The History of the Marians

Humble birth... Youthful creativity... Rejection... Betrayal... Salvation from death... Exile to Siberia... Near death... Miraculous recovery...

The makings of a great novel? Or a fascinating biography? They are neither. They are the "life story" of a Roman Catholic religious community of priests and brothers — the Congregation of Marians of the Immaculate Conception. In the 350 years since their founding in 1670 in Poland, the Marians of the Immaculate Conception have been quietly serving the needs of the Church in the midst of history's most tumultuous events. 

The Marians' beginnings are interwoven with a period of Polish history best illustrated by the images of burning buildings, the clash of weapons, and thousands of war casualties. Such a setting is well illustrated by Polish author Henry Sienkiewicz in his work Trilogy, describing the Cossack wars, the Swedish invasion of Poland, the brave defense of the Jasna Gora monastery, and, finally, Polish victory over the invading Turks.

The Marian Founder

It was during these stormy times, in the year 1631, that John Papczyński was born in the small village of Podegrodzie, in southern Poland. Years later, by God's grace, he was to be known as Father Stanislaus of Jesus and Mary Papczyński, founder of the Marians. On Sept. 16, 2007, he was declared "Blessed"; on June 5, 2016, he was canonized a saint.

From his small town beginnings, John Papczyński was called by God to a series of great tasks, starting with his entry into religious life in the monastery of the Piarists in 1654. There he became the first Pole to take vows in the Piarist Order. For many years during this period, Providence intertwined St. Stanislaus' life with that of the Mazovian region surrounding Warsaw, a city serving as the capital of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. 

It was no peaceful sanctuary. As the central location of the Republic, between the Baltic and the Black Seas, it was exposed to frequent armed conflicts, especially throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. There were conflicts with Turkey, the Cossacks, Russia, Sweden, and later, with an old vassal state, Prussia, and an old ally, Austria.

The city of Warsaw alone was under siege and liberated on numerous occasions. Its surrounding areas were burned and plundered by various armies. During these difficult times, St. Stanislaus Papczynski carried God's word ardently to those who needed it most, earning himself the nickname "Apostle of Mazovia."

The Mazovian region, in fact, served as the cradle of Marian life. It was there, in the early autumn of 1673, that the first Marian monastery was established. Saint Stanislaus Papczynski settled in a small part of the Puszcza Korabiewska (Korabiew Forest) near Skierniewice. Today it is called Puszcza Marianska (the Marian Forest).

He came to this point in his life after 19 years with the Piarists, leaving that order to answer the Lord's call to establish a new order in the Church, one devoted to the Immaculate Conception. As a Pole, Marian devotion was part of Stanislaus' inheritance: familial, religious, and cultural. In addition, two factors in particular, both attributed to Mary's intercession, deepened his devotion.

The first was the miraculous defense of the Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, saving the historic monastery from the destruction of the Swedish invasion, and truly enkindling the Polish national spirit. The second was the consecration of Poland to Mary by King John Casimir in Lwow (present-day L'viv, Ukraine). At this event, the Polish nation was publicly entrusted to Mary's care, in gratitude for the Polish victory over the invading Swedish forces. Mary was given the title "Queen of Poland."

Devoted to Mary, Concerned for Souls

The Marian devotion of St. Stanislaus particularly focused on the Immaculate Conception, and this was some two centuries before the dogma would be declared by the Church. He wrote: "I believe everything that the holy Roman Church believes ... but first of all I profess that the Most Holy Mother of God, Mary, was spotless from original sin, from the moment of her conception."

The privilege of the Immaculate Conception was very precious to St. Stanislaus. He talked about it in sermons and wrote extensively on the subject. Like a knight of old, who pledged to defend the honor of his lady, he made a vow of blood to lay down his life if necessary in honor of Mary's Immaculate Conception. History shows that he faithfully kept this vow, not only in the living of his life, but in the founding of a religious order dedicated to promoting the Immaculate Conception.

Two other factors weighed heavily on the mind of St. Stanislaus, as God led him to found a new religious order. Particularly during the period of the Swedish invasion, St. Stanislaus witnessed thousands of casualties on battlefields and from dreaded plagues. He himself accompanied Polish troops as a chaplain in battles against Turkey in Ukraine in 1674. He was deeply saddened to observe how many people died with no time to prepare to meet their Maker. At the same time, he experienced visions of the Holy Souls in Purgatory. These factors, combined with the deeply charitable spirit that always characterized St. Stanislaus, led to a charism still distinctive among religious communities: prayer and penance on behalf of the dead – including those most forgotten, especially the souls of those who had died in wars and plagues.

