The Priest of the Gulag: Walter Ciszek, SJ

Far in the bitter Russian north, word of the death of Joseph Stalin spread—even among the political prisoners and criminals who toiled ceaselessly, doomed and forgotten, in the mines and forests of Siberia. The news was a spark of hope that lit the fuse of rebellion. The camps erupted in violence as prisoners’ pent up frustrations with hard labor, hunger, and indignity were loosed. They never had a chance. By the butt of the rifle and the muzzle of the machine gun, Soviet soldiers put the uprising down. Among the prisoners of Camp 5, sprawled in the dirt and desperately trying to avoid the gunfire, was a Catholic priest from Pennsylvania. How he came there—and how he came back—is a study in, as the priest himself put it later, “the strange and mysterious ways of divine providence.”

Walter Ciszek’s seemed an unlikely vocation. By his own account, he was a “bully, the leader of a gang, a street fighter … I had no use for school, except insofar as it had a playground where I could fight or wrestle or play sports.” Walter’s Polish immigrant parents—his father was a mineworker and then a barkeeper in eastern Pennsylvania—were so exasperated by their difficult son that they once asked the police to take him off their hands. It was not the typical childhood of a follower of Ignatius of Loyola, who was required, among other things, to observe strict obedience to superiors and to achieve intellectual prowess through a long and rigorous regimen of academic study. But Walter Ciszek did not lead a typical life.

Born November 14, 1904 in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, Walter was the seventh of Martin and Mary Ciszek’s thirteen children. His mother’s devotion eventually inspired Walter to form aspirations to consecrated life, though his father remained skeptical that such an obstreperous youth could ever embody the piety and kindness that Martin thought proper to the Catholic priesthood. In the “strange and mysterious ways of divine providence,” however, the path of Walter Ciszek was already laid out: God would use the young man’s very contrariness as a lever to nudge him toward his vocation. His father’s opposition to the idea confirmed Walter’s determination to enter the seminary, and Walter’s own inclination away from the communal religious life and extensive training of the Jesuits convinced him to accept both: “since it was so hard,” he declared, “I would do it.”

In 1929, Pope Pius XI founded a Roman university for the purpose of training Western priests to work among the eastern-rite Catholics of Russia. Early in his religious life Walter learned of “the Russicum” and by the time he took vows in 1930, the dream of ministering to Russian Catholics was planted ineradicably in the young Jesuit’s mind. Father Ciszek was ordained in Rome, June 24, 1937.

Walter-Ciszek-SJBy the 1930s, however, Soviet Communism’s implacable opposition to all independent religious activity made it impossible for a Catholic priest to enter the country. Fr. Ciszek was therefore assigned to a small town in eastern Poland, to work among the eastern-rite Catholics of the area and bide his time until a route into the USSR might somehow be discerned.

That day came quickly. Shortly after war broke out in September 1939, the Soviet army overran eastern Poland. Its envelopment by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia was a disaster for Poland, but it was a godsend for Ciszek. He now found himself within the boundaries of the Soviet empire. The American embassy recommended that he leave the country, but he declined. Instead, with the approval of his Jesuit superiors and the local archbishop, he conspired with two fellow Jesuits to enter the Russian heartland and realize his missionary dream.

Aided by his local friends, Ciszek forged papers to show that he was a widowed Polish peasant and volunteered to work in the Soviet war industry, which was hiring recruits throughout Soviet-occupied territory. Thus he found passage on an eastbounad train and crossed into Russia proper. Notwithstanding his careful efforts to hide his identity, he was arrested after only a year spent as a logger in the Ural Mountains. The Communist state had spies everywhere, and they quickly discovered the true identity of the American priest.

So began a brutal, years-long series of interrogations, incarcerations, and forced-labor assignments. The Soviet imagination could not comprehend the religious and charitable motives that impelled a young American man to sacrifice all for the sake of a ministry amidst the embattled and impoverished Catholics of Russia; therefore, they determined that he must be a spy. At first, they insisted that he was in the service of Hitler, then that he was involved in some kind of plot masterminded by the pope. In any case, they would not accept his explanations. He was found guilty of espionage and sentenced to fifteen years of labor in the Gulag.

