On Feb. 14, 2013, most of the world was concerned about Valentine’s Day and missed the passing of Dr. Alexander Schirger at the age of 87.
It was noted by the Rochester, Minn., Post-Bulletin, and his funeral Mass a few days later at the Church of St. John the Evangelist in downtown Rochester was fairly well-attended. But other than that, the rest of the world went on as usual — and most likely missed the passing of a saint.
His life’s story — and his wife’s — can almost seem like a novel, but it was very real. Life for faithful Catholics in mid-20th-century Czechoslovakia was difficult, and the Schirgers’ lives were made more difficult because of a forced 14-year trans-Atlantic separation and even imprisonment and torture.
Alexander was born in 1925 in Prague. His parents’ business crashed in the Great Depression, so they moved to New York, and Alex joined them around 1931.
In 1935, both of his parents died, and he returned to Czechoslovakia to be raised by a grandmother and an uncle. By the time World War II ended, he was 20 and had already seen his share of suffering and death, including the entrapment of Reinhard Heydrich’s assassins (Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Holocaust, was known as the "Hangman of Europe"). He had to bike out to the countryside to dig for potatoes to eat. He went to medical school at Charles University.
Milada Kloubkova was born in 1927 in a Prague suburb. Her father spent two years in prison during World War II for his work with the Czech resistance. She studied mineralogy at college during the war, then switched to special education and took a doctorate in that field after the war was over, also at Charles University.
The two met in a Catholic young people’s group in the late 1940s in Prague and came under the influence of Father Josef Zverina, who stood out in opposition to communism. So influential was he that, when Pope John Paul II visited the Czech Republic in 1995, the Pope recalled that Father Zverina had the "grateful admiration of the whole nation."
Over time, Alexander and Milada’s friendship blossomed into a romance, but because Alex had become an American citizen when he had previously been in this country, the Czech government would not let them marry.
By 1950, the Cold War had reached the point where American citizens had to get out of communist countries or lose their citizenship. Alexander went to Austria, then Italy, seeking help. The help came in the form of an audience with none other than Pope Pius XII. "What should he do?" he asked the Pope. "Stay in Europe to be as close to his intended as possible? Or go to America?" The Pope’s answer: "Go to America and pray for her." That counsel would prove providential, in the long run.
In the meantime, Milada continued to meet with the group formed by Father Zverina. They were warned numerous times to stop meeting, warnings which went ignored. Along with others in the group, Milada was arrested. She was held in solitary confinement, where she was interrogated and tortured for 18 months. Finally, she was brought to trial and convicted of being an enemy of the state. She was sentenced to eight years of hard labor, but her father died after four years, and she was released.
Alexander ended up in Lincoln, Neb., a full-fledged physician working as a hospital orderly, since officials didn’t trust medical credentials from communist countries. Then a train crashed in Lincoln, and hospitals around town started to receive the injured. Alexander tended to them, and doctors around him realized that he really did know what he was doing.
Soon, he was on his way to the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where he trained in vascular medicine.
Minnesota also happened to be the home state of the influential Sen. Hubert Humphrey. Alexander started working with his office, first to get Milada released from prison and then to get her out from behind the Iron Curtain. That finally happened in 1965.
It did not take long for them to marry [the family provided their wedding photo to the Register, shown here online], and they spent the rest of their years in Rochester, Minn., where he worked at Mayo, and she raised their two children: John, now also a physician at Mayo, and Anne. Those years were fruitful in good works, such as the time Alexander had a patient whose family was homeless. The Schirgers had a cabin "up North," as Minnesotans say, that was unused, and he gave them the keys to it. That family stayed there for a year, rent-free, and when Alexander returned to look at it, it had been wrecked. But he didn’t complain. Their son John said he just shrugged his shoulders and started cleaning up.
Alexander’s death on Feb. 14 last year was notable in two ways: The Church’s universal calendar celebrates Sts. Cyril and Methodius that day, the two apostles to the Slavic peoples, and both he and Milada were grateful recipients of the faith that they preached and was passed on from one generation to the next. But the world marks it as Valentine’s Day, a day that has morphed from commemorating a Roman martyr to commemorating romantic love.
The love shared by Alexander and Milada embodied what Pope Benedict XVI wrote about in Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love): "Love … becomes concern and care for the other … seeks the good of the beloved: It becomes renunciation, and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice."
Thomas Szyszkiewicz writes from Peterson, Minnesota.