the secret convent evoking the time of King Jan Kazimierz – The first news
In the very heart of downtown Warsaw is a huge secret, but normally invisible, garden where time has stood still since the Swedish Flood and the days of King Jan Kazimierz in the 17th century.
This huge slice of prime real estate that stretches along the Warsaw seawall is owned by a congregation of nuns called the Sisters of Charity and covers five hectares.
The convent is not open to visitors, and its expansive gardens can only be seen through a fence atop the Warsaw Embankment, a few meters from Foksal Street with its lively bars, restaurants and lively clubs. From there it appears as an enclave of a completely different rural world, unchanged for centuries.
To the south, it is framed by busy car, bus and tram lanes on Jerozolimskie Avenue, and to the east by the trendy Powiśle district. The land is the only farm in the city center of the capital.
Although the garden and the convent are normally strictly off-limits, the Sisters of Charity recently offered a rare glimpse of what lies behind their walls. They explained their history and talked about their 350 year mission in Poland.
The sisters are members of the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, a Catholic female religious order founded by Vincent de Paul in France in 1633.
It is one of the largest congregations of nuns in the world with nearly 27,000 sisters in 91 countries, including more than 900 in Poland.
Their motto – The love of Christ crucified urges us! – urges the sisters in their mission to support the sick and the weak by running hospitals, retirement homes, orphanages and schools.
In Polish, they are known as Szarytki, or Gray Nuns, but oddly enough they wear blue clothes. The name comes from the French word charité. When the Poles heard the first group of sisters in France to describe themselves with this word, they quickly changed the name to Szarytki.
The convent is accessed through a large wooden door just off Tamka Street, one of the oldest thoroughfares in Warsaw, which runs steeply down from the center to Powiśle.
The short path to the gate was named Zaułek Ku Szarytkom (To Szarytki Alley) by the Warsaw City Council in 2017. When the remote-controlled gate slowly opens, it feels like time traveling; cobblestones, an attic and a mansion reminiscent of the First Polish Republic and the times of King Jan Kazimierz create a charm of yesteryear.
Sister Jadwiga, archivist of the convent, met us on the steps of the main building and told us about the history of the place.
“We sisters have a mother and a father. Our mother is Queen Louise Maria Gonzaga, wife of King John Casimir, who brought the first Sisters of Charity to Poland in the fall of 1652, ”she says. “Our father is Saint-Vincent in Paulo, who founded the order in France.”
The first three sisters left Paris on September 7, 1652. They arrived in Poland in November of the same year, stopping at Łowicz, where the royal court was located due to the plague.
When they arrived in Warsaw, they first lived near the Church of the Holy Cross.
“They immediately started their activities, caring with all their zeal both for the condition of souls and the material needs of the poor in Warsaw,” Sister Jadwiga said.
Their tasks included collecting the plague-stricken poor from the streets and placing them in the Holy Cross Hospital, caring for the sick, educating orphans and poor girls, and distributing alms.
The queen was very supportive of the sisters and tried to help them in their mission.
In 1659, in order to secure their future, she bought them a mansion with land at the foot of Ostrogski Castle near the Tamka ravine, and gave it to the sisters.
The nuns settled there with 15 orphans on June 7, 1659. Initially, the convent buildings were made of wood. Over time, the region grew thanks to the private bequests of the rich. This allowed them to replace wooden buildings with brick buildings and build more facilities.
The nuns also set up a large fruit and vegetable garden. Even though it was once larger than it is today, it has retained its historic layout of paths and alleys and still serves the needs of the sisters.
As might be expected, World War II, and in particular the Warsaw Uprising, brought tragedy to the convent. In 1939, the church burned down completely. The convent building was also damaged and will be damaged again during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.
Previously, the sisters were heavily involved in the rescue of deported children from the Zamość region when the Germans implemented their dream of lebensraum in the Lublin district.
Sister Lucyna, who was 22 when she entered the convent in 1938, recalls this time in Agata Puścikowska’s book, Sisters of War: “In 1943 the Germans took our Polish children from the Zamość region.
“Polish railway workers have placed wagons with the children on the sidings. Then we intervened. […] We would get out and quickly move the children from the wagons to the cars at night. Where these children came from, I have no idea. Forty children were taken to the hospital, and then we looked for homes for them.
When the uprising broke out, the sisters quickly relocated the young children in their care to the basement and set up a ground floor hospital for wounded insurgents.
Sister Lucyna remembers: “I remember that eight-year-old Basia was one of the insurgents. She set fire to a German tank with a bottle of gasoline. She was touched. His lung was affected. The insurgents carried her in their arms. She did not survive … a little heroine … “
After the uprising, when the town’s population was expelled to Pruszków, some of the sisters were allowed by the Germans to return for items not destroyed or looted. It created more dangers.
Sister Lucyna recalled: “The Germans, perhaps surprisingly, tolerated the white wimps of the Sisters of Charity … But we were attacked by Ukrainians, […], they wanted to rape us … We were defended by German soldiers from the Wehrmacht. Such were the times.
It is impossible to count the number of Jews rescued from German occupation by the sisters.
They often face a terrible conflict of conscience: should they endanger the children they are already caring for by taking in a Jewish child or adult?
The risks were high because in occupied Poland, unlike western countries occupied by the Third Reich, the penalty for giving a slice of bread to a Jew could be shooting on the spot.
It is not known exactly how many Jews the sisters saved. No one kept any records and traces of the Jews’ stay in the convent have been erased.
After the war, the congregation undertook the reconstruction of the destroyed buildings and the work continued until 1956. The church today has a classical character and the buildings have been faithfully restored.
Communism created difficulties for the sisters. They were removed from hospitals, kindergartens and nurseries and could only continue to work in homes for the elderly, terminally ill and children with special needs. In 1964, the sisters removed their signature starched wimps, which they called cones.
Nowadays, the sisters can be seen working in hospitals, retirement homes, doing charitable work in parishes, teaching elements of the Catholic faith to children and adults, running retirement homes, garden gardens. children and summer camps.