In a corner of the town of Bardejov in mountainous eastern Slovakia, a group of children scamper in the sunlight around a middle-aged nun as the bell in a nearby church tower invites Catholics to morning Mass.

When Sister Atanazia Holubova joined the Basilian order 35 years ago, her country was under communist rule and religious communities were banned. So she did her novitiate in secret, while working as a nurse in the local hospital, participating in undercover pilgrimages and joining fellow-nuns only occasionally late at night to pray in private homes or locked churches. It was 16 years before the regime collapsed and Sister Holubova could finally wear her habit in public.

"Hiding and playing a double role didn't come naturally -- they were hard years," the 56-year-old nun told Our Sunday Visitor. "But it was a joy whenever we could meet and renew our vows with other hidden sisters. I felt God was close and caring for us, and the experience undoubtedly strengthened our faith."

Emerging truth

Life was particularly challenging for Sister Holubova.

For one thing, she was a member of Slovakia's Roma, or Gypsy, minority, existing on the edges of official tolerance. For another, she belonged to the Greek Catholic Church, which had already suffered the harshest persecution of all.

Today, she's one of thousands of former underground Catholic nuns who took their vows in secret at great risk in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and whose courageous stories remain largely untold.

"Although contacts were re-established after the collapse of communist rule in 1989-91 and religious life came out into the open, we still don't know much about their work," said Ursuline Sister Malgorzata Krupecka, an expert on communist persecutions from neighboring Poland.

"In countries where the restrictions were toughest, it's taken longer to reintegrate the underground Church, and the process is still going on. In countries where the faith clearly emerged victorious, it's happened a lot more quickly."

When Eastern Europe was overrun by Josef Stalin's Red Army at the end of World War II, the Catholic Church became a target for the newly installed communist regimes. Religious orders were seen as secretive organizations that threatened the absolute power of the Communist Party. So the new regimes bided their time until they could finally take them under control.

Faith amid persecution

Even then, conditions varied.

In Hungary, Yugoslavia and Poland, habited orders were grudgingly permitted, but only after their schools, clinics and care homes had been seized and many members killed or imprisoned.

In western Poland alone, 300 convents were closed in August 1954 as part of a special "Operation X2." More than 1,300 nuns from 10 separate orders were rounded up by armed militia units and bused to labor camps, where there was often no electricity or sanitation, and tuberculosis was rife.

"Our sisters were employed in the service of the Church and worked among the sick -- how could they have threatened public security?" one superior general, Demetria Cebula, later demanded in a letter to Poland's communist boss, Wladyslaw Gomulka. "The only crime they committed in the eyes of the authorities was that they wore the monastic habit."

In Albania, Bulgaria and Romania, Catholic orders were banned outright, and harsh reprisals were exacted against anyone found living the monastic life.

The 700 Catholic convents in what was then Czechoslovakia were ransacked and taken over in the summer and autumn of 1950, leaving 10,000 nuns in detention. Most were put to work in factories, farms and hospitals, or sent to "centralized convents" such as Bila Voda in Moravia, which became home to 450 incarcerated sisters from 13 orders.

In countries like this, not surprisingly, the orders began recruiting and training members in secret, putting them through novitiates while working under the cover of regular jobs.

"Orders that were still legal in Poland and elsewhere naturally tried to help their underground colleagues. But this was difficult and dangerous, since the borders were closed and secret police surveillance intense," the Polish Sister Malgorzata told OSV.

"Today, it's hard to imagine the hardships our sisters experienced, especially when communist rule was most severe -- and how, despite everything, they managed to undergo formation and live the religious life."

'Terrible times'

In the Soviet Union, conditions were among the harshest.

Russia had been under communist rule since the 1917 revolution, and most Catholic priests and nuns had been shot or imprisoned by the late 1930s. Religious life limped on underground, in a community headed from Moscow by followers of the Greek Catholic Anna Abrikosova, while sisters deported to Siberia and Central Asia often provided pastoral help to fellow-prisoners and exiles.

