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BLESSED FATHER MICHAEL SOPOCKO
(1888-1975)

A biography based on excerpts from the book
THE SERVANT OF GOD, FR. MICHAEL SOPOCKO
by Father Henry Ciereszko

Biography - Part I

Blessed Fr. Michael Sopocko, was the confessor and spiritual director of Sister Faustina.
Through her mediation, he was directly involved with the mystery of the revelations given
by the Merciful Jesus. God assigned to him the special role of fullfeeling the mission given
by Our Lord Jesus Christ to Saint Faustina. Fr. Michael dedicated almost his entire life
to the accomplishment of this mission.
The beatification of the Servant of God Fr. Michael Sopocko, wchich took place
on 28 September 2008, will serve to bring him closer to many more of the faithful,
and especially to the devotees of the Divine Mercy.



HIS CHILDHOOD AND SCHOOL YEARS

Michael Sopocko was born into a noble family on November 1, 1888 in Nowosady, in present day Lithuania. From his earliest years he was raised in a deeply religious atmosphere and a patriotic tradition. In spite of their poor standard of living, his parents made sure that Michael received
at least an elementary education.The difficult conditions in which the Sopocko family lived,
the arduous labor in the fields and the constant struggle for survival, was a tough character building school of life for all the family.The healthy morality of his parents, their deep piety
and parental and family love, had a profound and positive effect on the spiritual development
of Michael and his siblings. Daily family prayer and frequent attendance at services in the parish church 18 kilometers away, where they traveled by horse-drawn cart, was normal practice
for the family. Receiving the holy sacraments was a significant experience for Michael.
When he was a young boy he built a small altar in the house, which he used to pray before. Already in childhood, the spiritual atmosphere which reigned in the Sopocko home awakened
in him an ardent piety and the desire to offer himself to the service of God in the priesthood.

Michael in his youth


STUDY IN THE SEMINARY OF VILNIUS

Michael entered the Seminary in 1910, and studied for four years. He could not rely on any
material help from home, and it was only due to the financial support granted him by the Rector
of the seminary that he was able continue his studies. He was ordained a priest on June 15, 1914.

First years of priestly service near Vilnius


ASSISTANT PRIEST IN TABORYSZKI

After being ordained a priest, Father Michael Sopocko, was appointed to work in the parish
of Taboryszki, near Vilnius, in the capacity of parochial vicar. The range of duties given him was not too heavy, so he asked to be allowed to lead catechesim classes on Sundays for the youth.
The first year of Fr. Michael's pastoral work came to a climax with the solemnity of first Confession and First Holy Communion, with 500 children participating. In the summer of 1915 the German-Russian front passed through Taboryszki. In spite of the danger from war activities, Father Sopocko continued to celebrate all the devotional services that were prescribed for this time.
He was also involved in the lives of his parishioners, consoling all those who were injured
or harmed by the passing armies.

Fr. Michael amongst the participants in the summer school for teachers in Vilnius

During his stay in Taboryszki, Father Sopocko also became active in the field of education.
He opened new schools for children in neighboring villages for which he was often persecuted
by the occupying German authorities even although initially these same authorities were tolerant of his activities and even helped him materially. Their attitude however hardened with time
and matters began to change for the worse. Finally the German authorities began to prevent
Father Sopocko from travelling to Vilnius to bring back teachers for his schools
and in the end they forced him to leave Taboryszki altogether.


STUDIES IN THE THEOLOGY DEPARTMENT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF WARSAW
AND SERVICE AS MILITARY CHAPLAIN

In 1918, Father Michael received permission from the Church authorities in Vilnius to go to Warsaw, where he registered for study in the Theology Department of Warsaw University However, he was unable to begin his studies due to illness and the political situation at the time. After his recovery he returned to Warsaw intending to begin his studies in January 1919, but he found the university was closed as a result of the war, so instead, he signed up as a volunteer for the military chaplaincy. The field Bishop of the Polish army appointed him as an army chaplain,
and assigned him to pastoral service in the Warsaw Field Hospital.

After a month he requested to be moved to the military front and immediately received a transfer
to the Vilnius Regiment where immediately he began serving the soldiers who were fighting
on the front line. His duties consisted of saying Holy Mass and leading devotions, as well
as hearing confessions. In addidion to his pastoral duties, he spent time caring for the wounded, who often found themselves in difficult circumstances due to the lack of hospital facillities.