Along with the wars and violence, St. Stanislaus observed a general decline in moral tone that threatened the religious life of his nation. He therefore determined that the new religious order should take a profound interest in religious education in order to deepen the faith of the common people. Members were to act with missionary zeal in bringing knowledge of the faith to those whose religious education had been most neglected.

A New Order

And so he began to establish the Marian Order with a small group of companions in the Puszcza Korabiewska. Their shared life was based on the Rule of Life, written by St. Stanislaus. He tempered his plans at first to establish a community active in the Church's service. At the beginning, the Marians lived an eremitical (the life of hermits, living in solitude) rule of life as they pursued final recognition and approval by the Church. Within a short time, the new and still small order received approval from their local Ordinary, Bishop Stephen Wierzbowski. Later, he offered the Marians a new house in Nowa Jerozolima (New Jerusalem) located near Warsaw. Today it is called Gora Kalwaria (Mount of Calvary).

As a symbol of the new Order, the founder adopted the image of a dove with an olive branch in its beak. This signified hope and conviction that God would extricate this new order from all human obstructions, just as God had brought Noah's Ark to dry land after the Great Flood.

With new applicants swelling their ranks, the Marians awaited papal approval for the new Order. Pope Innocent XII's approval came in 1699, initially placing the Marians within the Franciscan family of religious life. No longer living the lives of hermits, they took solemn vows according to the French Rule of the Ten Virtues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Order continued a slow growth. With the death of the founder in 1701, however, the Marians found themselves in a critical period of transition. Internal factions divided the membership into one group favoring a strictly contemplative life, and a second group seeking to add missionary and pastoral outreach to the Order's contemplative spirit.

The period known as the "Rostkowski Dispersion" followed, fired by internal conflict, as well as the negative attitude expressed by some bishops and lay dignitaries. In 1716, Bishop Adam Rostkowski decided to close the Marian novitiate, instructing friars to leave the monastery and move out to assume pastoral work in parishes.

In God's plan of things, the "dispersion" crisis did not last long. In 1722, Bishop John Tarlo of Poznan called the scattered Marian brethren back to their monasteries, and convened a general chapter. The man elected to serve as Superior General was Fr. Andrew of St. Matthew Deszpot, a Czech originally received into the Order by the founder St. Stanislaus. It was during this period that the Order changed its crest to an image of the Virgin Mary as the Immaculate Conception with the intention of strengthening and expanding the Order under her protection.

At the same chapter, a General Procurator was chosen, Fr. Joachim of St. Ann Kozlowski. He was given the mission of going to Rome to have the Order's constitutions confirmed, and to remove the Order from the jurisdiction of local bishops. He was successful. In 1723, Pope Innocent XIII approved the Marian statutes and released the Order from the direct oversight of local bishops.

International Growth, Changes

It was during Fr. Joachim's stay in Rome that he met a young Pole whose brother had entered the Marian Order. The young traveler was Francis Wyszynski, later to have a major impact on the Order as Fr. Casimir of St. Joseph. Francis was deeply disturbed to hear that his own brother, a Marian novice at that time, was among those contributing to the tragic consequences of the "Rostkowski Dispersion" period. The news ignited Francis's own calling to the Marian Order, providing him with the added motivation of repairing the damage his own brother had caused. He sought admission to the Order, and it was Fr. Joachim who conferred the habit on Fr. Casimir before both of them returned to Poland.

Father Casimir served the Lord with great zeal as a Marian and was respected and recognized among his contemporaries as well. He is credited with expanding and strengthening the Marian Order during the first half of the 18th century. It was under his leadership that the Marians established new foundations in Lithuania and neighboring countries, as well as in Portugal. It was thanks to Fr. Casimir Wyszynski's efforts that the Marians became truly international in membership, attracting not only Poles and Lithuanians, but Ruthenians, Portuguese, Czechs, Hungarians, French, and Italians.

Father Casimir held the founder, St. Stanislaus, in the highest esteem. In fact, it can be said that under Fr. Casimir's leadership, the charism of the Order, at first envisioned by St. Stanislaus Papczynski, began to be fully realized. The Marians began to be clearly recognized as an Order which honored the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary and prayed for the Holy Souls in Purgatory.

