This one hits close to home… really close to home. This story is about an individual who happened to be my mother’s priest when she was a child in Lankin, North Dakota. She found this story about him from the Walsh County Press from February 23rd, 1956. There are other newspapers that take from this story such as the Boston Globe, but they are about identical. In short, Father Ludvik Sventinsky is a gentleman from Czechoslovakia (Now Czech Republic) who stood up to both the Nazis and the Soviet Union in dramatic fashion. Afterward, he wound up in North Dakota (Park River, Lankin, Anamoose) and continued to serve his ministry. I do not know much about him but from what I hear he was a kind gentleman, went on hunting trips with my grandpa and my mother would pray and sing the Agnus Dei for him.
There are two elements from the article, aside from the incredible story, that intrigued me to learn more about. One is the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, which Father escaped from. As impossible as it sounds, this was one of the more brutal labor camps in the Nazi network, in part because prisoners were forced to climb up a giant hill all day long, only for many of them to be pushed off a cliff by fellow prisoners. You can learn more about Mauthausen from the Wikipedia article here. There is also a movie on Netflix called “The Photographer of Mauthausen”, but I haven’t seen it yet.
The other element of the aritcle was this mysterious mentor bishop mentioned: Stephen Trochta of Leitmeritz. The story on him in the article ends with, “the bishop later was taken to prison. When last heard of, he was critically ill.” This gentleman was amazing. He also spent his entire adult life in the crosshairs of Nazis and Communists. He ended up escaping from both regimes, but the Communists hounded him until his death. In 1969, Pope Paul VI made him a Cardinal. Even then, they stalked him. If you would like to know more about his life, here are a few resources: a 10 minute Youtube video documentary, a journal article titled “Štěpán Cardinal Trochta, a Steadfast Defender of the Church in Czechoslovakia” by the Catholic Historical Review, and the Wikipedia entry.
Lastly I want to say, this is the first of my “Valley Saints” articles, of which the goal is to tell the story of local Catholics who lived holy and heroic lives, and to keep their memories alive. We are the Church, and we should pass on the stories of our heroes for the ages and centuries to come. It is my hope and prayer readers would be inspired to unearth and uncover their local heritage and keep the flame of hope alive. “We stand on the shoulders of giants”, as the saying goes.
Anyways, I would like to compile as much information and media as I can get on Father Sventinsky. Please send me an email at email@example.com if you have any more information and media. For now, here is the article from Walsh County Press.
The following article is from the Walsh County Press, North Dakota—February 23rd, 1956
Shared with permission by Walsh County Press – Park River
Escapee Priest Depicts ‘Way of Cross’ under Nazi, Red Regimes’ by Tom Kelly
The way of the Cross is not easy. A 35-year-old Czechoslovakian priest now in Park River can testify to that. Rev. Ludvik Svetinsky, the assistant pastor of St. Mary’s parish, spent years behind the barbed wire fences of both the Nazi and Communist concentration camps for refusing to compromise his religion.
This week as churches observed the solemn season of Lent with its recollections of the persecution for Christ, the Press interviewed the recent escapee from behind the Iron Curtain.
The story, with Nazi storm troopers as twentieth-century counterparts of the Roman soldiers and Communist “brainwashing” replacing the Herodian third degree, again illustrates that there are countries in the world today where a decision to follow Him (Christ) may mean following Him to the Cross or it’s modern substitute, the firing squad.
The stocky, wavy-haired Czech who has been in Park River since October came to this country through the United States Escapee Program and the National Catholic Welfare committee. His parents still live in Moravia but he has a brother in New York and a sister in Chicago. They came to America shortly after he arrived last June.
The English language is his toughest opponent at present. But with Mrs. J.C. Kenney of Park River is his tutor and a Czech-English dictionary within easy reach, his English is improving rapidly. He says he thinks he is getting “the hang of things,” thanks to the help and consideration of several new American friends, the Sisters of the Presentation Order at St. Ansgar’s hospital and Rev. J. J. O’Meara, St. Mary’s church pastor, whom the priest calls “the Chief.”
Drafted for Hard Labor
Father Svetinsky had his first taste of oppression in 1942, just one month after he began the study of theology in Czechoslovakia. The Nazis drafted him for hard labor. When Hitler’s armies met disaster at Stalingrad, he took part in a secret celebration, was discovered and sent to Mauthausen, the notorious extermination camp.
He recalls that one day he saw Hitler’s storm troops shoot 16 captured parachutists that they had fallen in exhaustion from a “special work exercise.” Father Svetinsky’s legs still bear scars picked up from three beatings at the hands of the Nazi troops.
