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Local nuns honor their heroines

On Dec. 27, 1944, Sister Sara Salkahazi turned to face her executioners and knelt, naked, as she and five others faced certain death.

An eyewitness gives this account: "Prior to the ring of shots, at the bank of the Danube, a low-built woman with short black hair turned toward her executioners with some kind of inexplicable tranquility ... then she knelt down, lifting her eyes to the sky, made a big Sign of the Cross ..."

In a foretelling diary entry, Sister Sara had written: "O sweet Jesus, with complete peace and readiness, I accept now the death you desire for me with all its agonies, pains and sufferings."

Her final act, at age 45, may have proven distracting enough to allow a man, also meant to die that day, to escape the Nazis by jumping into the river. If so, he was another of the 1,000 or so saved by the Sisters of Social Service throughout Eastern Europe during World War II.

In September, 60 years after her death, Sara Salkahazi was beatified -- a step on the road to sainthood -- in a ceremony at St. Stephen's Basilica in Budapest. It was attended by Sisters Anne Lehner, Teresina Joo, Elizabeth Kovacs and Magdalen Kovari, who came from Hungary, beginning in the 1950s, to live in a Buffalo-based community. They were among 10,000 people who flocked to the square that day, including some of the 100 survivors that Sister Sara is said to have saved personally.

On the day of her death as Hungarian Nazis surrounded the home for working women that she founded, Sister Sara arrived and identified herself as the person in charge of the house, assuring her death, though she could have avoided detection.

"She was fully aware of the danger of what she was doing," said Sister Anne, whose community of sisters always puts their lives on the line. Some were imprisoned for resistance during the war, and though Sister Sara was the only one killed, any one of them could have been killed for sheltering Jews and gypsies.

Since emigrating to this country, the Sisters of Social Service have worked in the civil rights movement, taken a stance against war and the death penalty, ministered to refugees, women alcoholics, emotionally disturbed children. In Buffalo, the late Sister Judith Fenyvesi established Daemen College's Department of Social Work and Sister Angela Homoki-Szabo coordinated the Telephone Assurance Program for 16 years, making sure that people who are isolated got a phone call each day.

While they are pleased to think that one of their own may be recognized as a saint, Sister Anne said Sister Sara's life speaks for itself.

"Our way of life demands that we live radically," she said. "No more is needed. There is no more expected than to give your life for others."

Sister Anne, also, was recognized in the St. Anthony Messenger (September 2006), which features stories of sisters and their work in the underground during World War II.

"There has been heroism among our sisters," says Sister Anne, modestly. She crossed the Danube in a rubber raft in 1953 and then walked for five days to the Austrian border. There, crawling over snow, she went through a hole in a barbed wire fence. Spotted by sentries, she escaped, but two of her friends didn't.

Her escape was financed by a Jewish woman who had been sheltered in a motherhouse.

"I had just the clothes on my back, a toothbrush and my Thomas A. Kempis," said Sister Anne.

***

In her pre-convent life, Sister Sara worked as a journalist, a teacher and a bookbinder and was engaged for a time.

In a diary entry, she describes her young adulthood: "Independence, cigarettes, cafes, roaming in the streets bareheaded, with your hands in your pockets, dinner in a pub, gypsy music ..."

"She was a woman who was always in search," said Sister Anne.

After entering the convent, she supervised a kitchen for 500 children, taught religious instruction, gave lectures and organized Catholic Women's groups throughout Slovakia.

One year, when it was time to take her annual temporary vows, Sister Sara was completely exhausted and her burnout was misunderstood by her superiors who refused to let her take her vows.

"She was terribly humiliated," said Sister Anne, adding that Sister Sara's confessor advised her to continue her work as if she was still a member of the community. "She wrote that she didn't feel sadness, but just remained her natural self and convinced her superior of her sincerity," said Sister Anne.

Mary Rose Betten of Camarillo, Calif., was so impressed with Sister Sara's life that she wrote "Becoming Alleluia," a play that uses the device of people returning from the dead and gathering at the site where Sister Sara was killed to tell her story.

"There was nothing to go on, everything was in Hungarian," said Betten, who is an actress, a Clio award winner and a poet. "It really made me see to the core of what she did.

"She was excessive, which many of our saints were. She'd go out pulling a wagon to get food to feed the people. And she had that creative bent and a marvelous sense of humor. She was a little dickens, I think.

"The message I get is not to be afraid, and there was a hell of a lot to be afraid of," said Betten. "She just had guts."
A Mass, celebrated by Bishop Edward Kmiec, will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at Blessed Sacrament Church, 1029 Delaware Ave. The public is invited.

e-mail: pvoell@buffnews.com

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