The gardens behind the convent at Vrbove are a study in serenity. Grape vines line the pathways, and in small patches here and there behind them, peonies and irises and poppies bloom. Beds of lettuce sit beside small hothouses full of tomato plants. Mature yews and firs and other evergreens define the perimeter of this oasis.
We were greeted just outside the gardens by Sister Hermana, Mother Superior at Vrbove, and by the other sisters in the convent. (These are sisters, not nuns – active in the community rather than cloistered.) Before touring the grounds with us and showing us their modest church, they treated us to a lunch clearly prepared with love. Their convent is by no means a wealthy one, but the meal was bounteous, featuring, among other treats, lettuce from their gardens and wine made from their grapes, along with tureens of hot soup, platters of meats and cheeses, and heaping portions of fresh fruits and vegetables, followed – not that we needed it – by some wonderful pastries.
After lunch, Sister Hermana spoke about the history of the order, and with particular poignancy about life under Communist rule.
At first, the sisters were allowed to remain at their house, through a quirk, or perhaps a miracle, of history. A beloved bishop had asked to be buried in their adjoining church, promising to protect the sisters after his passing. He was interred in the church and later, though the state had hoped to repurpose the convent as a hospital or school, it was prevented from doing so because the grounds had protected status as a burial place (with a single occupant). So the bishop had indeed been a protector in death, and Vrbove was one of just two religious houses that were never used for other purposes.
But the sisters themselves were not so fortunate. They were forced to leave their lives of educated service as teachers and nurses, and go to work in the fields and factories. Fiercely loyal to their calling, they persisted in wearing their habits in these new roles, despite the obvious hazards presented by such clothing on a shop floor full of machinery, for example.
By the 1970s, though, even the freedom to remain in the house was taken from the sisters. They were forced to leave, and dispersed to cities and towns throughout southern Europe. There, when and with whom they could, they would continue to meet and worship in secret, careful not to publicly acknowledge their Catholicism, much less their status as sisters. Their caution was not misplaced; their superior was imprisoned for several years during this era.
After more than 20 years, with the crumbling of Communism and the Soviet bloc, the ban on religious houses was lifted. Remarkably (consider just how remarkably), every one of the sisters returned to Vrbove, save for one who remained at home to care for failing family members.
The sisters of Vrbove weren’t the only faithful on whom the Communist era exacted a steep toll. In a small chapel on the grounds, the sisters have a relic from a Slovakian sister of the period, who worked at a hospital. An imprisoned priest who needed medical care was brought to the hospital from the place he was detained, accompanied, as required, by a guard. While the priest lay in recovery, the sister laced the guard’s tea with sleeping pills and, once he was unconscious, helped the priest escape.
For her actions, she herself was imprisoned, and tortured for three years. As Sister Hermana related, once they had done destroying her, the state police left her, neglected, and she died soon after.
Strolling the gardens with these lovely women of Vrbove, having enjoyed the warm hospitality of their table at lunch, spent quiet moments of reflection in their modest church, laughed with them over stories of English lessons gone awry, and been thoroughly charmed by their gentle grace, it was impossible not to consider the terrible oppression to which they had been subject and to wonder: What, exactly, was the threat?