In his address to the clergy of Kazakhstan on Thursday morning, Pope Francis cited the example of Gertrude Detzel – a Russian-German laywoman in the process of being beatified – who “brought the love of Christ to the world” despite having lived at a time of great Christian persecution.
By Gudrun Sailer – Nur-Sultan
Gertrude Detzel, a Russian-German Catholic laywoman, herself came close to martyrdom.
Coming from a respected Russian-German family from the North Caucasus region of Eastern Europe, she was deported to Kazakhstan in 1941 for forced labor, like so many other Russian-Germans at the time.
Because she did not hide her faith, she was arrested in 1949 and sent to a communist labor and re-education camp called “Tschemolgan village” in the area of present-day Almaty, Kazakhstan.
“What I see in Gertrude’s life is deep faith – and enormous courage,” says Archbishop Adelio Dell’Oro de Karaganda, who opened his beatification process last fall.
“Because wherever she was, even in the camp, she was not afraid to live the faith and testify to everyone. She often annoyed the leaders of the camp because she spoke to everyone about God and of faith. On Sundays she held prayers, Catholic and Lutheran together. It was all so attractive that people would come up to her and follow her.
Bishop Dell’Oro has spoken to many people who knew Gertrude Detzel herself and is currently interviewing others.
He also interviews people in Germany, as that is where many German-speaking Kazakhs settled after 1991.
They can also testify to episodes like this on the Servant of God Detzel:
“When Gertrude was woken up at night and questioned, she wasn’t afraid to speak to the camp director. It got so far that he stopped everything at one point, called the guard and said:” Take her back to the barracks. Because I’m almost starting to believe it myself!'”
After Stalin’s death in 1953, prisoners began to be released. And there’s a story that says Gertrude should have been among the first to go. “Why? So that those who remained would not come to faith in the concentration camp through his testimony.”
Continue to live in faith
Gertrude Detzel was not really released, however.
She was taken to a German “special colony” near Semey, Kazakhstan, which was under strict surveillance. Even going out was forbidden.
But that didn’t bother the Catholic woman who was on fire for her faith.
Together with her sister, Walentina, she secretly travels to nearby villages where other Germans live. They went from house to house, baptizing children and adults and giving them handwritten prayers. If the sisters had been discovered, it would have meant another 20 years of hard labor.
When the special colony was abandoned, Gertrude moved to the town of Karaganda in the late 1950s. Unmarried by choice, she became a member of the Third Order of St. Francis. And she organized the spiritual life of many exiles.
“In the Soviet Union, the Catholic faith was transmitted for 60, 70 years almost without priests, because they had been deported to the camps,” explains Bishop Dell’Oro. “And so the faithful were left without the sacraments for decades, except baptism, which brave women administered to infants.”
A gifted and courageous preacher
This is exactly what Gertrude Detzel did. She secretly gathered the faithful to recite the Rosary and Sunday Mass, explained the Bible to them and introduced them to the saints.
Gertrude had, as witnesses testified, the gift of preaching.
“It is thanks to her that entire generations of exiled Catholics have been able to experience the sacraments in conditions of persecution by the Church”, explains a booklet for the beatification of Gertrude written by Bishop Dell’Oro. “In difficult times for the Church, Gertrude Detzel replaced the people as priest.”
A Determined and Joyful Testimony of Faith
This is precisely why the Bishop of Karaganda – the place where Gertrude Detzel died in 1971 and where her grave is – is so keen on this beatification.
He sees in this determined and joyful testimony of faith a model for the laity of Kazakhstan today, in a country where the Church is in danger of being reduced in number due to the exodus of many believers to the West.
In this situation, it is the lay Kazakhs who today – as the bishop says – just like Gertrude Detzel at the time, have the mission of perpetuating the faith.
The mission of continuing the faith in their own way, differently and perhaps better, because they are freer than the priests.
“What the figure of Gertrude suggests to us for today is to live the faith, to open up to everyone, for example also to Muslims. Because faith is not transmitted because we shout ‘Jesus, Jesus!’, but through our humanity. Here in Kazakhstan, we cannot do anything as a church in society; this concerns all religions. We are only free behind the walls of our churches. That is why lay people are important: no one prevents them from being witnesses where they work, where they study, so we need lay people to be witnesses in today’s society, to be alive and open, to meet everyone and leave everything to the grace of God and the freedom of the individual.”