Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Catholic World News News Feature

Romania Diary March 18, 2003

Father X

Monday, December 23, 2002

Landed at Otopeni Airport in Bucharest at dusk, eastward, in the middle of a snowstorm. The tarmac appeared to be unplowed, with about 3 inches of new snow collecting. As we taxied to the gate I saw four or five old Tupelov-154s parked in the grass with Tarom (Romanian Air) markings just visible in the gloom: 727 lookalikes. The fuselage-mounted engines were stripped, leaving only the cowlings, which were clearly hollow when we passed behind and gave the aircraft, and the airport in general, an eerie and decrepit look. Formalities were swift, as ours was the only flight in the immigration and customs area, and the border official stamped my passport without a question or a look in my direction.

I was met by Sister Subasia (Slovak) and Sister Albertine (Polish), who briskly loaded me onto a bus for the city center, where I was to catch a minibus north to Moldavia. Traffic was not heavy but barely crawling, and when we got off the bus Sister Subasia was convinced we had missed the 6:15 departure. However, we decided to make a dash for it and ran and jogged through the unplowed streets for about a mile. We arrived panting at the bus stop exactly in time, and were met by an English volunteer named Abby Flavell, and a Romanian boy named Marius, whom the sisters had cared for in past years. There was no bus. Once the heat of our run wore off it got cold fast. I was still dressed for Rome, and pulled on a sweater I had in my bag. The bus stop had a rudimentary shelter that served as a windbreak, but even so we were stamping our feet in the cold, and the snow swirled over the top of the shelter and collected on the leeward side of our coats, pants, luggage, so that we all appeared to be frosted on one side.

An hour and ten minutes later the minibus arrived, a stretched Ford van with 17 seats, and Abby and I squashed into places in the back, luggage on our laps. After fueling at an Agip gas station we reversed course and drove steadily north for five hours, through intermittent snow flurries, often slowed behind trucks and tractors. The terrain was flat, and, to my eye, featureless--though to be fair it was dark and I had to scuff the frost from the inside of the window to see anything at all. The other passengers spoke in low voices, eating candy and drinking Czech beer and letting the empty bottles bounce around our feet. We passed through two medium sized towns en route. The heating worked sporadically and the radio, regrettably, non-stop. I was amused when at one point the disk jockey's Romanian patter gave way to a track from The Blues Brothers: "We would especially like to welcome all the representatives of Illinois' law enforcement community that have chosen to join us here tonight..."

We reached Bacau at 12:30 and got a taxi to take us the two miles to Casa Sfanu Iosef, the MC's house. The superior Sister Maria (Indian) and Sister Joseret (Rwandan) showed me to the chapel, where a bed had been prepared for me in a 10' x 5' room off the sacristy. I said Compline and was asleep by 1:00.

Tuesday, December 24

Up at 5:00, said OR and Lauds, and hosed myself down rapidly with tepid water from the spray nozzle in the adjoining bathroom. Breakfast of bread and Nescafe. At about 6:40 people began to assemble in the chapel for the 7:00 Mass: poorly clothed and clearly not well fed. Father Sergio, a Salesian from Venice, showed up to celebrate. He heard the people's confessions first, and I concelebrated with him in Romanian. The Moldavian Catholics are pious (in demeanor, at least) and unselfconsciously give priests the greeting "Lauda sa fie Iesus Christus" (Jesus Christ be praised), to which the priest responds "Invece vacilor amin" (For ever and ever, amen).

Sunny, clear, and quite cold. There's about four inches of snow on the ground. A turquoise sweater draped over the clothesline outside has 6-inch icicles hanging off the sleeves.

10:00 Lecture to the sisters.

After the Rosary, the sisters took me into the main house, where they take care of 28 mentally and physically damaged "children"--they range in age from 11 to 26--almost all of whom are were taken in from the state institutions shortly after the fall of the Ceausescu regime. The building is of cement block and patterned stucco (through which rusty wire mesh was visible), two storeys, clean and spare both inside and out. There was a Christmas tree in the entranceway and crepe-paper festoons, balloons, and foil angels hanging in most of the rooms.