The early years of his sentence were served in Moscow, within the confines of the notorious Lubyanka prison. Ciszek could not know at the time that the cell at Lubyanka would appear to be luxurious accommodations compared to later hardships. In 1946 he was transferred to Norilsk, Siberia, where his toils over the next decade included construction and coal mining. Daily life was a constant struggle for survival, but Ciszek made the most of his spiritual opportunities, saying Mass when possible, offering solace and sacraments to the religious, and sharing the rudiments of faith with those who had none.

Ciszek’s sentence ended in 1955. He was released into Siberia, but he was not free. As a treasonous ex-convict, not only would he never be permitted to leave the country; he must also seek permission for every transition of employment or residence. This period of relative freedom, however, was Ciszek’s most fruitful as a minister. Priests were in short supply in Russia and Ciszek found grateful parishioners wherever he went. The KGB discouraged Ciszek’s religious activity by harassment and threat, but by this time the hard-bitten priest was not easily cowed, even by the Soviet secret police.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Ciszek was presumed dead. The last contact with his relatives and Jesuit brothers was a postcard sent from Poland in 1940. In 1947, the Jesuits said a memorial Mass for him and his name was added to the official list of the Society’s deceased. Then, suddenly, came a letter, postmarked Siberia. Fr. Ciszek was alive! He remained in sporadic contact with his native country while his family sought to secure his liberty.

On October 11, 1963, the U.S. State Department announced to the world that a deal had been struck with the USSR. Two American prisoners were to be released in exchange for two Soviet spies captured in the United States. One of the Americans was a Jesuit priest. On the morning of October 12, Fr. Ciszek stepped onto the tarmac at Idlewild Airport (now JFK) in New York.

Friends and colleagues implored the repatriated priest to record his experiences, and he did so in two books: With God in Russia (1964) and He Leadeth Me (1973). It is no wonder that his accounts of life “behind enemy lines” were a sensation in Cold War America, but for Catholics they hold a meaning that goes beyond the historical contingencies of a particular period. In the details of this particular life we see written again the themes that play across Christian history: proclamation, witness, sacrifice, death, and resurrection. Fr. Ciszek’s labors evoke the heroism of the great Jesuit missionaries who preceded him: Francis Xavier, Paul Miki, Matteo Ricci, Isaac Jogues, Eusebio Kino. Not to mention the bearers of the gospel who formed the Church for fifteen hundred years before the Society of Jesus existed: Paul of Tarsus, Patrick, Boniface, Cyril and Methodius.

During his time in Russia, Ciszek narrowly escaped death by drowning, freezing, starvation, illness, electrocution, firing squad, explosion, and beating. Millions of victims of the Gulag died in these ways and others. Why did Fr. Ciszek survive? The answer is once again the “strange and mysterious ways of divine providence,” but one might speculate. Fr. Ciszek did: “I felt that one reason that God in his providence had brought me safely home was so that I might help others understand these truths a little better.” Which truths? “That God has a special purpose, a special love, a special providence to all those he has created,” and that, therefore, “every moment of our life has a purpose, that every action of ours, no matter how dull or routine or trivial it may seem in itself, has a dignity and a worth beyond human understanding.”

In the midst of the Cold War, this was a message the West needed to hear. Fr. Ciszek was uniquely qualified to announce it. He possessed a combination of street-smart intelligence and genuine humility; an astonishing memory; an indomitable faith; and a native appreciation of American culture that was untainted by jingoism or xenophobia. His story helped to shape among American Catholics an anti-Communist ethos that was tethered to faith and fueled not by hatred of the Russian people but by a desire to free them from oppression—to restore to them the transcendent truth about man’s relationship with God that materialist ideology tried to stamp out.

Ciszek remained for the rest of his life in the United States, residing and teaching at Fordham University. He died on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1984, and his cause for canonization was formally introduced in 1990 at the behest of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic, New Jersey. By that time, the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Catholic Church was enjoying its freedom in Poland, and the Gulag where Ciszek had spent ten physically miserable years was largely dismantled. Yet changing circumstances do not diminish the timeless witness of the saints. The good news of God’s “special purpose, special love, and special providence” is a message the world still needs to hear.


Kevin Schmiesing is a research fellow at the Acton Institute. He is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and, most recently, of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). He is the book review editor for The Journal of Markets & Morality and is also executive director of Schmiesing earned his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.