Two priorities stood out during Fr. Casimir's generalship: the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in salvation history and the charisms of the Marian founder, St. Stanislaus. He pointed to both as models for members of the Marian Order as they went about God's work. Fr. Casimir's close affinity with the spirit of the founder fired his own work and inspired the dynamic expansion of the Order during the 18th century.

Burning with missionary zeal, Fr. Casimir himself went to Portugal and personally established the first Marian monastery for the Iberian Peninsula on Mount Balsamo. It is there that he died in 1755.

Two centuries later, in December of 1989, Pope John Paul II signed the document marking the first step in the process leading to an official declaration of sainthood, the Decree of Heroic Virtues for Fr. Casimir Wyszynski. Thus, he now bears the title Venerable Servant of God.

Fr. Casimir's work for the Order served as a blueprint for his successors. By the second half of the 18th century, the Order had expanded its apostolic activities to include responsibility for parish work in churches nearby their monasteries. Until that time, Marians had focused their energies in assisting diocesan priests, and especially helped in pastoral care and religious education in parishes.

Further, in response to an appeal by the Polish bishops, the Marians established monastery schools.

Marians also embarked on an apostolate of conducting retreats and popular missions, particularly inspired by Fr. Raymond Nowicki. One of the most dynamic Superior Generals to follow in Fr. Casimir Wyszynski's footsteps, Fr. Nowicki is credited with the creation of the office of General Procurator in 1779, established in the former Cistercian monastery adjoining St. Vitus Church in Rome. He also brought about legal independence of the Marian Order from the Franciscan Fathers in 1786. In that same year, Rome approved the new version of the Marian Constitutions.

Political Upheavals

Rapid changes in the European political situation by the end of the 18th century led to the near destruction of the Order. Almost a preview of misfortunes to come, two Marians met with their deaths during this period. Fr. Francis Kuprell and Fr. Alexander Jelonek, who were chaplains during the Kosciuszko Uprising, lost their lives, along with many other Poles, when the victorious Russian Army under General Suvorov defeated the Polish army near Warsaw and slaughtered the population of the city's Praga district on November 4, 1794.

With the complete failure of the Kosciuszko Uprising in 1795, Poland lost its independence. Now Marians found themselves divided by virtually sealed borders. The partitioning of the Polish Republic was decreed by the occupying armies of Russia, Prussia, and Austria.

Again, in 1798, after Napoleon seized Rome, he mandated that all foreigners be expelled from its borders. The exodus included Marians removed from their monastery and Rome's St. Vitus Church.

In 1834, the Portuguese government became hostile toward all religious, and finally closed all Marian monasteries in that nation.

In Eastern Europe following the Vienna Congress of 1815, most of the Marian monasteries found themselves in the newly created Polish Kingdom, a kingdom which was part of Imperial Russia, whose Czarist regime was openly hostile to the Catholic Church.

The defeat of two Polish national uprisings against Czarist Russia, one in November of 1830, and another in January of 1863, meant repression for religious orders in Poland. The Czarist regime prohibited the acceptance of new candidates to the religious life, effectively stamping out the normal process of growth in vocations to the religious life for the Marians and other orders.

By 1865, the Russian occupying forces allowed only one Marian monastery to remain open in Marijampole, Lithuania. All Marians were sent to Marijampole. Such rulings were nothing less than a death sentence for the religious order.

Several Marians were exiled to Siberia for their participation in the January, 1863 uprising. One of the most famous exiles was Fr. Christopher Szwernicki. Even under his sentence of hard labor, a virtual slavery, he managed to establish a church and school in Irkuck. There, for almost 50 years, he served the needs of his fellow exiles, refusing to leave when he had an opportunity. It is said that his Christian spirit of hospitality and pastoral care was an example for a future saint and a Carmelite friar, Fr. Raphael Kalinowski, among others. Although he was too busy to know or care that his fame spread beyond the confines of Siberia, Fr. Christopher discovered that fact on his golden anniversary of priesthood. On that occasion in 1888, Pope Leo XIII conferred on him the title of "Apostle to Siberia."


