"By far, one of the most important early 19th century events in
the development of the Old Catholic Movement has been the Mariavite Order in Poland. The
nucleus of this movement was a community of nuns, founded in 1893 and organized under the
Rule of Saint Francis for the promotion of asceticism and the moral purification of the
Polish Church. These nuns were teachers in the parochial schools of Poland and greatly
influenced the lives of the clergy and laity in whatever part of the nation they
ministered. An order of priests, observing the Franciscan rule, was added to them and in
1909 there were 68 priests and a large number of students ready for ordination.
"These two communities were solemnly bound by an understanding
that their work was to begin with a moral regeneration amongst their own kind within the
Church -- the clergy and religious orders. From the first, they were actively opposed by
the Polish Jesuits and at last an order came from Rome that they were to be dissolved.
When they refused to break up their community life, they were formally condemned in April
1906, and in December 1906, all their members and adherents cut off from the rites of the
"A period of bitter persecution set in, but somehow they
managed to keep together and increase their numbers. The Polish peasants were stirred up
against the Mariaviten and their woman leader, The Little Mother,
to such a degree that armed attacks were made against the followers when they gathered
together in religious meetings. The Roman authorities at one time circulated a report that
the Sacrament consecrated by the Mariavite priests became not the Body of Christ, but an
Incarnation of the Devil, and in consequence terrible sacrileges were committed against
Mariavites and several of their churches were burned to the ground.
"With the growth of its numbers and in increasing necessity of
Episcopal supervision for its parishes, the Order at last decided to ask the Old Catholics
to consecrate a bishop for them. Accordingly, the bishop-elect Brother Jan Michael
Kowalski and two of his brethren were sent to the international Old Catholic Congress in
Vienna in 1909. Through the great Russian theologian, General Alexander Kireef, they were
introduced to the delegates of the Congress. There, on the last morning of the meeting,
Brother Kowalski stated the ground of his appeal and asked the prayers and sympathy of the
assemblage. The Mariavite priests with their bare sandal feet and gray habits formed a
striking and arresting impression in the midst of the other delegates and their genuine
and simple character won them many new friends. After careful consultation, the Old
Catholic Bishops accepted their application and the first bishop of the Church in Poland,
Brother-Bishop Jan Michael Kowalski, was consecrated at Utrecht, Holland, early in October
of that year.
"For the next several years, the Old Catholic Church in Poland
steadily increased. In February and March of 1909 the Minister of the Interior of the
Polish government gave the Mariavite order official state recognition. Within the
parishes, Churches, parsonages, schools, and other institutions were rapidly built. In the
parish of Lodz in 1910, where there were already 40,000 Mariavites, four handsome Churches
were built entirely through the efforts, personal and manual, of the clergy and laity.
"Driven by the boycott of their Roman Catholic neighbors to
depend more and more upon their own efforts, the members of the Mariavite movement soon
developed a civil as well as a religious form of community amongst themselves. They worked
and traded with each other, supporting one another, creating their own industries and
soon, by cooperation, they rendered themselves entirely independent. Cooperation stores in
villages and lodging houses in towns were organized. Hospitals staffed by their own
doctors and nurses, orphanages, schools, homes for the aged, soup kitchens, milk
dispensaries, fire departments, cultural activities, farms of magnificent acreage,
factories -- in fact all the necessary prerequisites of modern living -- were developed
and organized within their own groups and used to serve their neighbors.
"Though this social and industrial reorganization greatly
improved the position of the Old Catholics in Poland, it had to be accompanied by great
personal sacrifices. In one town, Leszno, where cooperative factories on a large scale --
for bookbinding, shoemaking, cabinet making, and similar activities -- had been organized,
several families handed over all their property to the community and put their own
services unreservedly at its disposal.
"Underlying the power and vitality of this movement which led
to wholly new social groupings and industrial experiments was the ever present guidance of
a strong and inspired leader -- a woman, Mary Francis Felicia, devotedly acknowledged by
all as Mateszka. Simple and unassuming in manner, she nonetheless provoked a
religio-social movement worth the consideration of the world's serious minds. She proved
to be, in the fullest sense, the little mother of her people.