After one particularly long and arduous march with the fighting troops Fr. Sopocko again began experienceing difficulties with his health and as a result, he was sent for treatmemt to a military hospital where, during the several weeks of his recovery, he helped with spiritual ministry
to the sick.

Following the end of his treatment, Fr. Sopocko was assigned as the military chaplain
to a Training Camp for officers in Warsaw. His duties included weekly religious and moral talks
for officers and non-commissioned officers of the various units, as well as service in two military hospitals. As a military chaplain to the Training Camp officers, as part of his talks, he raised issues of dogma and Church history. He discussed the catechism as well as taking up actual problems associated with military service. The religious moral and patriotic issues he raised in his talks
were held in such high regard by his superiors that the Ministry of Defence published his talks
and instructed the officers to introduce his work to the cadets in all units.

As Military Chaplain to the Training Camp for officers in Powazki

In October, 1919, in spite of the on-going war, the university resumed its activities.
Fr. Sopocko registered for study in the moral theology department, and for additional lectures
on law and philosophy. He had to divide his time between study and military service
and in addition he took up the organizing of social activities. He supervised, as president,
an inn for soldiers called, "Brotherly Help for Soldiers' as well as organizing a school
for orphaned children from military families.

In the summer of 1920, Fr. Sopocko witnessed the collapse of the front line, and immediately
after that, already in Warsaw, he lived through its heroic defense, and the victory over the Soviet offense. Years later, in his memoirs, he judged the event as being an exceptional directive
of Divine Providence and a sign of Divine Mercy for Poland obtained through the prayers
of the faithful who filled the churches that August.

While fulfilling his duties as an army chaplain and studying in the moral theology department,
he also registered for a higher degree in education. In 1923 he received his master's degree
in theology and became even more involved in the field of pedagogy. The results of his research into the effects of alcohol on the learning development of the youth became the basis for his diploma work, "Alcoholism and School-aged Youth," the crowning achievement of his studies
in the Pedagogical Institute.

MILITARY CHAPLAINCY AND THE SOCIALIO-DIDACTIC WORK IN VILNIUS

The Bishop of Vilnius, Jerzy Matulewicz, knowing the merits and achievements, as well as the theological and pedagogical background of Fr. Sopocko, wanted to have him work in his diocese. Firstly he wished to entrust him with the organization of a pastoral ministry for young people
who were not at school and for college-aged adults.
Father Michael accepted the bishop's proposal and decided to return to Vilnius. There he was formally appointed as Director of the Military Chaplaincy for the Vilnius Region, which consisted
of 12 independent units, numbering over 10,000 sodiers altogether. The transfer of Fr. Sopocko
to Vilnius was a promotion, but, at the same, time it imposed on him more obligations
and a greater responsibility.

Michael Sopocko as a military chaplain

In union with the conference of military chaplains, Father Sopocko decided that in addition
to sacramental ministry, the chaplains should also give talks on religion and morals at least twice
a week in every unit. He also took on the task designated by the bishop to organize the youth ministry for young adults. And with the help of teachers specially invited by him, he managed
to set up several Fraternities of Polish Youth.

With the coordinators and members of the Youth Association, (Vilnius, 1926)

Despite the many responsibilities of his pastoral work, Fr. Sopocko continued his theological studies by distance learning, preparing his doctoral work on moral theology entitled,
"The Family in Law-making in Poland." He submitted his thesis in the Theology Department
of the University of Warsaw on 1 March 1926. Because his research work required a knowledge
of foreign languages, he also studied German, English and French.

After obtaining his doctorate, he prepared for a further post doctoral degree. In 1927 and 1928, while continuing to work as director of the chaplaincy of the local Military District, Fr. Sopocko
was appointed to the prominent position, of spiritual director of the Seminary and head
of the Pastoral Theology Department at the Vilnius University. These new duties forced
him to gradually withdraw from military chaplaincy work.

SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR OF THE METROPOLITAN SEMINARY
AND PROFESSOR OF THE STEFAN BATORY UNIVERSITY IN VILNIUS

As a Spiritual Director and Professor together with the seminarians of the Seminary in Vilnius.

