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Friday, January 22, 2016

To Russia with Love: The Heroic Story of Father Walter Ciszek, SJ

Father Walter Joseph Ciszek, S.J. (1904-1984) was a heroic Polish-American Jesuit priest who volunteered to clandestinely enter the Soviet Union to serve the spiritual needs of the Russian people. From 1939 and 1963, Father Ciszek suffered in the now thankfully gone Soviet Union. During fifteen of these years, the Communists tortured Father Ciszek in solitary confinement and brutal forced labor camps in harsh Siberia. He also suffered indescribable hardships for an additional five years in Moscow's infamous Lubyanka prison. After Father was released in a Soviet spy exchange and returned to the United States in October 1963, he wrote two books, including the memoir With God in Russia.

Born Nov. 4, 1904, in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania to Polish immigrant parents Martin and Mary (Mika) Ciszek. A former gang member, he shocked his family by deciding to become a priest. Ciszek entered the Jesuit novitiate in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1928.

The following year, he volunteered to serve as a missionary to Russia, which had become the Soviet Union after the bloody Bolshevik Revolution 12 years before. The civil and religious rights of the Russian people were brutally suppressed and Christians were openly persecuted. Few Christians had access to the assistance of a priest. Pope Pius XI made a special appeal to priests from around the world to go to Russia as missionaries and Father Ciszek generously responded.

In 1934, Father was sent to Rome to study theology and Russian language, history and liturgy at the Pontifical Russian College (or 'Russicum'). In 1937, he was ordained in Rome a priest for eternity according to the Byzantine Rite, taking the religious name of Vladimir.

In 1941, Father was arrested under false accusations of espionage for the Vatican and sent to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, operated by the criminal NKVD (Communist internal security gang). There he spent a total of five years, most of which in solitary confinement. In 1942, he was forced to sign a confession under severe torture, was convicted of espionage, and subsequently sentenced to 15 years hard labor in the GULAG.

Father was to remain in Lubyanka for four more years. In 1946, he was sent by train to Krasnoyarsk then 20 days by boat to Norilsk in Siberia. There, he was to shovel coal onto freighter vessels, and later transferred to work in coal mines. A year later, he was sent to work in construction at an ore processing plant. From 1953 to 1955, he worked in mines. His memoirs provide a vivid description of the revolts that spread through the GULAG in the aftermath of tyrant Joseph Stalin's death.

Throughout his lengthy imprisonment, Fr. Ciszek continued to pray, to celebrate Divine Liturgy, hear confessions, conduct retreats and perform parish ministry. Until he was allowed to write to America in 1955, he was presumed dead by both his family and the Jesuit order.

By April 22, 1955, his hard labor sentence was complete, and he was released with restrictions in the city of Norilsk. At this time, he was finally able to write to his sisters in the United States. 

On December 8, 1984, Fr. Ciszek died, and was buried at the Jesuit Cemetery in Wernersville, Pennsylvania.

Ciszek Hall at Fordham University in New York City is named after Fr. Ciszek. It currently houses Jesuit scholastics in the first stage of formal study for the priesthood. There is also a Ciszek Hall at the University of Scranton. The Father Walter Ciszek Prayer League, based in Shenandoah, was formed in 1985 to promote the cause of his Sainthood. In 1989, his cause for canonization was formally opened and is currently under review by the Vatican.

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