Nijole Sadunaite, a Lithuanian nun who opposed Soviet rule, dies at 85

Nijole Sadunaite, a fearless but forgiving Roman Catholic nun and anti-Soviet Lithuanian nationalist inspired by Pope John Paul II and publicly acclaimed by President Ronald Reagan, died March 31 in Vilnius. She was 85 years old.

Her death was confirmed by Sister Gerarda Elena Suliauskaite, winner of the Freedom Prize of the Republic of Lithuania, also awarded to Sister Sadunaite in 2018 for her defense of democracy and human rights. She was the first woman to receive the award.

In 1975, Sister Sadunaite (pronounced sah-DOO-nay-teh) was arrested by KGB agents who raided an apartment where she was writing an underground newspaper, The Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania, which documented abuses against Christians in the Baltic. state.

“I had written six pages when I got caught, so I actually got a year for each page,” she told The Atlantic in 1994.

She was incarcerated for six years, most of which she spent in prison and some of which she spent in a mental institution and in exile in a Siberian penal colony.

For most of the 1980s, Sister Sadunaite remained largely hidden from public view, but she was instrumental in organizing a demonstration in 1987 that galvanized the Lithuanian independence movement. Hundreds of Lithuanians sang the patriotic anthem of national independence, which had been banned by the 1939 non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, an agreement that effectively condoned the Soviet takeover of Lithuania.

The year of the demonstration, the manuscript of a memoir that he had secretly brought to Moscow six years earlier and smuggled out of the Soviet Union was published in the United States. Titled “A Radiance in the Gulag,” it was reviewed by the Los Angeles Times as “a richly textured narrative of faith in action against overwhelming odds.”

That same year, Sister Sadunaite emerged from hiding to lead a demonstration that revitalized the independence movement. In 1988, she and other dissidents were invited to lunch at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and she joined a table with President Reagan and the first lady, Nancy Reagan; Mr. Reagan had attended summit meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Undeterred in the face of persecution and imprisonment, Sister Sadunaite remained a vibrant voice for religious freedom and national independence from the officially atheist Soviet Union. Lithuania unilaterally declared independence in 1990.

Felicija Nijole Sadunaite was born on July 22, 1938, in Kaunas, a city in central Lithuania, to Veronika Rimkute-Saduniene and Jonas Sadunas, who was an agronomist and teacher.

Her very religious Roman Catholic family lived in constant fear of being deported to a Siberian labor camp for practicing their religion. In her memoirs he wrote: “Whenever we heard the roar of car engines early in the morning, we all ran into the cornfields to hide, for fear that they would take us to Siberia. This is how most Lithuanians lived, as if on the edge of a volcano.”

In 1956, she was so moved by her friend's confirmation (she had been confirmed at the age of 7) that she entered a clandestine convent and, until her death, served in the monastery of the Congregation of the Handmaids of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, in Pavilny, a part of Vilnius.

Although she had trained as a nurse, after her release from prison Sister Sadunaite could only find work as a housekeeper under Soviet rule.

While some dissidents would become more conciliatory towards Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sister Sadunaita remained staunchly opposed to the Russian government. But, surprisingly, she never expressed bitterness towards her captors or her tormentors. Rather, you have repeatedly stated that the Church's role in bringing justice is not only to pray for the oppressed, but also to pray that the oppressors themselves will be courageous enough to ask for forgiveness.

“Even if an evil person were in trouble,” he wrote from prison, “I would share with him my last morsel of bread.”

After her arrest in 1975, KGB agents asked her to divulge the names of the editors of her underground Catholic newspaper.

She refused. Instead, she told the authorities that they were guilty of any criticism of the government because the editorials were largely a response to the state's official policy of anti-religious persecution and propaganda.

Sister Sadunaite has often said that her activism was inspired in part by the experience of Pope John Paul II, a native of Poland, whose resistance to atheism, she said, helped hasten the collapse of European communism.

“The pope was someone who had escaped the same system that oppressed us,” he told The Atlantic.

“He said that people who fight and die for their country are not just martyrs, but can be saints,” he said. “We thought this meant the Pope understood what we were doing and that we needed to do whatever was necessary to liberate our land. He said it again and again. He made me want to be strong and courageous, even when I was afraid.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *