The horrors of life in the Gulag became the day to day experiences of Walter Ciszek, who was imprisoned and sentenced to hard labour in Siberia. Living in the Soviet Union for more than two decades, Ciszek never let the oppression and persecution to which he was subjected dull his zeal for carrying out his work as missionary.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1904, the son of Polish immigrants, Walter Ciszek was tough and unruly as a child. Frequently skipping school and getting into fights, it came as a surprise to his parents when he announced his intention to become a priest. He entered the Jesuit noviciate at Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1928.
In Russia at this time religious rights and freedoms were being persecuted under the laws of the Soviet Union only established twelve years before, and Pope Pius XI made an appeal for missionaries to travel to Russia. Excited by the challenge, Ciszek resolved to go, and so in 1934 he was sent to Rome where he studied the Russian language and history as well as theology at the Pontifical Russian College. He was ordained in 1937 and the following year travelled to a Jesuit mission in eastern Poland, as no priest could enter directly into Russia.
This mission was forced to close the following year however with the outbreak of the Second World War. Noting the streams of exiles heading east, Ciszek arranged to cross over the Russian border under an assumed name and, together with two other Jesuits, travel by train to the Ural Mountains. There, in the town of Chusovoy, Ciszek worked as a logger and secretly celebrated Mass for those there who desired it. In 1941 he was arrested and sent to Lubyanka prison in Moscow, accused of espionage on behalf of the Vatican. Here he was routinely interrogated and tortured for months, before he finally gave in upon threat of his life and signed a false confession created by the authorities. Declared guilty of espionage, he was sentenced to fifteen years labour in Siberia. However he would remain at Lubyanka for another four years, mostly in solitary confinement.
In 1946 Ciszek travelled by train and boat to a gulag at Norilsk, where he worked in construction and coal mining. Far above the Arctic Circle, this work was relentless and taxing. Some relief came from being able to celebrate Mass and hear the confessions of his fellow inmates. Finally, in 1955, having received three years off his sentence for surpassing work quotas, Ciszek was released; however given his apparent crime he was confined to the city of Norilsk and the KGB continued to keep tabs on him. He was allowed to write to his sister in America, letting his family know he was alive long after they gave up hope of his returning.
Working in a chemical factory, Ciszek continued to give Mass to an ever growing congregation until the authorities stepped in and told him he was to leave the city and never come back. In Krasnoyarsk he established missionary parishes until the KGB discovered this too and moved him again. He ended up in Abakan where he got a job as a mechanic and worked for four more years. In 1963 he received a letter from his sister who had obtained a visa to come to Moscow to see him. He was overjoyed, but waited and waited and nothing came of it. Then, months later he was taken to Moscow where he was introduced to a man from the American consulate. Papers were signed and Ciszek was put on a plane for America. He had been traded along with another in exchange for two Soviet agents.
Back in America after decades of imprisonment, Ciszek slowly built a new life for himself; in 1965 he began teaching at Fordham University in Pennsylvania. He wrote two books about his years in Russia – With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me. After years of declining health he died in 1984, and was soon after put forward for consideration of beatification as part of the process to become a saint.
“The plain and simple truth is that his will is what he actually wills to send us each day, in the way of circumstances, places, people, and problems. The trick is to learn to see that – not just in theory, or not just occasionally in a flash of insight granted by God’s grace, but every day” (from He Leadeth Me).