By Filip Mazurczak
Hanna Chrzanowska, a Polish nurse who will be beatified April 28, was devoted to her vocation attending to the sick and suffering.
Like St. Francis of Assisi, Chrzanowska came from a privileged aristocratic family but decided to devote her life to the suffering souls in her midst. Her father, Ignacy, was a professor of Polish literature at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, while her mother founded a children’s hospital and was the director of the Warsaw School of Nursing.
Her parents were known for their charitable work, as Pawel Zuchniewicz’s Polish-language biography Siostra naszego Boga (“Our God’s Sister”) relates. The prominent Catholic journalist’s memoir details a life of Christian charity.
Chrzanowska decided to become a nurse in 1920 during the Polish-Bolshevik War, when she helped war invalids and attended a nursing course offered by the American Red Cross. In 1939, Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Along with other professors from the Jagiellonian University, Ignacy Chrzanowski was deported to the Sachsenhausen Nazi concentration camp. Meanwhile, Hanna’s brother Bogdan was among the Polish reserve officers shot by the Soviets in Katyn.
After the invasion of Poland, Archbishop Adam Stefan Sapieha of Krakow formed the Civic Committee for Social Aid. Undeterred by her family’s losses, Hanna became an active member, according to the World Federation of the Catholic Medical Associations, helping to organize hiding places for Jewish orphans fleeing the Krakow Ghetto and secure new homes for Polish refugees coming from Warsaw after the city’s nearly complete destruction in 1944. After the war, Chrzanowska went to New York on a one-year stipend to study nursing. Upon returning, she published books and articles on family nursing and taught in nursing schools. She also started to organize annual retreats for health care professionals to the Marian Shrine of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa, much to the chagrin of Poland’s postwar communist government.
By the 1950s, Chrzanowska had settled in Krakow. Although before the war the Catholic Church in Poland played a leading role in charitable work (as it does today), under communism the atheistic regime sought to curb that role. Yet she defied the authorities and established a system of “parish nursing” in Krakow. Later, her friend Teresa Strzembosz would develop a similar system in Warsaw. By the 1970s, most parishes in Krakow participated in this system.
Parish nursing was a response to the fact that there were many sick, suffering people within a parish’s borders requiring medical attention, but their plight was invisible to most. Chrzanowska’s collaborators would come to the homes of these people and not only attend to their medical needs, but also clean their homes (many such patients were greatly neglected) and offer them company and friendship.
Initially, Chrzanowska worked alone. Eventually, nuns would help her, and, later, she succeeded in encouraging a growing army of university students from the student ministry at St. Anne’s Collegiate Church to volunteer and come to sick parishioners’ homes.
Chrzanowska stressed that volunteers would be obliged to form a close bond with those under their care and see them regularly. Her work and Christian charity has been detailed in Tygodnik Powszechny, a Polish Roman Catholic weekly magazine, by Father Adam Boniecki, who cooperated with her when he was in charge of the student ministry at St. Anne’s Collegiate Church.
Chrzanowska responded to all with love, even in the most difficult cases, according to the Polish version of the Aleteia website. Once, for example, she was called to attend to a paralyzed 93-year-old woman with a hole in her forehead, which was the result of cancer.
In developing parish nursing in Krakow, Chrzanowska was motivated, above all, by her faith. She was particularly drawn to the Benedictine charism of work and prayer, becoming a Benedictine oblate.
Reading the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, which speaks of the role of the laity in the Church, greatly inspired Chrzanowska in engaging laypeople to actively seek out the sick and suffering.
She found a kindred spirit in Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, the future Pope John Paul II, who was then the archbishop of Krakow, who asked her to give a speech on the role of the laity in the Church during the synod he held to implement the Council’s teaching in his archdiocese.
With Chrzanowska’s help, Cardinal Wojtyła would visit dozens of sick Cracovians, preferably those in the most desperate conditions, in their homes each year.
Chrzanowska reached out to all the sick, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, exhibiting charity to all while not proselytizing. However, the loving Christian witness of Chrzanowska and her helpers led to many conversions.
For example, Sister Serafina, a nun who closely worked with her, attended to an atheist mathematics professor suffering from rheumatism, according to Zuchniewicz’s book.
“When will you start converting me?” he would ask sarcastically.
Over time, however, he became so impressed with her love and kindness that he had a conversion and asked to confess to a priest before his death. “There’s Kant’s philosophy, and there’s the philosophy of the Gospel,” he proclaimed.
Eventually, the nurse’s helpers and the sick they attended to formed a community. An annual retreat was held for the sick in Trzebinia; its participants looked forward to it all year.
When Hanna Chrzanowska died in 1973, the Carmelite basilica was crowded with mourners for her funeral Mass. The church was filled with wheelchairs with the many sick people to whom Chrzanowska gave hope, as well as the students and nuns who cared for them.
The funeral Mass was celebrated by Cardinal Wojtyła, who also gave the homily. In it, the future pope said: “Thank you, Hanna, for being with us. You are the embodiment of the Sermon on the Mount, especially the blessing that says: ‘Blessed are the merciful.’”
Although when most Catholics hear the word “vocation” they think of priests and members of religious orders, Hanna Chrzanowska shows that laypeople also have a vocation and that it can be no less heroic or saintly.
Filip Mazurczak writes from New York