Work in the seminary and the role of Spiritual Director, for which he was not theoretically prepared, and even surprised to have been given, eventually began to suit him. As Spiritual Director, Fr. Sopocko was also the moderator of the Marian Sodality, the Eucharistic Association, the Third Order of St. Francis and the Union of Seminarians Associated with the Mission Clergy. Another service he performed during this time, and indeed during his entire time in Vilnius,
was that of confessor for the religious order of sisters, hearing confessions of religious sisters.

After being partially relieved of the role of military chaplain, his duties in addition to his function
as Spiritual Director in the Seminary included giving lectures and carrying out research.
Since books and manuscripts for teaching were scarce in those times, Fr. Michael had
to write his teaching material by hand for the subjects he taught. These scripts were copied
and used by the students as study aids for many years. The research of Fr. Sopocko was mostly connected with his post-doctoral thesis, on the problem of spiritual upbringing and formation.
In the summer of 1930 Fr. Sopocko visited various libraries in Western European countries
to collect materials for the research work he had undertaken.

The journey was fruitful for both his research and his faith. He was able to visit places of devotion and centers of religious life as well as the libraries. While working on his post-doctoral thesis,
Fr. Michael was also writing articles and lectures related to his research within the scope of pastoral theology, and articles for church encyclopedias. He presented research reports and took up journalism. Becoming more and more involved in research, Fr. Sopocko asked to be relieved
of his duties as Military Chaplain and of the post of Spiritual Director, to which both The Field Bishop and Archbishop eventually agreed.

In September 1932, Fr. Michael moved into a monastry building occupied by the Sisters of Visitation where he was able to finish writing his post-doctoral work. His thesis was called:
"The Purpose, Subject and Object of Spiritual Formation according to M. Leczycki."
On the basis of this work, he qualified as assistant professor on 15 May 1934. The Ministry
of Religious Confessions and Public Education nominated him as Assistant Professor
at the University of Warsaw, and this title was then forwarded to the Department
of Pastoral Theology at the Stefan Batory University in Vilnius.

Among students of Stefan Batory University in Vilnius.




MEETING SISTER FAUSTINA

From 1932 Fr. Sopocko was the confessor for the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, who at that time had a convent in Vilnius. It was here, in 1933, that he met Sister Faustina Kowalska, who, after coming to Vilnius in May of 1933, became his penitent.Their meeting proved to be a defining moment determining the direction taken by the rest of his life and defining his future mission. In the person of Sister Faustina, Fr. Sopocko met a worshipper of the Divine Mercy, a Mercy that he himself had experienced in his own life on more than one occasion, and for which he praised God. Sister Faustina, having found in Fr. Sopocko an enlightened confessor and spiritual director, began to share more deeply with him her spiritual experiences and visions.
To enable him to assess and discern their content, he asked the sister to write down her inner experiences, and then he would look over the texts at his leisure. In this way the DIARY
of St. Faustina came into being.

Sister Faustina, citing the revelations of Jesus that she had already experienced before coming
to Vilnius and then later on while already there. She told Fr. Sopocko about the requests
she had received from Jesus during her apparitions. These included instructions to paint
an Image of the Most Merciful Savior (see Image), to institute a Feast of Divine Mercy on the First Sunday after Easter (see Feast), and to set up a new Religious Congregation (see new Congregation).




In March, 1934 Father Sopocko made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Visiting the Holy Land was
a tremendous experience for him, which he later described in his Memoirs, as well as in accounts in different publications. From July 1934 Fr. Sopocko was the Rector of St. Michael's Church in Vilnius where thanks to his efforts the first Image of the Merciful Jesus was blessed and displayed on 4 April 1937. This followed positive assessments of the Image given by the two commissions
of experts appointed by the Metropolitan Archbishop Jalbrzykowski of Vilnius (see history of Image).

Sr. Faustina left Vilnius in March, 1936. Fr. Sopocko, whilst remaining in contact with her by letter, and visiting her in Krakow, brought to fruition the work that had been entrusted also to him.
The work of bringing the mystery of Divine Mercy closer to the world. Fr. Sopocko pursued
this work by seeking out the theological grounds for the existence of this Divine attribute of Mercy based on the teachings of the Church. He also wanted to establish the basis for the institution
of the Feast that was requested in Faustina's visions. He presented the results of his research
and the arguments for introducing the Feast in several articles in Theological periodicals.
He also presented them in separate works on the subject of Divine Mercy.