On the ground floor is a laundry and a room for children who cannot stand or walk. It was explained to me that most of these had come from the state orphanage called Ungerrini. Children judged at a birth to be "irrecuperables"--e.g., brain damaged or blind--were taken from their parents and kept in a special asylum. There they were clothed only in a shirt and their wrists and ankles were kept crossed and bound together underneath the chin, so that they couldn't move from their cots and would be easy to wipe. Feeding and cleaning were the only human contact provided until they were old enough to be moved to the adult hospital. The effects of this treatment were obvious in the grossly underdeveloped legs of every child in the house. Perhaps half-a-dozen of those I saw in their late teens and early twenties had never learned to walk at all. One little boy was asleep on his back with his arms and tiny legs folded across his chest in a disturbingly insectile manner. Sister Marie told me that he was 15, although he looked 6 or 7 to me, and that he tended to sleep with his limbs roughly in the position in which they had been bound while he was at Ungerrini. Most of the ground-floor children displayed some pronounced autism, constantly flexing the trunk forward from the waist, chewing or sucking their fingers. There was sporadic whimpering and screaming from some and a kind of repeated half-hum half-moan from others. None of these children could speak, but one girl, when prompted, would smile and repeat her name in a kind of sob.

This room contained two standing-boxes, which looked like hollow pillars of adjustable-height lecterns. Children are placed inside so that most of their weight is borne by their arms, and bit by bit they are supposed to develop leg muscles strong enough to stand. I was told that one boy, who in several years had given no earlier indications of progress in this regard, took it into his head one day that he wanted to blow out the candles after Mass, and astonished everyone by leaving the toy tractor on which he was seated and walking over to the altar to do so.

Alida is blind, deaf, very prettily complected, with no legs to speak of, lying on her back. When Sister Marie took her hand she gave a far-off smile. She is thought to be about 18, though I would have put her at half that. The sisters make sure she gets taken to Mass with the rest of the children.

A lunch of bits of bread soaked in soup and apple slices was being prepared. Sister Marie explained that they try to teach these children to feed themselves to the extent possible. They're not up to spoons, so it's always finger food of some sort. She also mentioned the difficulty with the fact that the Missionaries of Charity rarely work in the same place for more than four years: children naturally form attachments to particular sisters, then they too are taken from them. It hurts to think about.

Next I was taken to the upper floor (all female), where there are children who can walk to some extent, as well as young adults. Four of the latter were seated hip to hip on the side of a bed, staring at me quietly. There was something oddly familiar about their appearance that I couldn't quite place. Later, walking back to the chapel, it came to me: Tenniel's illustrations in Lewis Carroll's Alice books, with his overlarge heads and adult faces on top of puny children's bodies.

Sister Szymon Jozef (Polish) said that the problem here was protecting the non-violent girls from the violent ones, and protecting the self-damaging ones from themselves. Without interrupting her explanations she had to pounce three or four times around the room like a boxing ref, breaking the clinches that formed here and there, keeping the girls from biting and so forth, always addressing them in an even and soothing voice. Here too there was weeping and shrieking from some, quiet smiles or burbling from most. A woman with Down syndrome named Maria (of unknown origins, estimated by a doctor to be 24) gently took my hand and quietly and earnestly spoke to my chest for several minutes, saying I don't know what. Cristina joined us, wearing a badly mended sweater, and I was told that she rips her clothes off herself from time to time and so is made to stitch them back together (with supervision), so as to develop her motor skills on the one hand and to discourage her shredding act on the other. Dana, in her late teens, came up from nowhere with tears in her eyes and gave Maria a shove. She is aphasic and self-mutilating, and has clawed the skin clean away from her left cheekbone, baring the flesh underneath. Her fingers are badly bitten and swollen liked franks on a grill.

At times the smell of rotting teeth was overpowering. Sister Marie said that this is an insuperable problem. The children cannot cooperate with a dentist in the usual way, and have to be anaesthetized to have any work done whatsoever--for which there is neither the money nor the inclination on the part of the public health dentists. Abscessed and impacted teeth just rot away, and the pain, and the inability to understand the pain, must add considerably to their misery.

When a lay worker came to take charge of these girls Sister Szymon Jozef took me to see their two babies: one, a newborn girl, tightly swaddled in pink flannel, being taken care of for a drug-addict mother; Iosif, a 7-month-old, was (I think she said) a foundling. He had a green cotton crab that, when squeezed, played Old MacDonald. I gave him my clerical collar to chew, which he took in both tiny hands and gnawed with the total concentration and equanimity befitting the season.

4:00 Lecture.

Adoration and Vespers in the sisters' chapel. Heard sisters' confessions. An early supper in the sacristy.

8:00 Lecture.

At 10:30 I said the Christmas vigil Mass, in Italian, with a young woman from Bacau translating my homily into Romanian. The walking children were present, as well as some of the staff and a dozen or so townsfolk. Here, as elsewhere in Romania, I noticed that the people sing extremely well. After Mass there were carols and hot chocolate in the main house, with the most capable of the children joining in the singing and the others licking the frosting off gingerbread reindeer while they watched. To bed about 12:30.