Only One Marian Remained

By the year 1904, the last Marian house, the monastery in Marijampole, closed, since so few Marians remained. By 1908, only one Marian remained, Fr. Vincent Sekowski (Senkus). He was the last Superior General. All other Marians had died, or asked to leave to join the ranks of the diocesan clergy. For all appearances, the Czarist persecutions had succeeded. The Marians seemed to have come to the end of the line.

At this critical moment in the history of the Marian Order, an ardent and energetic Lithuanian priest came to visit Fr. Vincent Sekowski, with the aim of secretly renewing the Order. He was Fr. George Matulaitis-Matulewicz, and at that time he was a professor at the Academy of Theology in St. Petersburg, Russia. Fr. Matulaitis had a profound understanding of the contributions and significance of religious life to society, although Catholic monasteries were being so horribly decimated at that time. He believed it was important to do whatever needed to be done to revive religious life in the lands dominated by Czarist Russia.

In this work, which necessarily had to remain secret, he labored with others of like mind, including a religious who would also later attain the status of being declared "Blessed," Honorat Kozminski.

As a youth, he had been brought up in a village where Marians staffed the local parish. The experience had left him with a lifelong respect and admiration for the Marians. And so Fr. George, along with his friend Fr. Francis Peter Bucys who had also grown up with Marian religious influence, entered the Marian Order with the intention of saving it from disappearing into history, along with all its promise for God's work. They had to become Marians in secret in order to thwart Czarist Russian authorities who continued to persecute the Church.

Father George made his vows and was accepted into the Marian Order by Fr. Vincent Sekowski, and in the same year, 1909, Fr. Francis Peter Bucys became the first novice of the Order on its way to renewed life. Both men were committed to the task. Father George wrote the renewed Order's constitutions, inspired by the spirit of St. Stanislaus Papczynski and the desire to adapt his ideals to modern times.

The new Constitutions and revived form of Marian life were approved by St. Pope Pius X on November 28, 1910. Fr. Vincent Sekowski, who was the last of the White Marians (those who wore the white cassock), lived on for five months after papal approval for Marian renewal.

'God's Man' Revives Order

To assure that the Order could continue to flourish without interference from the Czarist government, the secret Marian novitiate and house of studies were transferred from St. Petersburg in Russia to Fribourg in Switzerland. From this time on, the Marians began to experience consistent growth. In 1927, the year when the Renovator, then Archbishop George Matulaitis, died, the Congregation had grown to around 300 members and would continue to grow over the next several decades, becoming a community of over 600 priests and brothers at the present time.

George Matulaitis, himself, not only served the Church as Renovator of the Marians, but proved to be an outstanding bishop of Vilnius, as well as a skilled and capable diplomat as an archbishop at the service of the Vatican in Lithuania. Pope Pius XI, who knew Archbishop George Matulaitis, described him as "God's man" and "a truly holy man." Sixty years later the entire Church acknowledged the Marian Renovator by honoring him with the title, "Blessed." Blessed George is now a model and example to the whole Church of what it means to truly be a religious, priest, and bishop.

And to the Congregation of the Marians, Blessed George Matulaitis bequeathed a spirit of continuous renewal and generous effort "for Christ and the Church." On his deathbed, where he reiterated his conviction that self-sacrifice is the way most Christians carry their cross, he urged Marians: "close up the ranks and sacrifice yourselves."

Thanks to the Renovator's reforms, the Marians became a modern religious congregation. Yet Blessed George Matulaitis did not change the main ideals of the religious community, such as spreading devotion to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary and supplication for the souls suffering in Purgatory. However, he did expand the field of the Marian apostolate and introduced significant changes into the Marians' way of life, adapting it to the new conditions and needs of modern times.

Among these changes, he replaced the white habit for priests with normal clerical dress and directed brothers to adapt their apparel to the duties they performed. He also placed more emphasis on performing apostolic works full of sacrifice and zeal than on traditional acts of penance and mortification.

Marians have remained faithful to the last wishes of their Renovator and Reformer by preaching Christ's Gospel worldwide. However, the dynamic growth of the Congregation met with interruptions during World War II when the Marians suffered severe losses, particularly in Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia, and Manchuria.

Today the Congregation of the Marians is organized in three provinces and six vicariates, with more than 80 locations engaged in God's work. Marian apostolates at the present time serve Christ and the Church on nearly all the world's continents, faithfully ministering in the Renovator's spirit, according to his motto: "For Christ and the Church."