Fleeing Communist Czechoslovakia and finding true freedom in Colorado

“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.

Pictured here is Peter Stur’s eldest son, who was born in Czechoslovakia. Stur was forced to hire a smuggler to bring his son across the border after he escaped the country’s communist regime. (Photo provided)

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.

The Stur family today. (Photo provided)

“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.’” 

Video courtesy of True Colorado – truecolorado.org

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.