In Soviet-occupied Lithuania, where the orders had been liquidated by 1948, it was relatively easy to melt into the background for nuns from non-habited orders, many of which had been founded under Russian rule in the 19th century. Sisters from enclosed orders were sent out to work and in harsher conditions.

Despite this, underground Catholic nuns were destined to play a key role in the struggle for human rights in Lithuania. They made a decisive contribution to keeping the Christian faith alive.

"The underground sisters are regarded as exemplaries today -- younger nuns listen carefully to what they say and always consult them at difficult moments," said Sister Rita Permotaite, superior of the Sister Servants of Mary Immaculate.

"These were terrible times, and we should resist any feelings of nostalgia. But we should respect and admire the way people obeyed God's call, even in such difficult circumstances."

Sister Permotaite's own order, founded for non-habited nuns in 1878 to renew faith and morality in the villages, claimed several famous names during the Soviet period.

One of them, Sister Nijole Sadunaite, was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International after being sent to Siberia in 1975 for helping print and circulate the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania. Despite efforts to stop it, the journal quickly became the Soviet Union's most comprehensive samizdat, or underground journal.

Now 70, Sister Sadunaite is modest about her achievements.

"Each age brings its particular problems," the nun told OSV. "At that time, we were defending our rights and standing up for the persecuted, whereas now we face other challenges. But my own aim is still what it's always been -- to help the poor and downtrodden. In that sense, nothing has changed."

Getting story out

Sister Permotatite, the order superior, thinks the heroism of the secret nuns should nevertheless be better appreciated both inside and outside the Catholic Church.

Since communist rule collapsed, it's been possible to study government and secret police archives, gradually piecing the facts together and comparing experiences. Religious orders once divided by the Iron Curtain have re-established links, and it's become normal to meet and confer in East-West bodies like the European Union of Religious Superiors.

"The contribution made by these nuns deserves special respect, since there's no doubt their hardships and sufferings provided a foundation for the freedom we enjoy today," Sister Permotatite told OSV.

"But we should be aware that martyrdom, far from going away, is still occurring in many parts of the world. For people who are still denied freedom and forced to work underground, these stories can be an important source of strength."

Back in Slovakia, Sister Holubova was able to begin caring for older members of her Basilian order after Czechoslovakia's 1989 "Velvet Revolution," before becoming the first nun to be allowed to nurse in her habit at the state hospital in nearby Presov.

Since then, she's helped build a church and culture center for her fellow Roma in Bardejov, bringing hundreds of Gypsy children to first Communion and providing much-needed pastoral help to poor local Roma families -- all of which would have been impossible under communist rule.

She still shares her convent with some of the nuns who once worked secretly with her, and is pleased more interest is at last being shown in what they lived through together.

"It's true our faith seemed more alive then, when we prayed that our community would one day be able to come out of hiding and we'd be able to confess our devotion to God openly," Sister Holubova told OSV.

"I don't see such joy and happiness among people here today. But we shouldn't have illusions about the past. What matters is that we are now free to work and worship as a normal, valued part of society."

Faces of faith

The stories of the women Religious who risked their lives and safety to spread the faith are slowly coming to light, thanks in large part to two St. Joseph Sisters of Concordia, Kan.

Sister Margaret Nacke and Sister Mary Savoie have collected oral histories, photographs and other material from thousands of sisters in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine. Those stories are part of a traveling exhibit, "Faces of Faith." To learn more about the exhibit, visit www.csjkansas.org/survivors/facesoffaithall.html.

The secret sisters' story will also be told in an upcoming documentary, "Interrupted Lives: Catholic Sisters Under European Communism," produced by NewGroup Media and based on the histories compiled by Sisters Nacke and Savoie. Sister Nacke said the documentary, funded in part by the U.S. bishops' Catholic Communication Campaign, is expected to air in the spring.

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.