Wednesday, December 25

Sunny, very cold (-10o F). Mass at 8:00, concelebrated in Romanian with the local pastor. A crowded chapel, with many townsfolk and the full complement of children, including many carried or wheeled in. They were remarkably attentive and well disposed, with the occasional whimper or shout quickly hushed by an attendant sister. Afterwards there was carol singing in the chapel, with the children gathered around the crèche. It's disturbing how, in these circumstances, the lyrics of the schmaltziest old-fashioned Christmas hymns lose all their schmaltz and cut right to the heart. I was moved by the sight of Margita, grabbing Abby's sleeve with one hand and cupping her own groin with the other, her blind eyes rolled up under her lids, rocking back and forth from heel to heel and laughing in sheer happiness.

Immediately after Mass we made preparations to set off to the Gisteni Adult Institute--the state hospital for mental defectives about 18 miles southwest of Bacau. The name was pronounced by the sisters with a certain residual horror audible in their voices (as with Treblinka or Birkenau after World War II), and I was told that it was here that the Missionaries of Charity, in the course of a Christmas visit shortly after the 1989 revolution, gave the slip to the guards and came upon the now-notorious Gatosh ("End of the Line") Unit. This consisted in two large unheated basement rooms in which the worst mental defectives were put, men and women together, unclothed, bathed in a common tank once a week, fed by putting buckets of food in the room and letting the strongest fight for it. Four MC sisters started a house nearby simply to care for these patients. In all such matters it's hard to know which recounted horrors were real and which are later exaggerations, but I noticed that the sisters who had actually seen the Gatosh Unit in operation were much less willing to talk about it than those who hadn't.

The sisters took great pains to bundle themselves up warmly for the visit and to dress me adequately as well. I was given extra pairs of thick socks, a stocking cap, a sweater and sweatshirt, a disintegrating Romanian down-filled parka, and boots on which I sliced open my palm when lacing them up. I thought this might have been overkill for a half-an-hour ride, but they patiently explained to me that Gisteni is only heated for seven hours a day, and that I would be glad of any insulation from the chill. They were right. Six of us piled into a rickety VW van half-filled with cardboard boxes, containing Christmas parcels for the patients, and we headed through Bacau and south towards Bacaciuni.

My first good look at Moldavian building; it is not reassuring. The shoddiness, in almost every important aspect, is staggering. Concrete is far and away the most common building material, but it seems to be salted out and crumbling at every edge. It looks as if every building were erected in sub-zero weather, where the mixing water had frozen and expanded and bred faults in the casting, but of course it couldn't actually be the case. There are the stereotypical rows upon rows of grey six-story apartment buildings, weather-stained and unpainted, drearier even than Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes. One would think they were long-abandoned slums, but for the fact that every single window is intact. Unwashed, but intact. The same was true of a curvilinear futuristic building--a skating rink? an arts center?--put up in the early 1970s perhaps, which because of its pathetic attempt at modernity was even more depressing than the concrete boxes. Its windows were unbroken also, but it looked as dead as a rusting freighter. For reasons I don't grasp, any attempt at beauty has results more grim than strict functionalism. The roads are fair. Most of the traffic is motorized (old Russian and East German vehicles along with Fiats and Fords), but there was a sizable number of horse-drawn rubber-tired wagons as well. I was surprised to see many (full) old-style corn cribs even in the city, presumably storing feed for the draught animals. There were many hitchhikers on the roads, young and old, men and women, and this in every area I visited.

We drove south past snowy fields and shacky farmhouses for twelve miles, turned west at Bacaciuni, began a gentle climb into a village, and entered the gate of Gisteni. Some of the male patients, excited at seeing the sisters, came out to greet us and eagerly helped carry the boxes into the hospital. It is a 1920s building onto which several large wings were added post-war; there are nearly 400 patients, male and female. The corridors were narrow, very dark, low-ceilinged, and icy; concrete walls and floors. Everything in poor repair but not conspicuously filthy. We made our way to a kind of common room in which there was a Christmas tree with blinking lights. Later I noticed that their blinking was irregular and caused by a short in the wiring, not by a programmed interrupter. We put out the word that Mass was starting, and in about 15 minutes the room was packed solid. Even behind the table that served as a makeshift altar there was barely room for myself and Father Manuel, a Portuguese missionary priest who arrived separately and was the principal celebrant. The congregation was predominantly male and middle-aged. There was no uniform garb for the patients and there were all dressed in several layers of shabby clothes. Both women and men had close-cropped hair, and in fact the women were identifiable solely by their beardlessness. (It then occurred to me that even the severely handicapped women at the Casa had long, wellt ended hair with bows, barrettes, and ribbons kept in order by the staff and the sisters.) When they sang it was striking how few teeth, and those brown, they had among them, and again the smell of rot became noticeable with every chorus. About halfway through Mass I became distracted by another smell--the hot wire of the Christmas-tree lights--and I began a pessimistic calculation of the chances of orderly egress in the event of fire: a jambed room; a single, small, inward-opening door; bars on the only two windows.