In June of 1936 in Vilnius Fr. Michael published his first brochure, "The Divine Mercy,"
with an image of the Most Merciful Christ on the cover. He sent this first publication out to all
of the Bishops who were gathered for the Episcopal Conference in Czestochowa, but did
not receive an answer from any of them. In 1937 in Poznan he published his secondd brochure entitled "The Divine Mercy in the Liturgy."

At the end of 1937 the health of St. Faustina visibly deteriorated. Fr. Sopocko visited her at the beginning of September 1938, and she was already practically on her deathbed (see Congregation).
Sister Faustina died on October 5, 1938.
After the outbreak of war in September 1939, Fr. Sopocko decided to bring Sister Faustina's revelations into the open. He sensed that the tragedy of war and the connected events
had begun to confirm their contents.

Also connected with the concept of Divine Mercy was the building of a new church in Vilnius
under that Name. In 1938 the Divine Mercy Church Building Committee was created,
which soon received the approval of the State Office and of Archbishop R. Jalbrzykowski.
With the outbreak of the second world-war however Vilnius was occupied by the Soviet Army.
A new political situation followed, that brought a halt to the initiated work, and, in the end, completely thwarted it. The Soviet Army plundered the accumulated building materials
and the money earmarked for the construction project, kept in the bank, was also lost.
Undaunted, even in 1940, Fr. Sopocko was still trying to obtain permission to build at least
a chapel, but was refused.

YEARS OF OCCUPATION AND THE POST-WAR YEARS IN VILNIUS

The difficult situation of the war, engulfing ever wider areas of Europe, affecting the populations
of many peoples and spreading evil deepened the conviction of Fr. Sopocko regarding the need
of God's Mercy for the world. And so he began with ever greater conviction to proclaim the concept and ideology of Divine Mercy, which he perceived as the hope of the world. Pastors of parishes from Vilnius, and also from the provinces, invited him to give conferences. During Lenten devotions in the Vilnius Cathedral, he would give homilies on Divine Mercy which drew crowds of the faithful from all over Vilnius. The words of these homilies resounded all over the city.

During this time, Fr. Sopocko also began working on a treatise "De Misericordia Dei Deque Eiusdem Festo Instituendo." about the concept of Divine Mercy and about the Feast in its honor.
He was encouraged by Cardinal August Hlond even before the war to pursue this work at the time when Fr. Sopocko had presented the Cardinal with his research regarding the matter of Divine Mercy. But in June of 1940 Lithuania was again taken over by the Red Army, and a month later
was merged into the Soviet Union as its fifteenth republic. Fr. Sopocko was forced to stop meeting with the groups that he was moderating. He was also deprived of the possibility of publishing
his treatise on Divine Mercy.
Hedwig Osinska, who was an expert in classical languages, came to his aid and took care of
the literary aspect of the treatise. With the help of her acquaintances, she took it upon herself
to copy the work in secret. Then she would send it to different people who had the possibility
of leaving Vilnius. In this way, Fr. Sopocko's work was able to reach many countries,
and particularly was able to fall into the hands of Bishops in Europe and throughout the world.

Fr. Sopocko became a suspect of the Gestapo because he was proclaiming the ideals of Divine Mercy and spreading its devotion. Prewarned by a Registration Office worker, he was able to evade arrest and he left Vilnius to avoid danger. When the threat had passed, Fr. Sopocko returned to Vilnius and began teaching in the Seminary, where, in spite of the difficult material conditions and problems with locale, the new academic year 1940/41 began. He once again lived
at St. Michael Church, where the Image of the Most Merciful Savior was still displayed surrounded by ever greater devotion.

Even before the war, Fr. Sopocko had taken up instructing those Jews in the truths of the Catholic faith who were coming forward to the Church. The fruit of his efforts was the baptism of some 65 individuals. When on 22 June 1941 the German-Soviet war broke out, Vilnius soon found itself under new occupation. The Jewish people were subjected to particular discrimination.
Fr. Sopocko by also assisting the Jewish people both materially and spiritually was engaged
in a very dangerous activity that could result in far-reaching consequences for him, including
the loss of his life. The Gestapo had uncovered some tracks of his activities and even held him under arrest for several days.