Shortly after he arrived at Mauthausen he says he met a man who was to have a decisive influence in his life — Monsignor (later bishop) Stephen Trochta. “We were still separated from the rest of the prisoners there by a wire fence when I noticed a tall, dark-haired unshaved man slowly approaching the fence,” he said. “After a few words, he handed me a small piece of bread across the wires. I was exhausted and had not eaten for days. The piece of bread then seemed a welcome and comfort to youth in distress. Today, however, I know that it was infinitely more than that. It was the beginning of the most intensive 24 months of religious education in my life.”
He says that bonds between the Czechoslovak religious leaders and their followers in that time of Nazi persecution later made it impossible for the Communists to drive a wedge between them. With the fall of Nazi power, the young Czech returned to a seminary. And soon the Communists, who took over, began to exert their pressure.
Reds Tried to be Subtle
For the first five years after the war, he recalls, the Reds “tried to keep it subtle”, but made vigorous attempts to lure the lower clergy away from their allegiance to their bishops. When that failed, they used sterner tactics.
From 1950 to 1953, Father Svetinsky says, the Communists imprisoned all the bishops of Czechoslovakia.
He cited the elections of 1946 as a typical example of Communist tactics at an early stage of the struggle. During the election campaign, the Communists had challenged the voters to display openly their choice to the officials at the voting places. They contended honest men had nothing to fear from voting publicly. Thus, they attacked the secret ballot under the formula that those using the secret ballot must be hiding something or are cowards.
Most voters opposing the government relented and marked their ballots openly for the party ticket, not daring to draw suspicion by voting secretly for fear they would be marked for possible later appraisals.
Svetinsky, then a theology student, decided not to hide his distrust of the Communist infiltrated government and handed in a blank ballot. He remembers “that day my name was put on the blacklist for the first time.”
He was ordained in 1950 by his spiritual leader of the Nazi concentration camp– Bishop Trochta of Leitmeritz. The bishop was under strictest surveillance and Father Svetinsky could speak to him only in the presence of Communist guards. But their two years of “education” at Mauthausen was a thorough preparation for emergencies created by the new Communist oppressors.
The bishop later was taken to prison. When last heard of, he was critically ill.
The exercise of religious functions became more difficult. One time, the priest relates, he wanted to plan a festivity, but the Communist authorities would not permit such a celebration. So he obtained approval instead to offer prayers for a good harvest.
Then he let word get around that the bishop would be there. Throngs turned up, ignoring the ceremony the Reds had planned that day to mark the opening of a new munitions factory. The Communists were furious. The priest was accused of organizing demonstrations and told he would be thrown in jail if he dared another provocation.
Other attempts also were made by the Communists to “use” the clergy. A series of mild-mannered but persistent petitioners asked him to sign protestations against germ warfare, imperialists, war-mongers and the like. Sometimes he said it was difficult to refuse because of veiled threats or because the lamentations of some petitioner that he himself would be held responsible and punished if he didn’t get the priest’s signature. Father Svetinsky declares he did not sign the propaganda statements because his signature would have been used to influence other people and to give the impression he was a Communist sympathizer.
Refuses to take Oath
The government confiscated all church property but agreed to pay salaries of the clergymen if they would swear allegiance to the Communist State. He refused to take the oath and become financially dependent on the Communist government, so he was drafted for “military service”. Together with other Rome -devoted priests and theology students, he was put in a special “educational” hard labor battalion.
After eight hours of chopping down trees or digging trenches, these “soldiers” had to listen to lectures on Communist ideology. Father Svetinsky says the students and priests had better philosophical training than their masters and knew the Marx-Leninists better than their instructors as that had been part of their theological training for years. Consequently, they got their teachers in trouble often and a number of Communists began to waver in their own convictions. He says two of his Red instructors were converted to their one-time religious faith.
Finally, the time came when a friend told the priest that the Communists were nearing the end of their patience with him and his name was about to be put on the list for transfer to a concentration camp for “incorrigibles”. He began preparing for his escape.
A visit to his native village of Dolni Nemci at Easter in 1951, provided the opportunity.
He mounted the pulpit of his church and proceeded to denounce the Communist party line— which at that time taught that Communism and religion are compatible and can go together. He pointed to restrictions on the Church and described life in the labor battalion where the priests were prohibited from saying Mass or reading theological literature. Then, after asking the congregation to pray for both the imprisoned bishops and the Communists (“That they may see the truth”), he stepped down and walked out of the church.
Hours later, the police were still searching for him. But he was already on his way through the Iron Curtain to the free West by means he declines to disclose. He finally arrived at refugee camps in Wegscheid and Linz and later helped out at an Austrian parish at Steyr.
“My superiors, the bishops of Czechoslovakia, are still in prison because they refused to deny their religious convictions.” The priest says, “The way Communists treat religious leaders provides the Free World with a sure way of telling whether or not Moscow’s slogans of co-existence, disarmament, or apparent concessions are sincere or whether they are just another means of deception and of gaining time for their final goals.”
(Other sources for this article besides the Press interview included stories in the U.S. Stars and Stripes and the Omaha World-Herold).