Communion was given to the four Catholic patients; most would have been Orthodox. After Mass I saw one patient with grossly deformed legs pick up another (legless) man--maybe 18 years old--and carry him back to his cell. His ankles bowed out from his calves at about a 160o angle, and he tipped crazily to right and left with each stride; I couldn't see how he could walk himself, much less carry anyone that size. As I took off my vestments a short, broad-shouldered man with close-set eyes and almost no brow came up to me, took me by both elbows, and began speaking softly as he stared into my face; after a few moments his own face clouded and he put his forehead on my chest and blubbered for a minute and then shuffled away, leaving an egg-whitey smear of snot on my clerical shirt. I put my sweater and gloves back on and noticed that my borrowed goose-down parka was leaking brown chicken feathers.

After allowing a few minutes for the patients to return to their cells the sisters went from room to room to give each one a present of a tangerine, a chocolate bar, a pack of sugar wafers, and a slice of panettone. Some patients appeared catatonic; some carried on arguments with a wall or a bedpost; most ate their tangerines hungrily. Each cell was packed with twelve beds, sometimes stacked as bunks, and their were twelve steel lockers in one corner. I saw no radiators in any of the rooms, and those in the corridors were ludicrously small and few in number; the ones I touched were warm but not hot.

The head nurse, or at any rate the person who seemed to be in charge, sat for most of our visit smoking in the tiny dispensary. Underneath she was dressed conventionally enough, in black slacks, shoes, and turtleneck. But on top of this she wore a white terrycloth bathrobe and an Orlando Magic stocking hat, which added to the weird unworldliness of the atmosphere.

Home for Vespers at 4:00. Afterward I walked over to the main house to visit the children. One girl threw a dinner-table tantrum and swiped her bowl off the table, then stood and screamed for a few minutes, really angry, with the wet white bread visible in her open mouth. The other children seemed unfazed, and one boy meditatively ate the center out of his slice of bread, holding up the intact ring formed by the crust. Maria moved quietly from place to place, picking up the empty bowls and wiping them.

Adoration and Benediction from 6:30 to 7:30. I was just about to get ready for bed when Abby Flavell came by with the girls Illeana and Elena, the latter dressed as Santa Claus with a beard made of cotton gauze. They made me a Christmas present of a card, a Bic razor, and some toffee. Abby's work has been mainly music therapy with the children, by which she tries to overcome some of the mental damage done by the early years of total neglect.

Thursday, December 26

Up at 5:00. A bitterly cold morning (-18oF). Breakfast of bread and taramasalata. All the Bacau sisters are traveling with me to the MC house at Sfanu Gheorghe in Transylvania, to drop me there and visit with their sisters. At 6:10 we got into the same unheated VW van, two sisters in front with the driver, six sisters with me in the back seated facing each other on two bench seats along the sides, with coats and blankets piled on our laps. I was pleased by the company of Sister Szymon Jozef, who has a dry but lively wit, a characteristically Polish irony in the good-humored concession that things will always turn out to be worse than expected. The first hour was dark, when it became light enough we said Lauds. About an hour and a half into the trip the engine failed and we pulled off the road in a small village. The sisters debated whether it was better to try to catch a bus back to Bacau, to try to catch a bus to Sfanu Gheorghe, or to risk a serious breakdown in the mountains by going forward. Once he got the engine restarted, the driver insisted that the last course was best, and we went on without incident. My feet were burning with the cold as we started to climb into the Carpathians, and our comfort was not increased by the fact that the sliding van door did not close fully and let in a stream of frigid air. Going uphill it would open about 3/4", downhill it would close to a 1/4" gap. It was slow going on the icy switchbacks. After three and a half hours we reached Sfanu Gheorghe and the MC house. A welcome smell of coffee in the entranceway as we kicked the snow off our shoes. It's a spacious three-storey stucco building, the first floor given to the sisters' community, the second floor to old and dying women ("grannies" in the sisters' technical parlance) and the third floor to catechism classrooms. In one of these a cot was put for me: a large bare room with an Infant of Prague in one corner.

