A Life That Almost Wasn’t: The Pro-Life Witness of Sister Maria Bernadette of the Cross
BOOK FEATURE: The compelling story of a Polish nun who was a near-victim of abortion — and whose vocation was confirmed by one of John Paul II’s homilies. ‘The issue of the unborn was always important to Sister Bernadette.’
Just days before new reports began circling this spring regarding the leaked draft of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, it was announced that Arouca Press had published a timely translation of the biography of a Polish nun who herself was the near-victim of abortion.
For Their Sake I Consecrate Myself, by Benedictine Sister Jadwiga Stabińska, gives the English-speaking world a glimpse into the life of Sister Maria Bernadette of the Cross, whose relatively short life was an inspiring testimony to the religious vocation as well as to pro-life causes.
An Energetic, Talented Youth
Born Róża Maria Wolska on July 3, 1927, the girl who would become Sister Bernadette in religious life was the third child — and first daughter — of Kazimierz and Anna Wolska. Growing up near Lviv, Poland (in what is now western Ukraine), her childhood was spent enjoying the outdoors and playing with the farm animals on their family estate. Relatives and friends described her as an exceptionally active child; her mother noted in a journal entry that “she was always rushing around like a young hound dog … she climbed hazel trees like a squirrel.” Her cousin Danuta described her as “strong-willed” and a “spitfire.”
In her teens, Róża took to playing volleyball in the summer months and grew to develop a variety of other hobbies and talents, including poetry, singing, sewing and reading. A descendant of several well-known and gifted Polish painters, Róża fostered a great gift for painting that remained active through the rest of her life.
A Journey in Faith
Religion was certainly present in the Wolska home, but possibly in a sense more cultural than overly pious during Róża’s youth. She had vague memories of her first Holy Communion and felt that she had not been very well prepared for receiving Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Writing as a religious many years later, she did recall an illustrated Gospel book at the family estate, a memory of which she said saved her “from many misfortunes.”
In her formative years, she was a witness to the Second World War, and it was during the later years of the war that Róża’s attention to and interest in religion began to grow. Even though she acknowledged periods of her life when she “closed [herself] off from God,” she recognized “His Mercy persistently chases after us in spite of everything.”
Living as a young adult in southern Poland, near Kraków, Róża took advantage of local spiritual retreats and was introduced to the Benedictine Order, which had a community of monks in Tyniec. After the war, she became a lay oblate of Tyniec, choosing the name Bernadette after the saintly visionary of Lourdes.
The religious life grew more and more attractive to Róża, and a pivotal moment in her discernment came as the fruit of listening to a sermon about the Blessed Virgin Mary by Father Karol Wojtyła (later Pope St. John Paul II), who was then a vicar of St. Florian parish in Kraków. Father Wojtyła was giving a series of May reflections on St. Louis de Montfort’s spiritual classic, True Devotion to Mary. This devotion emphasizes the necessity of humility, “which God loves above all other virtues.”
“A soul which exalts itself abases God; a soul which abases itself exalts God,” St. Louis writes. “God resists the proud and gives His grace to the humble” (Part 2, Chapter 2, No. 143; citing James 4:6).
Her spiritual director felt strongly that she had a vocation at that point and eventually recommended her to the Monastery of Benedictine Nuns of Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in Warsaw (the nuns recognize the Blessed Virgin Mary as perpetual abbess of their community, a custom that dates back to the 17th century or earlier). Róża went to visit the nuns for an initial “conversation,” experiencing a first test in humility by being told by the novice mistress that she may be limited in her freedom to do art in the monastery.
“That is not necessary at all,” she responded. “I want to be all His and do what He wants.”
In the spring of 1951, Róża gave away her personal belongings and departed for the monastery.
Entering the novitiate, Róża kept her oblate name of Bernadette for her religious name, adding “of the Cross” at the advice of her spiritual director. Her time in the novitiate was not without its challenges, physically and spiritually, but Sister Bernadette soon learned the value of offering her sufferings and of “making amends for offenses and sacrileges,” especially for priests. She had a great love for her community and for the charism of her monastery, and she was said to have had a “great influence on the lives of many people,” even from within the cloister.
Thankful for Her Life, Cherishing All Lives
Her writings reveal a great degree of gratitude she felt for the blessings in her life — and for the gift of her own life, as she likely would have been aborted had it not been for the intervention of a family friend.
Sister Bernadette’s mother recorded in a journal entry, “I might not have had her, because my gynecologist told me to terminate the pregnancy due to my poor health.”
Anna Wolska had given birth to Sister Bernadette’s brother, Krzysztof, a year before, and her doctor didn’t deem it wise to have another child so soon after.
“I did not object to this suggestion,” Anna Wolska wrote, “until ... a friend of my mother’s made me aware of the moral danger of such an intervention and of the fact that it was a grave sin. I am writing about it, because this issue is so tragically relevant today.”
Sister Bernadette knew about her mother’s thinking and expressed immense thanks that her mother refused to adhere to the doctor’s advice.
“And most of all I thank my mother for the fact that I am alive, because I might not have been,” she wrote. “I think about this very often and thank the Lord God for all these blessings, knowing that eternity will not suffice to thank Him for them and to adore Him.”
Sister Bernadette was blessed with the opportunity to save the lives of unborn children in the final days of her life, when she was receiving medical treatment at a gynecological clinic. Her biographer notes, “The issue of the unborn was always important to Sister Bernadette. [At the clinic] she tried several times to save the lives of unborn children. Once she succeeded by offering material assistance from the monastery to a mother and her child. Sister Bernadette rejoiced immensely in this, as if the child were her own.”
Sister Bernadette was faced with several illnesses throughout her life, and even in religious life, she lived in a relatively delicate state of health. In April 1963, she underwent surgery in an attempt to alleviate some of her ongoing ailments. Although her initial post-surgery prognosis was good, a series of complications — coupled with the unfortunate neglect of her hospital doctors — led to a rapid decline in health. Sister Bernadette passed into eternity the morning of April 30, 1963, at the age of 35.
Read more about Sister Maria Bernadette of the Cross in For Their Sake I Consecrate Myself (Arouca Press, English translation 2022, $19.95 paperback).
J.B. Kelly writes from Springfield, Missouri. He and his wife recently celebrated the birth of their seventh child.
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