Sister Maria Restituta was a nun and a nurse who mocked the Nazis and was executed for refusing their orders. She was born Helen Kafka, of Czech parents, on 1 May 1894 in Husovice, which was then part of Austria-Hungary (now part of Brno, Czech Republic). She was the sixth daughter of a shoemaker.
When she was two years old, her family moved to Vienna in Austria, home to a Czech migrant community, where she grew up. She worked as a clerk and then as a nurse at the Lainz public hospital. While working as a nurse, she met the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity and entered their community in 1914, at the age of 20. She took the name Maria Restituta after a fourth century Christian martyr. After the First World War she began working as a nurse at the Mödling hospital, eventually becoming the leading surgical nurse.
When the Nazis took over Austria in 1938, they also took over the Mödling hospital. Sister Restituta was very vocal in her opposition to the new regime. “A Viennese cannot keep her mouth shut”, she said. When a new hospital wing was constructed, Sister Restituta hung a crucifix in every room. The Nazis demanded the crosses be taken down and the Sister refused. The Nazis then threatened Sr Restituta’s dismissal. The crucifixes were not removed, nor was Sr Restituta, since her community said they could not replace her.
She was eventually denounced by a doctor who supported the Nazis. On Ash Wednesday 1942, after coming out of the operating theatre, Sr Restituta was arrested by the Gestapo and accused not only of hanging the crosses but also of having written a poem mocking Hitler. On 29 October 1942 she was sentenced to death by the guillotine for “favouring the enemy and conspiracy to commit high treason”. The Nazis offered her freedom if she would abandon the Franciscan sisters, but she refused. When a request for clemency reached the desk of Martin Bormann, a high ranking Nazi official, he replied that her execution would provide “effective intimidation” for others who might want to resist the Nazis. She spent the rest of her days caring for other prisoners. One of her letters from prison reads: “No matter how far we are from everything, no matter what is taken from us, no one can take from us the faith we have in our heart. In this way we can build an altar in our own heart.” She was beheaded on 30 March 1943. Before her death she asked the chaplain to make the sign of the cross on her forehead. “She was a saint because in that situation she encouraged everyone, she transmitted a power, a positive spirit and one of confidence”, a fellow prisoner later recalled.
Pope John Paul II beatified her on 21 June 1998.