Saints for Our Times: Polish nun was known for her sensitivity to suffering
By Mary Lou Gibson
Young people have heroes – people they admire and want to emulate. Maybe it’s someone who excels in sports, or one who is a popular entertainer, or someone who has discovered a medical cure or invented a new computer program. The young look to the old to see who has succeeded and who has failed.
Bernardina Maria Jablonska is an example of a young person who was attracted to the work and service of another. She was a young Polish girl living in the late 19th century and had lost her mother when she was 15. She was raised in a devoutly religious family and spent some time in a hermitage where she began to think about a religious vocation. She also became more aware of the suffering of the poor and needy around her.
A few years later, she met a Franciscan tertiary, Albert Chmielowski (1845-1916), and became interested in the work he was doing. As a young man, Adam (as he was known then) lost a leg at 18 while fighting in a Polish insurrection against the Russians. Later he turned to art and gained considerable popularity and fame.
Matthew Bunson writes in “John Paul II’s Book of Saints” that he became acutely aware of the problems faced by the needy and the helpless and he felt compelled to do something. He joined the Franciscans as a member of the Third Order, gave up his painting career and dedicated his life to serving the poor and homeless in Kraków. He became known as Brother Albert after he formed a religious community called the Brothers of the Third Order of St. Francis Servants of the Poor. They became known as the Albertine Brothers in his honor. He established a similar community for women in 1891.
Bernardina had a naïve and idealistic view of what it meant to work with the poor. Sarah Gallick writes in “The Big Book of Women Saints” that she had never seen true urban poverty before and when faced with its reality, she had many doubts. Eventually, she defied her overly protective father and joined the Albertines. Brother Albert became her spiritual director. He encouraged his followers to “Be like the nourishing bread that’s ready on the table for all who may be hungry.”
When Bernardina joined the Albertine sisters, she brought a spiritual insight and a profound awareness of human suffering to the convent. Bunson writes that her holiness and leadership abilities led to her election as superior. She was 24 in 1902 when she was named superior general of the Albertine Sisters, a role she maintained until her death 38 years later. Biographers acknowledge Bernardina as the co-foundress of the Third Order of St. Francis Servants of the Poor (Albertine Sisters).
Bernardina’s motto was “To give, eternally to give.” She founded hospices for the sick and the poor and pioneered many charitable works. Bunson noted that she taught her sisters to understand that each human being shares in the suffering of everyone around them. She insisted that “My neighbor’s suffering is my suffering.”
During World War II, the Albertine Sisters were among many Polish convents that sheltered Jewish women and children at great risk to themselves, according to Gallick.
Bernardina died in Kraków on Sept. 23, 1940. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1997 at Zakopane, Poland. He praised Blessed Bernardina Maria Jablonska as an example of the feminine genius that showed itself in her sensitivity to human suffering. He said it was her willingness to help others and her nurturing qualities that brought forth her abundant Christian charity and attracted others to her work.
The Albertine Sisters are active in 69 foundations with 53 in Poland and 16 in other countries including England, Argentina, Bolivia, Russia, the Ukraine, Italy, and the U.S.
Brother Albert was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1989. His feast day is June 17. When St. John Paul II was a young seminarian (Karol Wojtyla), he wrote a play about Brother Albert’s life entitled “Our God’s Brother.” The play chronicled Brother Albert’s life as a young Polish freedom fighter, followed by his years as an artist, and finally, as a servant of the poor and founder of the Albertine Brothers.