ROME, DEC. 22, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Few people know about the heroics of Mother Mary Xavier Marteau during the Nazi occupation of Rome.
That may change after last week. On Thursday, Sister Lignone Colette, superior general of the Ursulines of the Roman Union, received the honor “Righteous Among the Nations,” given in memory of Mother Mary Xavier (1870-1962).
The highest honor conferred by Israel on non-Jewish citizens, it is bestowed on persons who, risking their own lives and receiving nothing in return, saved one or more Jews from persecution.
The Yad Vashem Institute helped bring to light the story of Mother Mary Xavier. During World War II, the then secretary-general of the Ursulines opened the doors of the motherhouse to give refuge to 103 Jews.
In October 1943, the religious community received a certificate signed by Cardinal Luigi Maglione, Pope Pius XII’s secretary of state, stating that the house was a direct dependency of the Holy See and, consequently, could not be searched. This hindered the Germans from finding the refugees.
The nun’s heroic acts were recounted by two Jews, Maria Luisa della Seta and her sister Marcella, who were saved by the Ursuline convent.
“Mother Mary Xavier was our protector,” Maria Luisa della Seta wrote to Yad Vashem. “The convent where she lived is on Via Nomentana. She took care of my sister and me regardless of the expense, without concentrating on the historical circumstances, helping us at any time of the day or night.”
“When we were despairing about finding a place in which to hide, we knocked on the convent’s door and Mother Mary Xavier received us, offered us shelter and did everything possible to find a safe hiding place for our relatives, who in fact were hidden in a clinic,” she said.
“Mary Xavier found ways of identifying more places in which to hide other Jews and to procure our identity cards,” Maria Luisa della Seta stated. “She gave us the courage to struggle for our survival and comforted us with the knowledge that we were among friends.”
The work of the nuns had begun much earlier than the 1943-1944 Nazi occupation. Beginning Aug. 22, 1940, the day that the Gestapo initiated its persecution of Polish refugees everywhere, the Ursulines of the Via Nomentana welcomed the persecuted.
Documents record that Mother Maria Stanislas Polotynska distributed aid to refugees with the money she had received from the Pope.
Given these activities, at the end of 1941 the Ursuline motherhouse was placed under strict surveillance by the Fascist authorities. Nevertheless, the convent intensified its work beginning in September 1943, when the threat to exterminate Jews was made explicit.
The community’s book of entries and exits, for instance, recorded that Maria Siele was hidden in the convent in April 1943, and Lucia and Gisella Endelli in September of the same year.
Sister Mary Magdalen Bellasis described the arrival of these women as follows: “A young Jewish girl, whose parents had been deported to Germany, came and asked us to receive her together with her 8-year-old sister. They had fled from Croatia and arrived in Italy as best they could. The little girl was dressed as a boy and was being carried by a woman who had the name of her young son recorded in her passport.”
Maria Luisa and Marcella Della Seta were welcomed by the Ursulines on Sept. 29, 1943. On Dec. 15, they received an additional 15 members of the family.
The nuns’ efforts to help the persecuted were so well known that in December 1943 the Pope sent Mother Mary Xavier the sum of 10,000 lire to help in her lifesaving work.