Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Ladies of Bethany

The Ladies of Bethany, an order of Dutch nuns, were infinitely kind to me. I first met them when I stayed briefly in their guesthouse in Rome called Foyer Unitas Casa, in the snowy winter of 198485. I was initially referred to them by the redoubtable Thea Waddell, whose son Richard I knew at Trinity. Originally there were four sisters, Miss Luff, Miss Klompé—a sister of Marga Klompé who in 1956 became the first female minister of state in the Netherlands—Miss Josefa Koet (pronounced like shoot, seated here on the right), and Miss Leideke Galema (on the left). The order was one of the first to eschew the habit of the religious, and to adopt as well as civilian clothes the slightly confusing practice of referring to themselves by the secular “Miss.”

The four women converged upon Rome from various different places in, I think, the mid- to late 1950s, with an essentially outward-looking and ecumenical mission, much supported by Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, who was at that time Pope Pius XII’s sostituto for ordinary affairs in the Vatican secretariat of state. With Monsignor Montini’s assistance they found accommodation in the Palazzo Salviati in Trastevere, a sinister, ramshackle building that was used by the Germans during the war as a point of deportation of Roman jews from the Ghetto. Possibly the ladies moved from there once or twice before Princess Orietta Doria Pamphilj was persuaded by Monsignor Montini, with whom she was on friendly terms, to restore and make available to them and other religious bodies an essentially derelict, six-storey palazzo she owned that adjoined the great family church of S. Agnese in Agone, which dominates the Piazza Navona. (She had previously sold the huge Palazzo Pamphilj to the Republic of Brazil, whose embassy to Italy continues to occupy it.)

With the coming of the Second Vatican Council the work of the Ladies of Bethany suddenly assumed far greater prominence in Rome than it had previously, and the guesthouse they maintained, and the hospitality and programs they offered their guests, were geared towards accredited non-Catholic observers at the Council, both Orthodox and Protestant—Davis McCaughey was a guest at around this time—and continued thereafter to support far greater efforts in inter-church and inter-faith dialogue.

On one occasion, Miss Galema once told me, a young theologian then staying at Foyer Unitas, who was peritus to Josef Cardinal Frings, Archbishop of Cologne, received word that his mother had died in Germany, and therefore needed to be driven straight away to the old airport at Ciampino. This Miss Galema did, thus earning the sincere gratitude of the future Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

At around the same time, Monsignor Montini, who had in the meantime gone to be Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, was elected to succeed Pope John XXIII. For the rest of his life, Pope Paul VI took a lively interest in Foyer Unitas, and presented to the ladies the gold chalice which a kindly Dutch Jesuit priest used every afternoon for the masses he said in their beautiful little chapel, a calm, whitewashed slice of Holland right in the heart of the Baroque city.

I only ever knew Miss Koet and Miss Galema. Miss Luff and Miss Klompé died long before I arrived in Rome. Miss Koet, alas, died some years ago, but Miss Galema is still going strong, and, when last I received news of her, was busily drawing up plans to travel to the Holy Land. She is now well over ninety. I recall many good stories that each of them told me a different times, Miss Koet with wry good humour, wit and wisdom, and Miss Galema with considerable flamboyance. One of those has remained especially important to me.

Immediately after the end of World War II, Josefa Koet was attached to a convent in Vienna. When I learned this, I asked her with the boldness of the very young and inexperienced whether she had ever seen Carol Reed’s The Third Man—convinced when I did so that her reply would be no, and that I would be introducing a comparative simpleton to something potentially interesting and novel and informative. As usual, with infinite indulgence, she surprised me. Yes, she had not only seen that marvelous film, but had seen it many times, because it so perfectly captured what she recalled of the sinister postwar mood and rubble of occupied Vienna. And evidently she knew it far better even than Carol Reed, because clandestinely, Josefa and her fellow religious undertook the hazardous task of ferrying messages—letters, memoranda, deeds, money, etc.—between families for the time being divided between the three allied sectors and the locked-down Soviet, from which even temporary departure was for several years forbidden. Such communications were naturally also prohibited by the Russian military authorities, and there were numerous instances of people being deported to the east, or even worse simply disappearing for presumed political and other offenses far less serious than this essentially humanitarian work, about which, incidentally, certain officers of British military intelligence were glad to learn as many trivial details as Miss Koet could remember. Josefa told me she was not aware at the time that she was ever being debriefed, but she eventually reached that inevitable conclusion with considerable alarm. Alarm, because on one occasion in an especially cruel midwinter she was detained by Russian soldiers for four interminable hours on an exposed railway platform, as she was about to cross back into the British sector, and was questioned there in some detail about the purpose of her visit to the Soviet. They never learned that she was carrying an infinitely compromising brace of letters in both outside pockets of her overcoat—compromising not only to Josefa herself, but obviously to each and every correspondent who had entrusted them to her care through an intermediary—because when at length the Russian military police conducted a careful body search, they made the simple, life-saving mistake of asking Josefa with considerable gruffness to unbutton and open wide her overcoat for ease of frisking, and evidently assumed that nobody would be so stupid as to carry secret messages anywhere other than below many layers. They mocked her vocation, shocked her by the intrusiveness of the search, but eventually let her go.

Years later, I am still struck, indeed ever more so, by the extraordinary bravery exhibited by Miss Josefa Koet, then and on numerous subsequent occasions—bravery to which she would never have laid claim, but almost certainly would have dismissed with a chuckle instead. She simply did what she had to do, and it would never have occurred to her not to do it. Goodness of heart, strength of spirit, gentleness and wisdom. How rare are those qualities, and how lucky we are when, with luck, it is given to us to encounter them at an early age? Josefa died peacefully some years ago in a pretty retirement home, formerly a boarding school for the children of Rhine barge captains, at Arnhem in the western-most corner of the Netherlands, not too far from the house in which she was born.

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