Two Virgin Martyrs, Killed During World Wars 30 Years Apart
Both women have been honored by the Church in defensum castitatis, “in the defense of chastity.”
Many Catholics recognize St. Maria Goretti as a 20th-century virgin martyr. The young girl was murdered in 1902, at age 11, by her 20-year old neighbor when she refused his advances and attempt to rape her. She died a day later, after having forgiven her attacker who, after serving 27 years in prison and converted, eventually came to finish his days living in a Capuchin monastery.
When she was canonized in 1950, St. Maria Goretti was something of a novelty. While St. John Paul II and his successors consciously strove to canonize saints of the 20th century in order to emphasize that holiness (and its persecution) are very real realities today, that was not typical in 1950. Centuries separated most saints from those seeking their intercession. Most were priests or religious, not lay girls. Many young women present at that canonization in 1950 had female relatives — a mother or a grandmother — alive when Maria Goretti was. That was all something novel.
But Maria Goretti was hardly the only virgin martyr of the 20th century. Two other girls are honored by the Church in November, but their stories are far less known.
Blessed Karolina Kózka
Blessed Karolina Kózka (KOO-shka) died Nov. 18, 1914, aged 16. Called the “Polish Maria Goretti,” St. John Paul II beatified her in 1987.
Blessed Karolina was born Aug. 2, 1898, in southern Poland. At the time of her birth, her country had been under Austrian occupation for over a century. Her father and mother were farmers, and she was one of 11 children. She received six years of primary education and then began two years of supplemental schooling. Her father was said to have kept a small lending library of Catholic books and periodicals for people in the neighborhood. She received her First Holy Communion in 1907 and Confirmation in May 1914, approximately six months before she was murdered.
Contemporaries speak of Blessed Karolina as a religious child, devoted to the Rosary, frequently attending Mass and other pious devotions, like the Polish Lenten Lamentations or May Devotions and going with her family on pilgrimages to local shrines — not wholly unusual practices in Poland, even though the parish church was a two-and-a-half mile walk from her home. Eyewitnesses speak of her as a tall girl, with reddish-brown hair and some freckles.
World War I broke out in Europe in July 1914, a month after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Austria-Hungary was on one side, Russia another. The territory of Poland, which had been divided by those two occupants (plus Prussia) since the mid-to-late 18th century, immediately became a bloody battleground. Americans often hear about the brutality of the “Western Front.” The Eastern Front was no less bloody, though far less well known.
In November, Karolina’s village found itself on the front lines, under Russian occupation. On Nov. 18, Karolina was at home with her father, tending to her younger siblings. Around 9 a.m., a Russian soldier entered, taking her and her father by force from the house, ostensibly demanding they reveal where enemy Austrian soldiers might be hiding. He led them in the direction of the nearby woods, where he ordered the father home and drove Karolina deeper into the forest.
Two teenage Polish boys then hiding in the forest spoke of seeing the Russian soldier driving Karolina forward, beating her and preventing her efforts to escape and return home. The boys went to inform back to the village to inform others, including her father. When Karolina did not return, the men went in search of her in the woods but, not knowing the direction the Russian led her, searched in vain. Sixteen days later, on Dec. 4, a man gathering branches in the woods for fuel found her partially nude and beaten body. Deep sword injuries, including one from her collarbone to her right breast, cutting her neck, suggest she tried escaping in the direction of the village but bled out before reaching it. Her feet were bare and cut by thorns and brambles, indicating her attempted flight.
Karolina was buried Dec. 6, 1914. Her body was exhumed in November 1917 and buried in a new tomb in the parish cemetery. In 1981, Archbishop Jerzy Ablewicz led the procession to bury her remains in the Zabawa parish church, today a sanctuary. Efforts to begin her canonization began already in 1948, the diocesan process starting in 1963, and her beatification as a virgin martyr by St. John Paul II came in 1987. She is considered a patroness of young people and those suffering sexual abuse. A local tradition of marking 14 “stations of her way of the cross,” significant places in the last moments of her life, has developed.
Blessed Anna Kolesárová
Blessed Anna Kolesárová (koh-les-SAH-ro-va) died Nov. 22, 1944. She was beatified by authority of Pope Francis at Mass celebrated by Cardinal Becciu in 2018.
Like Karolina, Blessed Anna was a farm girl, born July 14, 1928, in what was then the eastern edge of Czechoslovakia (today, Slovakia). Like Poland, Czechoslovakia had recovered its independence for only about a decade, but many Slovaks still felt second-class citizens in that multinational state.
Anna also received her First Communion and Confirmation. For Czechoslovakia, World War II began early. Hitler first annexed the Sudetenland in 1938, using it as pretext for Western acquiescence in the country’s subjugation at Munich. The Czech lands were occupied in March 1939, while Slovakia — nominally independent — was a German client.
Sometime at the beginning or during World War II, Anna’s mother died and she took responsibility for the family. In November 1944, as the war drew toward an end, Soviet troops arrived in Vysoká nad Uhom to “liberate” the area. Many families would hide in cellars to avoid the fighting, aware of the moral reputation of the new Soviet occupiers.
When a drunken Soviet soldier entered Anna’s family’s home in search of food and found the hiding place in the kitchen, the family first tried to feed him but he fixated on 16-year-old Anna. She resisted, retreating back into the cellar. The soldier ordered her to submit to him or be shot. She refused, even though he said he would shoot her in front of her father’s eyes, which he did. She cried out to her father as she was murdered: “Goodbye! Jesus, Mary, Joseph!”
Those who recorded the event in the parish records at the time noted Anna had recently gone to Confession and Communion. They buried her the next night, despite fighting in the area, with a more solemn funeral Nov. 29.
Anna’s case was, like her, buried for more than 50 years, as Czechoslovakia’s communist dictatorship did not want to suggest anything ill about the Soviets. Her cause began in 2004 and the beatification approved in 2018.
Both women have been honored by the Church in defensum castitatis, “in the defense of chastity.” In his homily for Blessed Karolina’s beatification, St. John Paul II summed up the truth for both women:
This young daughter of the Church … who from this day shall be called ‘blessed,’ speaks by her life above all to the young, to boys and girls. She speaks of the great dignity of woman, of the dignity of the human person. Of the dignity of the body, which while truly in this world is subject to death — as her young body was subject to death — but the human body carries in itself the note of immortality, which man is to attain in the eternal and living God through Christ.
As I wrote previously, one can wonder whether the Church today — at least in the West — could produce a Maria Goretti, a Karolina Kózka or an Anna Kolesárová. Do the values of virginity, chastity, and purity — apart from an ethic of “choice” — speak to many young people, even Catholic young people, today?
Perhaps we can start with making the stories of Blessed Karolina and Blessed Anna better known.