“A few of the exiles live in a house which is organized like a monastery…a house of great value by the very fact that it exists and gives good example….
Even the wisest words eventually evaporate
and a book once read is forgotten
but a living institution exerts an influence
that is constant and effective.”
(Adam Micewski, the great Romantic poet, commenting on the
“House of Janski” in 1836.)
It was Ash Wednesday in 1836 when five young men sat down together for their first meeting as a community in an unheated, unfurnished house in Paris. They were exiles from their homeland and had recently rediscovered their Catholic faith. Bogdan Janski was their leader and Peter Semenenko, Jerome Kajsiewicz and two
other converts completed the group.
After giving some introductory words about their new community, Bogdan led the group in a meditation. During their first supper together, Bogdan read aloud these words from the first letter of John. “Let us love one another because love is from God…. Though God has never been seen by any man, God himself dwells in us if we love one another.” (I John, 4:7,12)
For months, Bogdan had been promising the eager young men that he would find a house where they could move in together and live a common christian life. They could then live like the early Christians who had all things in common and were of one mind and one heart. Now they had the house. The christian community was taking shape.
Bogdan thought the house he had rented, though small, would be big enough to accommodate twelve people. It had no furniture and no bedding. Of course, everything was handmade in the early nineteenth century, including Bogdan’s hand-sewn coat. He took it off at that first meeting and gave it to Peter to hock so that he could buy a mattress, pillow, some bedding and a table for the house. That was one way to begin furnishing the house. Bogdan had already pawned his watch. Now the others would bring in whatever they could contribute to create their new home.
Bogdan Janski was a twenty-nine year old academic who, after years of denial and disbelief had been led to rediscover Christ and the Church. The year before, a small group of older men had been meeting for Mass regularly and had invited the bright and gifted young man to join them for scripture reading and discussion at Adam Mickiewicz’ home. It was this group that showed Bogdan a path back to the Catholic Church. It was this group who funded what came to be called “The House of Janski.”
On the following Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, the little group of five attended Mass and received communion together in the chapel of Our Lady at the majestic St. Sulpice Church, the second largest church in Paris. There they vowed to live community life together because they knew that the only way they could begin restoring the church was to start with themselves.
It was a religious association that they began but not a monastic society. Mickiewicz had “counseled that for the time being,we (should) abandon notions of social reform and concentrate on refo
rming ourselves, by rekindling in our hearts a faith, a hope and a love that had grown cold.” Bogdan dreamed that his new brotherhood would spark in the hearts of those who had lost hope a re-born Christian society.
In his diary, Bogdan sketches his dream of a Christian society organized with many branches which would be more or less loosely united to his new core group. Parishes, for example, were to be spiritual families after the example of the primitive Christian community. But, there would be associates, too, who would live with the brothers at the House. External brethren, too, would be a leaven in all areas of society and be a cherished part of the movement. And Bogdan knew with his new community that he was, indeed starting a movement.
After that Mass, they walked back to their house and then lit a fire in the fireplace, taking the edge off the Paris chill. The group leaned in toward the heat of the fire and basked in its warmth. By the light of that fire, they met for a conversation that lasted two hours with Bogdan encouraging them, and recalling their purpose and explaining to them some of the duties of housekeeping. Each of them had to learn to think of his brother first as they cleaned the house, cooked and transacted business with those who came to visit the House of Janski.
Soon, Bogdan was assigning ministries which included outreach to the most needy among the exiles. There was desperate need everywhere he turned. Poverty. Joblessness. Hunger. Homelessness. Feelings of abandonment and loss of family connections among the exiles were especially painful. Where was the mercy of the Lord in all this misery? Bogdan instructed his group to bring hope and Christian example into their despair.
Acute needs arose, too. Later in 1836, the men responded to a terrible epidemic that rushed through Paris. Each of them did what they could for the sick. Bogdan took a few of the sick into the house but he saw the need for much more. Opportunity to serve Christ in the poor was often simply dumped on their doorstep.
All in Janski’s House were involved in ministry but Jerome was especially urged by grace in his ministry:
“One cannot fall in love with the Lord, taste how sweet He is, and not at the same time be inflamed with holy desire to see that others share that same happiness. Thus we tried to help others to know and love Jesus.”
There was a freshness and warmth to their spirituality which caught fire from Bogdan himself: Bogdan had brought something new to the emigres of Paris. Speaking about him, Peter had this to say about Bogdan and his remarkable ministry in Paris:
“He shown like the star that heralds the break of day…what a beautiful and attractive figure he was, there in the midst of all the poverty, misery, deterioration and darkness! A great spirit….”
On this Founder’s Day we should remember the charism, a gift of hope that Bogdan and hundreds of men have cherished during nearly two hundred years of our existence as a religious community.
We here in the USA province are a small group these days trying to huddle close to one another as our numbers diminish. We know our purpose is to take care of one another’s need for continuing conversion and to carry the fire of Christ to wherever we are sent. We pray that young men will somehow find us living our charism and will want to share in the dream of Bogdan Janski. They can find us here waiting at the hearth.
“In order to accomplish a complete spiritual renewal, Christian love needs to be nourished at the table of the Lamb, where all are of one heart and one soul…under the banner of the Risen Lord.”