“You can understand freedom and then lose it – but it’s something different to be born into a society where there is no freedom. That’s all you know. That’s what’s normal,” said Peter Stur, founder of the In Ipso Institute, as he recalled growing up in his native Czechoslovakia under Communist rule.
Living as a Catholic in a Communist society made him somewhat of an oddity ever since he entered the world in 1963. He was mocked not only by his friends, but also by his teachers and had to live with the fact that, under Communism, the stigma of attending Mass would follow him for the rest of his life.
“Before going to college, one of my teachers found out that I’d learned to play the organ from my parish priest, and he said to me in private, ‘Do you realize I have the power to change your future? I only have to write “Organist” on your resume, and you’re done,’” Stur said. “Fortunately, he didn’t.”
Stur didn’t know what it was like to practice his faith freely, until he was forced to flee from his native country.
Even though his family wasn’t very devout, he was raised in a Christian worldview. His parents could get away with going to Mass because they were simple workers, but professionals would lose their jobs.
Nonetheless, the story of his escape and deeper conversion came years later, after he married his wife Dana. In one instance, a coworker gifted him a copy of the New Testament, which would soon prove to be life changing. Bibles were so rare that he had never had a copy of his own.
Planning to escape
With the birth of his first son, the thought of his family’s future took on a different tone. Stur decided his family needed to escape if they ever wanted to live a peaceful life. Yet it was no easy task: a 10-year prison sentence awaited whoever was caught simply planning to escape.
The biggest challenge, besides reaching the border, was obtaining enough money to get by after escaping. He turned to his father-in-law for help, a Communist Party member who had joined for social opportunity and not out of conviction. During his travels, Stur’s father-in-law asked a few West Germans to send Stur a small amount of money, enough to get by without raising much suspicion.
But the government found out.
“Immediately, there was suspicion… I had 17 interviews about my ‘connections’ with the enemy in the West,” he said.
With each interview, the situation worsened: spies broke into his office and would soon break into his house – he’d seen it all too many times.
The decisive point, however, came on a Friday in 1989, a few months before his planned escape. Stur’s boss received a call from the highest office of the secret police saying they would be there on Wednesday to interview Stur and warned him.
“If the highest office of the secret police was calling, I knew I had to escape. I couldn’t wait anymore,” Stur said.
Stur contacted his father-in-law to execute the plan that same weekend: Dana’s father would pretend to be working during vacations and drive Stur, his wife and their child to the border.
Yet, as the final preparations were being made, Stur’s son became very ill. This unfortunate situation forced them to leave him with his grandmother, but not without the hope of seeing him again soon. Stur’s father-in-law assured that a reunification was possible under an agreement signed by both Eastern and Western countries. And so they fled.
A new beginning
Stur and his wife escaped with no complications and reached a refugee camp in Nuremberg, West Germany. There they lived for nearly two years under precarious conditions.
After his constants requests to bring his son were ignored by the government, he was forced to work near the camp, though illegally, doing anything he could get his hands on to pay for a smuggler to bring his son. Dana’s father had become a high suspect of cooperating with his escape and was permanently banned from traveling.
When the opportunity presented itself, they hired a recommended smuggler to pose as the baby’s relative. A few days later, the baby arrived safely at the camp.
In the meantime, Stur had applied to different countries seeking permission to migrate. But as he continued working, he suffered a devastating leg injury.
“The leg injury proved to be the hand of Providence,” he said. “When we left Czechoslovakia, I had slipped that small Bible from my friend into my pocket. I now began to read it in earnest. This was the beginning of my real conversion. As I read and pondered Scripture, I realized just how little of Christianity I really understood.”
This blessing was followed by another. In June 1991, he received a letter from the American Embassy granting his family entry into the U.S.
“Again, the hand of God intervened… Since I was at the camp, every single person who had an interview at the embassy was denied entrance. So, I was shocked when we were accepted,” Stur said.
He and his family arrived in Denver 11 days later – a blessing and also a daunting reality for a family that didn’t speak the language, had no possessions and was alone.
Even then, Stur eventually found work, learned the language, started a successful wood-working business and parented 10 children.
Will prosperity remain?
As his business grew during this peaceful time, Stur encountered a perturbing reality.
“We discovered that many of the threats to freedom and conscience we thought we had left behind still emerged in this land of opportunity,” he said.
His business was greatly affected when a contractor found out he had 10 children and no longer worked with him.
“She and her colleagues were highly offended that someone would bring so many children into the world… Once again, I seem to have crossed a socially unacceptable line,” he said. “As it was under Communism, those who violate the unwritten, but silently understood, diktats of the ruling class will be punished, even in a ‘free’ country.”
The event proved to be providential, as it led Stur to respond to a desire God had planted in his heart. That is how he founded “In Ipso,” an institute for the spiritual formation of the laity.
“It seems the errors of Russia that the Virgin Mary warned about a century ago at Fatima have indeed spread worldwide,” he concluded. “The damage was done and the greatest challenge for the Church today is to win back the ground that has been lost… This is our mission as Catholics for the foreseeable future. Like Christ, we must become ‘a sign of contradiction.’”