Born on Easter in April of 1865, Saint Urszula Ledóchowska taught that great men and women are brought up on the holy laps of Christian mothers. This Austrian-born Countess had a most holy mother who brought up two saints (one beatified, the other canonized), a Polish General, and a General of the Jesuit Order. Her father was a Polish emigre and her mother’s roots can be traced back to an old Swiss noble family. Yet of all the great men and women reared in this magnificent family, none were to be as important to Europe as Saint Urszula Ledóchowska, born Julia, who proclaimed herself a pawn of God and built a lasting political testament that has outlived her turbulent age. Saint Urszula Ledóchowska wrote “my politics is love” and as the Founding Mother of a reborn Poland in 1918, her work has outlasted both the Communist “End of History” and the Thousand-Year Reich, which descended on her homeland in the year of her death, 1939. In their place, the political legacy of Saint Ledóchowska is that of a Christian Europe, the heart of which rests within the dying heart of the resurrected Christ: Poland.
For Americans to begin to understand Saint Ledóchowska, they must begin by casting aside every stereotype they have with regard to what it means to be a nun in the Catholic Church. The stereotypical nun is covered in black, largely invisible except when she scolds us, and at best limited to the frosty range of emotions between sad and upset. By contrast the order founded by Saint Urszula Ledóchowska wears uniforms unseen anywhere in Continental North America, save in one remote and frigid part of Canada. The uniform of a Ursuline nun after Saint Ledóchowska (not to be confused with the Unio Romana Ordinis Sanctae Ursulae founded in 1535) is grey; thus the Ursuline nuns are known to those who love them as the “grey nuns of the Church.” Rather than the stereotypical headwear often associated with nuns, grey Ursuline wear a small black cap which primarily serves to keep their bundled hair in place so it does not get in the way of their good works.
If the uniform of a grey Ursuline seems to us somewhat proletarian or even reminiscent of a kitchen servant or house cleaner, this is no coincidence: Saint Urszula Ledóchowska founded a convent of nuns whose uniform is an exact replica of the traditional uniform of a Swedish house servant. But more important than the clothes worn by the grey Ursulines is the smile they wear on their faces. It is impossible to find an unhappy Ursuline because all of them, like their Founding Mother, are products of a liberal arts education.
Beside speaking almost a dozen European languages, Saint Urszula Ledóchowska was an accomplished religious painter, a musician, an educator and pedagogue, a stateswoman, and quite possibly the greatest person to have lived in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If it sounds as though her work and ideas were a precursor to the breath of fresh air ushered into the Catholic Church by the Second Vatican Council, then readers will be perplexed to discover that although she was indeed a precursor to the philosophy of Catholic personalism which characterizes modern Catholic teaching, she was also a faithful and loyal servant of the arch-enemy of modernity: Pope Pius X. This is less a paradox than an affirmation that the entire stereotype of some epochal conflict between Catholic modernists and Catholic traditionalists is simply a figment of Western imagination. Pope Pius X, author of the anti-modernist pledge and patron of form and ritual, was also the Pope who told those in the Church who had their doubts about Saint Urszula Ledóchowska that “they can wear pink for all I care, just let them go and let them do.”
For Saint Urszula Ledóchowska taught that virtue must be hard in order to be a virtue and thus determined that she would go to St. Petersburg in Russia to build a school for Polish girls. The only thing which stood in her way was the law, which prohibited all Catholic orders (except the Jesuits) in the Russian Empire. Saint Ledóchowska, with the blessing of Pius X, went to Russia as a nun incognito to lead an order incognito. She remained in Russia for seven years, serving the many Poles living in St. Petersburg and fostering love between Christians of the Catholic and Orthodox faiths until the outbreak of World War I. In spite of her being a Polish national and subject of the Russian Empire, her citizenship and status in St. Petersburg was that of an Austrian. During a fiery meeting with the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, she was told that like other Austrian and German citizens, she must leave Russia due to the outbreak of war among the three powers. Sitting in the same office once occupied by a late member of her family who had been a Russian foreign minister under Catherine, Saint Ledóchowska “put away her humility” and dealt with statesmen as only a countess could.
Finally relenting to the realities of the First World War, Saint Ledóchowska fled to Scandinavia, where the legal status of Catholic orders was little better. She not only continued her work as an educator but became directly engaged in the political efforts to raise funds and awareness in Europe for a rebirth of Poland. Saint Ledóchowska knew that Poland was the key to peace in Europe and that the liquidation of Catholic Poland commenced at Vienna in 1815 had inevitably led to what would prove to be the liquidation of all Europe in the fires of the Great War in 1914. In one of the many political speeches she gave, Saint Ledóchowska related a story of Polish troops in the Russian army who one night sang prayers to Mary the Mother of God from their trenches. Suddenly, the troops heard identical supplications rising up from across the valley of death separating them from the German trenches. Polish troops in the German army were answering their countrymen. Brother would slaughter brother the next day. Saint Ledóchowska was a tireless advocate of the Polish cause, and through a reborn Poland, the cause of Christian Europe. Her speeches even served to inspire Egyptian leaders yearning for their own national independence.
Saint Urszula Ledóchowska was not, however, a mere political dreamer but served in the tradition once aspired to by the greatest of popes, bishops and priests: that of a spiritual arbitrator of political affairs. She was the one incarnation of the City of God come to bring order to the chaos often plaguing the City of Man. Polish statesmen of all political persuasions, from monarchists to revolutionary socialists, would travel to the grey nun seeking council, and Saint Ledóchowska brought compromise and work on behalf of the common good where there had been partisan fury and division. She likewise moved the hearts and minds of countless Europeans who provided the funds for the creation of her order’s facilities (now the Sanctuary of Saint Urszula Ledóchowska) in a small village named Pniewy, as well as for the restoration of the Polish state after World War I. It is in Pniewy where Saint Urszula continued her post-war work, educating Poland’s children in the liberal arts, writing children’s books and speaking on religion and affairs of state. Her grey nuns spread throughout the world and radiate love and faith everywhere they go in accordance with Saint Urszula Ledóchowska’s teaching that they ought to be rays of sunshine in the lives of regular people.
Yet it must be stressed that Saint Ledóchowska’s pioneering work on behalf of women and children and her liberating spirit and engagement in the most important matters of her life time never came at the cost of absolute fidelity to the Catholic Church hierarchy. In his great wisdom and, contrary to the predominant stereotype, his far-seeing, imaginative love and attachment to the spirit of faith above and beyond mere forms—it was none other than Pope Pius X who blessed Saint Urszula Ledóchowska’s revolutionary work and supported it with the same passion with which she supported a stern and unwavering piety and fidelity to the teaching of this traditionalist pope. In the details of the relations between Pope Pius X and Saint Urszula Ledóchowska are hidden the secrets to the final resolution of all of the unnecessary and silly conflicts between “tradition” and “modernity” in the Catholic communion. Meanwhile, in Saint Ledóchowska’s political teachings, one finds the secret to the political salvation of Europe.
Indeed, the future of Europe lies not with busybodies wrecking the continent from Brussels, but in Pniewy, where the body of Saint Urszula Ledóchowska now rests and where her teachings have created a Christian community that radiates such love and magnanimity that were only one ray of grey Ursuline sunshine to descend on the heads of all Europeans, the continent would be truly one again—with justice, love and respect for all its various nations and peoples.
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