Although most eyes will be on Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, a spiritual father to St. John Paul II, during a September 12 beatification ceremony in Warsaw, a blind countess who founded a religious order in the country will also be raised to the altars that day.
Countess Róża Czacka born in 1876 to one of the most prominent noble Polish families of the time, was only 22 when she lost her sight in a horse-riding accident. She later created the Society for the Care of the Blind, and then founded the Franciscan Sisters Servants of the Cross, turning tragedy into sanctity.
Beginning in the 1940’s, Wyszyńsk – then a priest – was a frequent guest at her society’s headquarters.
The future cardinal and Czacka were close friends until the nun’s death in 1961, and both were deeply devoted to the Virgin Mary. It is therefore fitting they will be beatified together in the same ceremony.
A blind noblewoman finds a purpose
In 1898, Poland was still divided under Russian, Prussian and Austrian rule after the partitions of the late 18th century.
Czacka’s parents didn’t want to give up on restoring the sight of the 20-year-old heiress, and she went through a series of operations.
Once she went to the doctor on her own and asked him to tell her frankly whether she’s was going to be able to see after another operation.
The doctor didn’t give her hope on ending her blindness, but told her, “You have the education, take care of the blind people in the region, because no one does.”
Sister Alberta Chorążyczewska, an author of the positio in the beatification process of Czacka, told the story to Crux.
“She locked herself in the room for three days after hearing this from the doctor and then left her house and said – I packed myself and decided to go,” said Chorążyczewska, adding that the decision “was sacred” for the countess.
At the threshold of 20th century, she started an almost 10-year journey across Europe: Completely blind, Czacka went to France, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, and Germany to discover the latest methodologies on caring for the blind.
She returned to Poland with a modern library and equipment to teach the blind to read and write.
Chorążyczewska said Czacka didn’t think twice when she decided to contribute her financial heritage to the work of her life, and the Society for the Care of the Blind was created in 1911.
Soon, it grew into a venue with an orphanage, school, workshops, Braille library and a mission to take care of the adult blind people and their families in Warsaw.
“She lost her sight. But with helping the blind, teaching them how to read and write she brought a life back to them and to herself,” Chorążyczewska told Crux.
“She realized that even without sight, you can be fully human. You can have an occupation, you can help others and you can be useful in society,” she added.
Founding a religious order and the move to Laski
In 1918, after Poland gained its independence during the First World War, she became Mother Elżbieta and founded the Franciscan Sisters the Servants of the Cross.
It was not easy however for a blind woman to start a new order, and one of the priests of the archdiocesan offices was reported to say, “What a whim of a blind lady to set up an order.”
However, her aristocratic blood gets her a hearing, and finally accepted.
In 1922, she moved her Society for the Blind to Laski, a village north-east of Warsaw, and established what was one of the most advanced educational centers for the blind in Europe.
“Without her deep faith she couldn’t stand multiple tragedies and hardships she’s been through,” said Mother Judyta Olechowska, the current superior Franciscan Sisters the Servants of the Cross.
“Losing her sight was only the beginning of her way of the cross,” she said.
In 1939, during the German invasion of Poland and bombardment of Warsaw, Czacka received a head injury.
During the 1944 Warsaw uprising, Czacka allowed her blind protégées to fight the Nazis in the only way they could – by helping the Underground Polish Army soldiers.
Her school and home for the blind in Laski were almost destroyed during the war after being bombed by the Germans. Her beloved library was turned to ash. And yet, she comforted a friend afterwards by saying, “Look at the damage in Warsaw: The city was leveled, and Laski only got some windows broken.”
“During those dramatic times, she showed great courage, internal serenity and complete trust in God,” Olechowska told Crux.
“This work is from God and for God. There is no reason for it to be operating otherwise,” she said, quoting Czacka.
Laski soon became a magnet for people searching for God and faith. Lay people and nuns were working together as a team, which was not that common in the Church in the mid-20th century.
In 1950, Czacka became sick with cancer, which eventually led to her death on May 15, 1961.
“We have a clock in the museum we’re creating,” Olechowska told Crux. “This clock is something that Mother Czacka owned but it tells a lot about her.”
The the simple wooden box hides a beautiful 19th century antique clock. “That was our mother – a countess from the noble house that traded everything for the simple life of God’s servant; the servant of the blind, and in that simplicity she led her life.”