Whenever new members come to our community, they study Benedictine history and especially the history of Mount St. Scholastica. Recently, I was teaching about something in our history that is not generally well known outside of our own monastery. As we all know, there are periods in history when there is resentment or even persecution of people for their particular faith.
In the early 1900s, the French government went through a period of great hostility towards religion in general, but particularly Catholic religious life. Very strict laws on the separation of church and state were passed around 1904. Among those who would be severely affected was a community of Benedictine nuns in Flavigny, a place along the border between France and Germany. The sisters traced their community back 1000 years, and they had been persecuted, expelled and moved more than once before. But they always managed to regroup and carry on their life of prayer and community.
The newspapers of the time give heartbreaking accounts of the sisters being driven from their monastery. Large groups of mounted police gathered at the gates and demanded to be let in. There are descriptions of them forcing their way through the gate, the courtyard, and the doors, resisted at each point by employees and friends of the sisters. Finally, with hatchet blows, the troops burst into the enclosure and began tearing through rooms searching for the sisters. It is no surprise that they were all found gathered in their chapel and, as the government official read the degree of expulsion, the sisters chanted their hymns loudly over his voice. Two of the sisters had run to the bell tower and kept ringing the bell to alert the townspeople until officers came and seized them. Finally, all of the nuns were shoved out of the chapel and cast into the street. As they left, the sisters were welcomed with some cries of “Long live the sisters! Long live liberty!” At the same time, other voices were heard insulting their Catholic faith. They found shelter with family members or the local parish priest until they could find safety.
You may be wondering what all this has to do with Atchison, Kansas, halfway around the world. It happens that there were French Benedictine monks in America who made a connection with the Mount community and shared the story of the French nuns’ plight. Between 1904 and 1906, eight of them arrived in Atchison, probably none of them familiar with the English language or American culture. Their resilient community would be re-established some years later and members reunited from other places in Europe, but they were soon to suffer through two world wars. The American group would never return to their homeland and their sisters but were welcomed into the Mount community.
We know that such stories are not just past history, but that Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other religious groups are being threatened, tortured and banished in many places around the world today. When hearing stories like these, do you ever wonder what you would do if some force were to burst into your church and tell you that you were forbidden to worship? How would you feel if your property was taken from you because of your faith? What if you were driven from your home? Thinking about the French experience, I also sometimes wonder how the people of Atchison would react if someone threatened us. We can be grateful for the religious freedom we enjoy, but we must never take it for granted. Perhaps a bigger question is, if there were a persecution, would there be enough evidence of faith in my life for me to be a target at all.