At the end of 1941, the terror of the German occupation intensified. On the last Sunday of Advent, owing to an alleged epidemic, all the churches in Vilnius were closed down, and arrests followed.
On 3 March 1942 the Germans started a widespread hunt for priests. They arrested professors
and students of the seminary, as well as almost all of the priests who were working in Vilnius.
Soon after this Archbishop R. Jalbrzykowski, was himself also arrested and detained in the Convent of Marian Fathers in Mariampole.

On the day of the arrests in the seminary, the Gestapo also set a trap for Fr. Sopocko
in his apartment. But, forewarned by his housekeeper, he was able to escape. He managed
to reach the Archbishop's office, where he informed the Archbishop that the Gestapo was searching for him, and he requested to be released from teaching in the seminary. Fr. Sopocko also asked
for the Archbishop's blessing for the time that he was going to be in hiding. The refuge
was provided by the Ursuline Sisters who sheltered him in a rented house in the forest,
two kilometers from the town of Czarny Bór.

Fr. Sopocko in Czarny Bór at the Ursuline Sisters'

Through the mediation of some trusted people, Fr. Michael obtained a falsified identity card
under the name of Waclaw Rodziewicz and he became known as a gardener and carpenter, making simple tools and furniture, for the local people. Every day, he would celebrate Holy Mass early in the morning, after which he would spend a lot of time on prayer and personal reflection. Every few weeks he would also go to the Sisters' Convent in Czarny Bór to hear confessions,
while at other times he busied himself with research work, based on literature provided by Hedwig Osinska his long time collaborator and her friends.

In the fall of 1944, despite the exceptionally difficult conditions, Archbishop Jalbrzykowski ordered that the seminary resume its activity and Fr. Sopocko returned to Vilnius to assume his assigned duties. To keep the seminary going, in addition to his regular responsibilities, he would travel
with other professors and seminarians to country parishes every Sunday to collect donations
of agricultural produce.

Fr. Sopocko also undertook pastoral work outside of Vilnius, often taking advantage
of the opportunity to make known the idea and concept of the Divine Mercy. In the beginning,
the authorities of the Lithuanian Republic, despite their anti-religious disposition, tolerated
the pastoral activity of priests. However, they gradually began to limit their work particularly tightening up on the granting of permission to catechize youth and children. Fr. Sopocko held courses in secret, but eventually word of these meetings reached the authorities who summoned him and he was faced with the real danger of having sanctions brought against him,
which did not exclude deportation and exile to Siberia.

Coinciding with these events, in July 1947 Fr. Sopocko providentially received a call from Archbishop Jalbrzykowski, who was staying in Bialystok, asking him to come and work in that
part of the Archdiocese. He decided to leave Vilnius as quickly as possible, especially since
the time granted for the repatriation of Polish people from Lithuania was coming to an end.

Wishfully hoping that his parting from Vilnius would be short -lived, Fr. Sopocko left for Bialystok
at the end of August 1947, on the very last transport of Polish people from Lithuania going to Poland. Before his departure he visited the Chapel of Our Lady of Mercy in "Ostra Brama"
(The Eastern Gate of the city).

FR. SOPOCKO
- FOUNDER OF THE CONGREGATION OF THE SISTERS OF MERCIFUL JESUS

Upon his arrival in Bialystok, Fr. Sopocko reported to Archbishop Jalbrzykowski to receive
his commission for his new appointment. At the end of September, he went to Myslibórz
for a few days, where Hedwig Osinska and Isabel Naborowska (the first mothers
of the Congregation founded by Fr. Sopocko) were organizing the beginnings of religious community life. This was his first meeting with the sisters since they had left Vilnius.
From that time he had kept in constant touch with the sisters, giving them advice
and spiritual support, and keeping watch over the development of the Congregation
of which he was founder (see The Shrine).

Father M. Sopocko with his spiritual daughters.

 

 

FORWARD >> Fr. M. Sopocko Biography part II

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