Among potential candidates for the altar whose designation as possessing “heroic virtues” were approved Dec. 2 was Leonia Nastał, a Polish nun of the Little Servant Sisters of the Immaculate Conception and a mystic. Her devotion to the Divine Childhood makes her an especially appropriate figure to get to know during Advent and Christmastime.
Leonia was born on Nov. 8, 1903, in the southeastern Polish city of Stara Wieś. She completed a year in the Benedictines’ teaching institute in Staniątki before entering the novitiate at the Little Servant Sisters in 1926.
The Little Servant Sisters of the Immaculate Conception was a Polish religious order founded in the mid-1800s by Blessed Edmund Bojanowski, the only female religious order ever founded by a layman. Bojanowski, “a kind, good man” as his biographer titled him, lived in a “Poland” that did not exist: The country was partitioned among Prussia, Austria and Russia. Although Bojanowski grew up in Prussian-occupied Poland — the most prosperous of the three regions — 19th-century life was marked by grinding poverty, especially in rural regions. Bojanowski organized education and shelters for children (his iconography usually depicts him with children around him) as well as hospitals and medical care. His “self-help” efforts for the poor began to attract dedicated young women, for whom he wrote a rule that led to the Little Servant Sisters.
Because Poland was carved up among three occupying powers, religious life normally had to be organized in triplicate: Stara Wieś became the motherhouse for the branch of the Little Servant Sisters in Austrian-occupied Poland. It still exists today, and it is where Leonia is buried. (Her tomb can be visited.)
A dynamic religious order, the Little Sisters still attract many vocations and have spread to the United States. Their provincialate is in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and they operate a convent and home for senior citizens in Woodbridge, New Jersey. (The congregation also conducts a mission in Zambia.)
Leonia was a talented woman who brought organizational and intellectual skills to her order. In 1935, she began experiencing mystical visions, in which devotion to the “Infancy of Jesus” was the central theme. These visions continued for the rest of her life, although her health declined. She died just after the Second World War began, on Jan. 10, 1940.
Although her community was not even a century old when she died, and has but a small footprint outside of Poland, its spirituality seems already to be a cradle for sanctity: Bojanowski was beatified by St. John Paul II in 1999, and Nastał’s cause is now under way. The cause of her contemporary, Roberta Babiak (1905-1945), who also had mystical visions of Divine Love, has begun at the diocesan level. Finally, recent attention has focused on an early 20th-century Polish émigré to Cleveland, Helena Pelczar, who is said to have born the stigmata and who claimed to be healed early in her life in Stara Wieś.
Perhaps the best way to become acquainted with Leonia is through her writings, contained in her journal, I Believed in God’s Eternal Love. Translations (from Marian Zawada’s Anthology of Polish Mystics) are mine. They provide food for thought during the Advent and Christmas seasons, as the Church celebrates the Divine Infant.
Advent Theme: “I want you to spend the whole of Advent this year on the loving worship of my infancy. Gaze into the mystery of my infancy so that you might mirror it in your soul by imitating it as faithfully as possible. Whoever wants to participate in the merits of the Divine Infancy must be in love with its sacrificial nature. In the field of the soul, every grace, every gift is gained by the sacrifice of the Son of God. But the soul must add the small dosage of its own sacrifice if it wants to receive a treasure of inestimable price. Grace is like alms received based on a receipt. A receipt in itself is just a worthless piece of paper; however, when it is submitted, an institution distributes alms. Recognition by the soul of its own poverty is such a receipt for the soul, one necessary for acquiring God’s graces. Whoever comes to the Divine Treasury of grace without that receipt gains nothing, because how could a rich man … with everything overflowing, full of pride and contempt for the almoner and alms, expect something. … Let everyone come, even the greatest sinner, to the Seat of Mercy. If they only show the receipt of their own poverty, certified with the seal of my wounds, they will gain everything they seek.”
The Divine Infancy and the Confessor: “The first stage of the God-Man on earth — Jesus’ Infancy — was a hymn of perfect praise of God, one that had hitherto been offered by no one. The Most Holy Trinity was so captured by the worship of the Infant Jesus’ love. … Then Jesus said: ‘A soul should be obedient in humility and fidelity to its confessor.’ ‘I myself’ — said Jesus — ‘although I am God, listen to the confessor in reference to spiritual direction of the soul, just as I listened to my Immaculate Mother on earth. I listen to what the confessor says, and then I watch the soul: In the degree it is obedient, I give it my graces.’”
Let God Design You: “Jesus, living in your soul, works with you like an artist who completes a planned work. Jesus knows the plans of eternal love for you. Jesus sees how you have been in the eternal plan of God, and all his actions tend for you to be as God saw you in his womb. Already, with the creation of the first man, God said: ‘Let us make man in our image and likeness,’ but that likeness of soul was destroyed by original sin and deformed by numerous personal sins. Do you know what Jesus does? Like an artist who finds a dusty and damaged painting, one past which everybody goes, ignoring it indifferently, he cleans it and washes it, uncovering all the delicate traces of the strokes of the paint brush that attests to its masterful Creator, until he fills in all the lacunae and wins first prize for discovering a valuable antique.”
John M. Grondelski writes from Falls Church, Virginia.