Working quietly and efficiently, Sister Pam Nosbusch yesterday knelt beside the staircase of her convent, pulling up a rug and then the lid from overtop her secret hiding place.
In her hand, she clutched a small, wrapped parcel that, in this re-enacted scenario, could contain any Catholic religious article forbidden in 1950s Soviet-dominated Lithuania: Rosary beads, prayer books, perhaps a statuette of the Virgin Mary.
Sister Pam held the parcel to her lips before stashing it inside the exposed hole in the floor. If KGB or police officers were to discover her objects, not only would she lose them, but she could be punished and possibly imprisoned and tortured.
Sister Pam is one of 16 Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania who are taking part in a documentary about the harrowing experiences of Catholic nuns in five Eastern European countries that were under Soviet domination.
Sisters Survivors: Catholic Sisters and European Communism will cover the period from 1948 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a time when nuns and other Catholic leaders who stayed true to their faith were harassed, imprisoned, and exiled by secular Communist state authorities.
While Catholicism was not formally outlawed in the Soviet Union or most of its satellite nations, it was heavily suppressed. Atheism was the official policy of the Communist Party.
Sister Judy Zielinski, a Sylvania Franciscan and former Toledoan, is writing and producing the documentary with a team from NewGroup Media of South Bend, Ind.
Today the crew continues its two-day project of filming Franciscan sisters in re-enactments at St. Agnes Convent, 3911 Martha Ave.
The Toledo footage will serve as visual depictions for several stories that the European nuns, now in their 80s and 90s, describe in more than 35 recorded interviews that Sister Judy and the documentary crew conducted last year in Eastern Europe.
The nuns represent Romania, Lithuania, Hungary, Ukraine, and Slovakia.
"In one hour, we are trying to show what happened to thousands of religious sisters in five different countries," Sister Judy said.
Along with Sister Pam's scene, the Toledo footage will include re-enactments of interrogations and the torture the nuns received as well as a ceremony during which a "secret sister" professes final vows.
Sister Julie Myers will re-enact the experiences of Sister Clara Laslau, a Romanian nun imprisoned for 14 years for refusing to give information about Catholic bishops and priests.
Sister Clara was beaten regularly for her defiance, once for three hours with metal rods.
Today, Sister Julie will wear fake blood and make-up during the re-enactment scene, during which the camera is to capture her grimace as a guard whacks metal onto a pillow that she will hold.
Sister Judy, 59, lives in South Bend and is a former English and communications teacher at Cardinal Stritch High School in Oregon.
A veteran documentary producer, Sister Judy said she was inspired to bring her film crew to Toledo after scouting the Franciscans' 81-year-old St. Agnes Convent, which houses three sisters and is separate from the order's mother house campus in Sylvania.
The third-floor laundry chute makes a perfect "trap door," and parts of its musty basement resemble a Lithuanian prison that she toured last year while filming in Europe.
And most importantly, the Franciscan sisters proved eager volunteers.
"I guess I could have hired actresses somewhere, but using sisters as actresses is very powerful," she said.
Sister Judy said the degree of religious suppression varied in Soviet-dominated countries. Still, it was common for Catholic convents to receive surprise knocks on the door by authorities.
"They might say, 'As of tomorrow, you no longer exist. We are seizing your mother house. You can no longer wear the habit and veil. You have no right to assembly and you have to scatter and go live in apartments and get jobs,'•" she said.
Before this week's filming, Sister Judy visited the Franciscan sisters and previewed the documentary's six-minute trailer.
Although many of the sisters already knew about the Communist persecution of nuns, hearing the first-person interviews was extremely moving, recalled Sister Martha Herkness.
"It brings me to tears to think that our sisters of the sisterhood had to go through all of that - and the faith it took to do it," she said.
The trailer concludes with a description of forgiveness from an elderly Sister Clara, who speaks through an interpreter.
"When I met one of my torturers again, I said, 'Good evening,' to him and put out my hand." The man replied, "How can you talk to me like that when I almost destroyed you? I said, 'I never hated you. I prayed for you all this time.'•"
Sister Judy hopes to have the documentary ready for broadcast on PBS sometime in 2009.
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