"The Mariavite Movement was, up to that time, significantly
different from any similar religious manifestation. It is in effect the working out of a
practical application to life of the social significance of the Gospel. The foundress of
the movement, the Little Mother, Mary Francis Felicia, believed and taught that the
Kingdom of God on Earth is to be understood as a divinely human society -- a society in
which justice, brotherhood, equality, and the general welfare of all its members
prevailed. Basically, the Little Mother established her theory on the formula that for
God's Kingdom to come on earth, His will must also be done.
"The Mariavites believe that the curing of all social ills
rests in properly relating the human element to the spiritual regeneration of family,
nation, and society. But since ethical theories and social realignments in themselves are
not enough, they maintain that the direct action of God working on the human
spirit is essential. The direct action of God, they say, is fulfilled in
the partaking of Holy Communion, which, in the opinion of the Mariavites, must be the
'daily bread' of men and women. In this sense the entire religious and social life
of the Mariavites centers upon the Holy Eucharist, at which the faithful communicate as a
means of daily regenerating the human spirit and as the first step toward the regeneration
of society and the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth.
"Christianity, according to the Mariavites, is to be lived.
Worship enters into every field of human activity. Its end and sole purpose cannot be
found in religious gatherings held at stated periods alone. The act of worship, the
liturgy, is an active and motivating experience in the lives of all who take part in it.
During World War II more than 350,000 followers in Poland demonstrated the possibility of
this life of faith and work even under the trying exigencies of world conflict.
"Oddly enough, women play the important part in this religious
movement. It was first founded by a woman, who also directed its social possibilities. The
administration of major communities of the movement in many parts of the country was in
the hands of women. The work of the sisters had been of such beneficial influence that
they have been asked by the populace of many sections to administer parochial activities.
Of the total number of about 1571 religious workers, including clergy, brothers of the
Order and the sisterhood, more than one thousand of them are women actually engaged in the
administration of the movement. The General Chapter, which meets to elect new officers and
to decide the general administrative policy of the movement, has an equal representation
of women with votes. The Mother General of the Sisters must take part in the election of a
new Archbishop, as well as in all proceedings of the General Chapter.
"The religious workers of the Movement were grouped into three
categories. First there were the priests and members of the brotherhood who lived under
the Rule of Saint Francis. The community of nuns, about 600 in number, compose another
group, to which were added about 400 deaconnesses under the supervision of the Mother
General. Under the third grouping, some 500 persons following a modified religious rule
gave their time and energies to the movement. Of this last number, a great many consist of
married couples voluntarily devoting their lives to buttress the work of the clergy and
the sisterhood. Joy is a paramount requisite of a Christian life and the Mariavites
everywhere radiate a warm and becoming mirth.
"The zeal of the Movement touched the peasant populations of
central Europe and awakened a living religious movement amongst them. A Pole writing of
the effect this movement has on the people says, From the surrounding neighborhood
of their habitations there would be a flood of thirsty souls eager for God and His
mercy. People when they met the Mariavites turned to God with such a subsequent
change in their mode of life that even the Jews were wont to say, What kind of new
Christians are these.
"The Old Catholic Church under the administration of the
Mariavite Order in Poland was in every way a distinct and important demonstration of the
possibility of a 20th century Christian social order. From Poland their influence spread
to other parts of the world, where in some places it became well established. Mariavite
missions were founded in Lithuania, France, England, South America, and North America.
"Mariavites supported themselves with the labor of their own
hands and offered their ministrations freely to all without salaries. Mission funds are
not a necessary consideration of the movement. The Church, they would say, is here to give
every assistance to people both for their spiritual and material well-being; it does not
have to take from them. Perhaps it might yet be said of the Mariavites everywhere in the
world, as it was then said of them in Poland, Wherever there is a Mariavite there is
neither hunger nor sorrow.