Hearts on Fire: Quiet Heroines of World War II

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

It was tomorrow seventy-two years ago that the capital of France, Paris, fell into German hands. Suddenly, Nazi flags began to fly, road signs were put up in German, soldiers roamed the streets. The war had now become real, as if it weren't before.

And there, in the middle of Paris, sat 140 rue du Bac - the motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity, a religious community that had celebrated its 300th anniversary not too long before, and home to the chapel where the Blessed Mother appeared to St Catherine Laboure the century before. The Daughters, by this time, had already spread throughout the world. There were Sisters in countries under Axis and Allied occupation. And now, the city of their motherhouse, the home of the community, their whole history was now under the Germans.

Sister Helene Studler
Meanwhile, a French Daughter of Charity by the name of Sister Helene Studler, had already prepared for the Axis occupation. Sister Helene had already been carrying out her work for a year by the time France officially fell. She had been to the border various times, assisting those who had been evacuated. A few days after the occupation, prisoners arrived, having marched there. Taken by surprise, Sister Helene cleaned and bound their wounds. It was this event that would change everything. Just a month after the Axis occupation, Sister Helene set up an escape system to save French soldiers from the Gestapo. Almost 2,000 Frenchmen escaped under her direction. She was arrested in 1941 but released before her year sentence was up because of poor health. She went straight back to her work, though she quickly escaped to Lyons when she discovered the Gestapo were after her again. Frustrated by their inability to find Sister Helene, the Gestapo arrested the Superioress General of the Daughters of Charity and grew even more frustrated when she refused to release any information about Sister Helene's whereabouts.

Sister Agnes Walsh
As Sister Helene hid in Lyons, seven hours away in Dordogne, France, lived another Daughter of Charity - Sister Agnes Walsh. Sister Agnes was actually British, an Allied citizen living in an Axis-occupied country. She had to lay low, for the danger of the Nazis finding out she was British was simply too great. She had accidentally received an Irish passport earlier, which bought her some leeway, yet her accent quickly gave away her English heritage. And she had already seen the way the Gestapo went after the French Jews. Yet one day, a man named Pierre Cremieux knocked on the door of the convent asking the Sisters to hide him, his wife and three children. Hiding them would mean even extra danger for the Sisters - after all, they were already hiding the fact one of them was British - but Sister Agnes pleaded their case to the superior and the family of five remained with them, hidden in the convent.

Sister Marejanna Reszko
Yad Vashem Photo Archive
But Sister Agnes was not the only one hiding Jews. Countries away, in Poland, the Daughters of Charity were hiding Jews at St Anthony's Orphanage, under the direction of Sister Marejanna Reszko.Not too far away, Sister Bronisława Wilemska, along with Bishop Małysiak, hid Jews in their institution for the eldery and disabled. In fact, hiding Jews started to become the unofficial ministry of the Daughters of Charity in Poland. All in all, Yad Vashem has recognized five different Daughters of Charity from three different Polish cities.

In nearby Hungary, Daughters of Charity hid Jews in an all-girls school. The Sisters there were crafty, making the school a fake military workshop until that city was liberated and the hidden Jews were saved. The provincial house in Hungary, under the leadership of Sister Klara Rath, also served as a hiding place. The Nazis constantly appeared wanting to search the house, yet miraculously went away every time because of Sister Klara's doings - whether it be distracting them with drinks, claiming the children there were all baptized Christians, or quoting a dangerous line of the Hungarian anthem. All the Jews there were also saved.

The war was trying for the Daughters of Charity, yet it seemed that it only set their heart even more afire for love of the poor, the persecuted, the abandoned. Paris was liberated on August 25, 1944 and the war would end within the year. Sister Helene, that brave non-violent woman of the French Resistance, wouldn't live to see the end of the war. In December, just a few months after the liberation of France, Sister Helene died of a painful cancer. Sister Agnes, however, did survive the war as did the Jewish family she hid. She lived to the age of 97 and was posthumously honored as one of the British Heroes of the Holocaust. Sister Klara of Hungary also survived the war. She died in 1991 and now has the title "Righteous Among the Nations".

These women, although their history now dates back seventy years or so, still remain alive to me. Their stories still resonate with me. Their bravery inspires me. I thank them for their service, I thank them for their dedication to our mission as Daughters of Charity, I thank them for the example they give to me and all the Daughters of Charity now and to come and pray that they will never be forgotten.


  1. I always love stories from WWII about how people put themselves at risk to protect others. I've personally read hundreds of accounts of these hidden war heroes and I find their example inspiring and it challenges me to consider if I would put my life at risk to protect someone else? I would like to think I would but its hard to know for certain without being in that situation.

    These are the first that I've heard about Daughters of Charity in WWII. Do you know where I can do some additional reading on the ministry of the Daughters during the war in addition to the links you included?

  2. This is amazing, Amanda. We've just been studying this in the Seminary!!! Very well written and an excellent summary.
    Congratulations, Sr. Marguerite B.

  3. I just came across your blog ... Love it. You write so well and the real human interest of heroes you have created is great. Thank you


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