In 1942, Sister Denise Bergon was the young Mother Superior of the Convent of Notre Dame de Massip, about 100 miles from Toulouse, France. The convent included a boarding school, and she was certain she could hide Jewish children there. Fearful of the danger to her fellow nuns, she knew she would have to keep her activities largely secret. She wrote to the Archbishop of Toulouse, her heart burdened by the idea of bearing false witness. The Archbishop wrote back, “Let’s lie, let’s lie, my daughter, as long as we are saving human lives!” And so the young nun began searching the forests for Jewish children, wandering lost and alone, and also accepted any child brought to her by parents or the Underground, She carefully and secretly noted the names and contacts of all her charges. She explained the presence of these new students to her fellow nuns by saying that they were refugees from the East, who having been raised as atheists knew nothing of the Catholic faith! A clever ruse indeed!
The children under her care, in later years, wrote of her loving and individual care and the warm, home-like atmosphere she provided. Every child was educated and even taught piano lessons. In early 1944, the threat of discovery became a daily struggle. Sister Denise paired the children, one older and one younger, and taught them to run immediately to the forest at the first sign of Nazi inspection of the convent, which they were forced to do many times. Following liberation in August of 1944, Sister Denise was able to reunite some children with their parents and assisted many others in building new lives. When all was said and done, 83 Jewish children left the Convent of Notre Dame Massip alive and well.
From the vantage point of 80 years, it is easy for us to applaud Sister Denise for her heroism, and to imagine that somehow she had an extra dose of courage and holiness that we do not possess. In reality, of course, she was a 30-year-old in a desperate and dangerous situation who was asked to answer life’s most pivotal question, “Do I stand or do I not?” Her answer was clear… I wonder how many of us would have the strength to answer as she did?