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Archive Visit Number Five: “Make your choice; either be burned alive in the cellar or have yourselves killed in the street.” The Harrowing story of the Monastery of Lafelt

Cassie Bendel

Posted on November 08 2020

Archive Visit Number Five: “Make your choice; either be burned alive in the cellar or have yourselves killed in the street.” The Harrowing story of the Monastery of Lafelt

Over the last few weeks, we’ve delved into the thick folder that holds correspondence between the Sisters of the Visitation at Mount de Chantal and their sisters in Europe during the second World War. Truth be told, I could keep going for a year or more of posts about the brave women who held out during the Nazi occupation, when many of the monasteries were taken over to become training centers, hospitals, or armaments, and the subsequent rise of Communism when their schools began to close and they could barely keep each other fed. I’m sure this is likely a very small dose of how the sisters of the 1930’s and 1940’s felt when they did their best to provide food and supplies to their fellow sisters: intrigued and overwhelmed.

                The Mount has so many more stories to share with us, and in the coming weeks as the holidays approach, we’ll start in on some more lighthearted topics. But, before we leave behind this part of the collection, I’d like to share one more story.

                Monastery de la Visitation Laeffelt was once a monastery in the small Belgium town of Lafelt (or Laaffelt, or Lauffeld, depending on what time in history you’re looking at). Lafelt sits just barely inside the border Belgium shares with the Netherlands, part of the region known as Flemish Limburg. The monastery and school closed in the 1970’s, and the town remains as a small farming borough of the larger town of Reimst. I could find very little on Lafelt and almost nothing on its former monastery. That’s why these letters are important.

From our Monastery of Laeffelt,

October 3, 1945

My very honored and beloved Mother,

                It was with great joy that we received your dear letter so full of kindness, dated July 21st. We have not yet received word about the packages which your Charity sent, but our Very Honored Mother does not wish us to delay any longer to thank your charity for your kindness towards us.

                Do we need anything? Oh, yes, my good and dear Mother! Your Charity also asks us to give you some details. As yet it is not possible for us to write a circular; but since we are writing to Your Charity, we will give you some details that may interest you. It has pleased the good God to try us. On May 10, 1940, at 4 a.m., our monastery was suddenly bombed. We were able to get into the cellar without meeting any accidents. At 7 a.m. a solider came to show us a bloody bone, saying: “This your Chaplain’s skull,” and then he asked us if any of us had been wounded. Towards 11 a.m., another solder brought us the sacred Ciborium, saying: “You have no longer any Tabernacle.” Then we consumed all of the sacred particles. The Germans were bombing us without respite. One bomb went through one of our cellars, knocking down the wall of the cellar in which we were. We were thrown down flat upon the ground in complete darkness. But we helped each other getting up and shaking off the dust and bricks that covered us. Even then no one was wounded.

                At about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, 300 soldiers came down in our cellars, telling us that the enemy was there and they could hold out no longer. At 4 o’clock, we heard a voice above us crying out: “Come quickly, comrades, the convent is on fire!” As the cloister was already burning, the opening was barred to us, so there was no way of fleeing. “What shall we do?” One of the soldiers answered: “Make your choice; either be burned alive in the cellar or have yourselves killed in the street.” Once outside, we were exposed to the fire of the Germans, who were shooting at our soldiers, and the latter were shooting back. So we were in the midst of the battle; seven of our Sisters were wounded by the cannon balls, two of them only slightly, the other five were picked up by the Germans with their wounded soldiers and sent with them to a hospital in Maastricht. Two of our Sisters were killed by a canon shot in the cellar, where they had taken refuge; two others were burned alive. The story is entirely too long to be told with all the details in a letter, dear Mother.

                We wandered about and camped here and there for six weeks. Then, one evening, we came upon the old, abandoned castle of Gors op Leeuw, absolutely uninhabited, ruined, and without water. The good Cure (vicar) of the little village procured us some bread and some benches from his Patronage. The following day, our first care was to wash our linen in a pond, letting it dry on some bushes, putting it on again when it was dry. A few days later, our Out-Sisters, while on a begging expedition to get some vegetables to make soup for us, found an old, cracked kettle. This we placed on a few stones, close to the pond. Then we gathered some wood to make a fire; thus, we were able to boil one chemise at a time, then we rinsed it out in the pond. We lived like real gypsies. The good Cure went around begging for us: handkerchiefs, old linen, some utensils, some beds. People gave us what they could use no longer. So, little by little, we got what was absolutely necessary, and we tasted real joy in living in such utter poverty, despoiled of everything.

                At last, we returned to Laeffelt in May, 1942. One wing of our monastery had been reconstructed, although it was not finished. We were able to take up again our religious life, but under the greatest difficulties. There is no basement in the little wing which we are now inhabiting. There are only three small parlors, the small room of our Out-Sisters and a sacristy. On our side of the grate, there is only a corridor in which we are living, and a few small rooms on the second floor destined for guests. We are still sleeping there, packed one against the other, almost without air, because the windows look on the street. Hence, we were obliged to close them up, leaving only a little opening. At first, we heard Mass in the sacristy. Our chapel had been reconstructed first of all; but unfortunately for us, it has now become the parish church. Later we were able to rebuild a second wing and a roof over it; there we have a choir, a very small refectory and a kitchen.

                Your Charity can easily understand, dear Mother, how we long for a little more room for our sick sisters as well as for the rest of us, whose number has diminished and whose health has been much impaired. The war has claimed five victims. Then one night some drunken soldiers, 25 in number, entered the old castle. One of our sisters jumped out of a window to call for help; she saved the Community, but she died the next day, a victim of her devotedness. Moreover, death has claimed 7 more victims, among whom we count our good Mother Marguerite Marie Montegu. We have only 20 sisters left, all professed, but many of whom are sick. Our Mother, who is so kind, is old and she has many cares. We have no longer any resources; everything having been burned. To rebuild that part of the monastery, which is reconstructed, we were obliged to borrow 1,100,000 francs. So, we have the heavy burden of paying interest on that sum. We would wish, oh! So very much, to be able to complete another wing, but everything is so dear at present! To do this we need 500,000 francs, and even then we shall not have any cells. The government will not allow us to begin building again until we have 400,000 francs in hand. We beg the good Providence of God to help us. Our Bishop has allowed us to beg, from the very beginning of our disaster, but until now our two Out-Sisters have been obliged to take turns to beg in order to procure the necessities of life and the money for our interest. But they are going on courageously. In order to build, we must make a wider appeal, and we are asked for lists of names of rich persons of whom we humbly desire to beg. They give us little hope, because so many demands are being made on them at present. My very dear Mother, would it be possible for you to find some money for us in America? Oh! We beg of you, do help us! Truly, we are perishing! If we could only build, then we could cherish the hope of getting some postulants, who would enable us to rebuild our Community.

                Our good Mother is making her retreat at present. She recommends herself, as we also do, to the prayers of Your Charity, very honored and beloved Mother, while we remain

                                You humble and unworthy Sisters and servants in Our Lord,

                                The humble Sister Secretary of the Visitation, Holy Mary.

P.S. October 4 – My dear Mother, we have just received word that the packages have reached Brussels. When we get them, we shall write again to thank you, dear Mother.

 

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