The sisters put out a lunch in the sacristy/parlor for their driver, Ion Herciu, and me, and, given we had no language in common, we had a pleasant and instructive conversation. Pony carts were frequently passing outside in the snow at a fast trot. A tractor came down the streets towing a wagon load of sand, from a man tossed a shovelful across the road every ten yards or so. The city is located in a valley surrounded by low mountains, with conifers visible here and there among high-pitched rooftops.

After Vespers, Adoration, and Mass, the Bacau contingent said their goodbyes to their sisters and me and got back in the van. There was a kind of schoolgirlish romp as the three Indian sisters ran laughing behind the van in the street trying to pelt it with handfuls of powdery snow.

The superior Sister Szymona (Polish) took me up to visit the grannies. She explained that Transylvania is predominantly Hungarian-speaking and Catholic, whereas Moldavia and the rest of the country is mainly Romanian-speaking and Orthodox. The sisters have to learn both languages, and their work is divided between tending to the grannies in their own house, and care for the large gypsy camp (around 4,000) which begins a hundred yards from their door. One of the grannies, Veronika, had died on Christmas Day, and was to be buried on the 27th--if Szymona could succeed in wrangling the necessary permits from the municipal bureaucracy.

On going to bed, I heard people in the street singing to the music of a squeezebox.

Friday, December 27

Up at 4:50. Very cold. I borrowed a pocket mirror yesterday from Sister Szymona to shave with and, this being my first night passed in Transylvania, checked my neck for tell-tale punctures. Nothing doing. I shaved badly and took a few twists under the primitive shower head, from which there came a thin but steady trickle of hot water--luxury enough in the circumstances. OR and Lauds in my room, then down to the parlor for breakfast. There was a rich smell of soiled bedding in the stairwell. A pretty sun-up behind the mountains: white slopes, black firs, neon-orange dawn, cobalt sky. I was given an object lesson in Soviet-bloc technology. Part way through a bowl of plain yogurt, I was puzzled to see a pink strawberries-and-cream swirl in the dish. Then it became clear that I was bleeding into it. I had sliced open my lip on the stamping-burr left on the bowl of the teaspoon I was using. It occurred to me that I had congratulated myself too quickly on my unpunctured neck, as I had inflicted on myself a kind of auto-vampirism with my razor, my bootlace guides, and now a teaspoon.

As I have a gruesome collection of bloody handkerchiefs, I washed them and my other laundry in a bucket and hung them to dry in the upstairs bathroom. The local priest was due to say Mass in the grannies' chapel, but was a no-show, so I took it. The sisters have gently intimated that the good father tends to overdose on anti-freeze, and they expressed concern that he would also miss this afternoon's burial.

10:30 Lecture to the sisters.

Lunch of polenta and a fried carp. At 3:30 the sisters, three grannies, and I walked to the Catholic cemetery, about seven blocks away. Sister Paula (Indian) carried with her a hammer and nails in her bag, explaining to me her embarrassment on the occasion of her first Transylvanian funeral, when the sextons asked her for nails to close the coffin and she, presuming they would be provided, was caught short. I confessed that this was my first BYO burial as well. The cemetery was snowy and pathless; two or three times one of the grannies slipped and took a fall on her bottom. We entered in an unheated stone chapel in which Veronika's open coffin was lying. The cold was intense. We said a Rosary, the sisters and grannies alternating decades in Romanian and Hungarian and I mumbling to myself in English. After half an hour the pastor showed up, wearing a cassock, biretta, cotta, and pluvial, conducted a (well-sung) 20-minute service in Hungarian, and then walked with us to the grave. After the sextons lowered the coffin by ropes they tried to fill the grave, but the piles of earth were frozen hard, and two had to loosen the soil with mattocks while another pair shoveled it in. After the grave was filled the pastor and I introduced ourselves and spoke briefly but amicably in clumsy Latin.

At 5:00 a dozen or so gypsy children turned up for catechism: 8- to 12-year-olds. They are astonishingly beautiful; I've never seen such consistently handsome children in a random gathering. Clothes tatty but clean. The sisters had them act out the Annunciation, each reading a part and going through the appropriate motions; then they recited the Annunciation decade of the rosary in Hungarian. I was impressed with the fact that they all knew all the prayers, including the Fatima prayer, by heart.

8:30 Lecture. Compline, and early to bed.