital city of Vilnius. Adele began participating in a resistance movement that was organizing for Lithuanian independence.
In 1946, she was arrested for hiding a woman who had escaped from the Soviets. She was brought before a tribunal, and sentenced for “counterrevolutionary activities” to ten years in a concentration camp.
Imprisoned for a year in Vilnius, she was then transferred to what would be the first of a series of forced labor camps. She and her fellow inmates hacked trees, moved rocks, and built railways, They also endured bitter cold, poor sanitary conditions, and starvation rations.
Adele was known for her kindness, faith, and steadfast efforts to console and comfort her fellow prisoners. At Magadan concentration camp in Russia, she managed to produce a small prayer book, hand-sewn with cloth covers. Other inmates were encouraged to add their own hand-written prayers as the book made the rounds of the barracks. Originally called: “Prayer Book for Girls Exiled in Siberia,” the little volume eventually found its way to the West and is now known as “Mary, Save Us.”
One day a priest inmate from the adjacent men’s camp arranged for the Eucharist to be brought over and distributed among the Lithuanian women. The guards noticed and, over the coming months, Adele was taken repeatedly to a cold underground cell and beaten. All her teeth were knocked out. Her fellow inmates realized she had been marked for “slow extermination.”
In the fall of 1953 she was held in the punishment cell for a week, then transferred to an unknown location for the winter. She returned to Magadan partially incoherent, with half of her hair torn out, and was moved to the mentally ill ward. Here she refused food, saying “You who work must eat.” She died on September 26, 1955. The cause for her beatification was opened on January 14, 2000.
One detail, from her time before prison, haunts. A former student remarked “She was modest and very quiet… Her lessons were a bit boring.”
Her lessons were a bit boring. How sharply we are reminded that the person marked out by Christ to share his crown is often outwardly ordinary and without special talents.
Her lessons were a bit boring. And within Servant of God Adele Dirsyté burned the heart of a martyr, a queen, a saint.
For this and 49 other such stories, check out FOOLS FOR CHRIST: FIFTY DIVINE ECCENTRIC ARTISTS, MARTYRS, STIGMATISTS, AND UNSUNG SAINTS