Cecilia Schelingová was born on 24 December 1916 in Krivá in Orava, the mountainous region of northeastern Slovakia. She was one of 10 children born to Pavol Schelingová and Zuzana Pániková. From an early age the children acquired a sense of responsibility and of sacrifice from their parents and, above all, a deep and practical faith.
Cecilia attended the local elementary school from 1922 to 1930. In 1929, the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Holy Cross arrived at Cecilia’s parish, and the presence of the order helped her to see that God was calling her to religious life. She was particularly impressed by the Sisters’ unconditional love and disciplined lifestyle.
In 1931, when Cecilia was 15 years old, she went to the motherhouse of the congregation in Podunajské Biskupice, accompanied by her mother, to ask permission to join the order. However, before her entry into the novitiate in 1936, she was sent to nursing school and then took a specialized course in radiology. On 30 January 1937 she made first vows and received the name “Zdenka”.
Sr Zdenka was remembered by her Sisters as a person who lived continually in God’s presence, both in prayer and work. She once wrote: “I want to do God’s will without paying attention to myself, my comfort or my rest”. She demonstrated love and compassion to everyone and was always ready to serve, especially sick hospital patients.
Her first nursing experience was in the hospital in Humenné, near Ukraine. In 1942 she was transferred to the hospital in Bratislava, where she continued work in the radiology department.
In 1948, while Sr Zdenka was in Bratislava, the totalitarian Communist regime began. As a result and until 1953, the Catholic Church was deprived of all rights and her members persecuted. During this period, prisoners were sent to the hospital to receive care, priests among them. One day, Sr Zdenka understood that one of the priests, accused of being a Vatican spy and of betrayal, was going to be shipped to Siberia where death would be awaiting him, and so she acted at the risk of her own life: she slipped sleeping pills into the guard’s tea, allowing the priest to escape. After he was free, Sr Zdenka went into the chapel and prayed: “Jesus, I offer my life for his. Save him!”.
Some days later, however, on 29 February 1952, when she tried to help three priests and three seminarians escape, her plan backfired and she was arrested. She was interrogated and suffered many humilations, including being brutally tortured by the police. She finally received a sentence of 12 years in prison and 10 years of civil rights’ deprivation. The torture that she underwent left her body mutilated and her right breast torn apart from the continual kicks by the police.
From 1952 until 1955 Sr Zdenka was transferred from one prison to another. She accepted torture and mistreatment with great humility; most difficult of all for her, however, was being deprived of the Holy Sacraments for the three years of her imprisonment.
On 16 April 1955, Sr Zdenka was released from prison by the President of the Republic so she would not die there (she had a malignant tumor in her right breast). When she returned to her congregation’s motherhouse in Bratislava, she was not accepted because of the general situation of fear that existed at the time as well as the constant police surveillance; nor was she received in the hospital of Bratislava. Instead, a friend from Trnava took her in. Sr Zdenka was eventually accepted into the hospital of Trnava. On 31 July 1955, after receiving the Sacraments, Sr Zdenka died. She was 38 years old and is remembered as a true martyr of the faith.
One final note: On 6 April 1970, the regional court of Bratislava declared that Sr Zdenka was innocent, having received a “false and artificial accusation… issued [with a] sentence of high betrayal… based on facts manipulated by the state police themselves”