This religious sister defied terrible odds to escape Nazi-occupied Bulgaria and make a new life.
Sr. Regine Canetti turned 100 years old on May 19, 2021. She’s one of the longest living religious in the world.
She’s a member of the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion, founded by Théodore Marie Ratisbonne, who converted from Judaism to Christianity, as did Sr. Regine.
“I can’t believe I’m turning 100 today, and yet I am. If you ask me if I would like to change anything about my past life, I say no. It has been so full, so full of adventures: spiritually, physically, morally and socially. I am very happy,” she tells Christian Media Center.
Originally from Sofia in Bulgaria, Sr. Regine’s family was Jewish in a place where the majority were Orthodox Christians. She attended a French school, called Notre Dame de Sion, run by the congregation of which she eventually became a member. “I stayed 12 years in that school and my last year was in 1940: it was exactly the beginning of the war, of World War II.”
Sr. Regine’s father wasn’t Bulgarian, and despite living in the country (Regine was born there), they didn’t have Bulgarian identification papers. This put them in a particularly vulnerable position when the war broke out.
Sr. Regine says that the government warned all the non-Bulgarian Jews in the country: “We cannot protect you, we can’t do anything for you. If something happens, you have to leave the country.”
Escape on a ramshackle ship
A member of the local Jewish community set about looking for a solution. He was able to obtain an old, ramshackle ship; the plan was for the Jews to travel by sea to Palestine. The point of departure was the port of Warna in Bulgaria.
“It was horrible,” recalls Sr. Regine, “because it was December 15, winter, and people were crowding to get on that small, shabby ship.” The ship had a capacity of about 150 people, she says, but was filled with more than twice that many people fleeing the Nazi threat.
Sr. Regine recalls, “We got on that ship thinking only that in five days we would arrive in Palestine. But as I said, it was winter and the sea was very rough, so the plan could not be kept. We arrived near Istanbul in Turkey and we had to stop there.”
What happened next is a story we’ve seen play out time and time again up to the present day, with ships full of migrants seeking refuge in foreign countries while fleeing from war: The country’s government wouldn’t allow the ship to dock, and the refugees had to stay two miles from shore.
After five days, they headed off in search of welcome elsewhere. That day, they were hit twice by a storm, and the ship wasn’t able to resist the force of the wind and waves. It started to break apart.
As the ship began to sink, Sr. Regine and her father and brother had no choice but to try to swim to shore. She recounts the tragedy, explaining how “once in the water the waves were getting higher and higher, it was horrible. I was with my father, my mother, my brother, and my sister was not with us because she was already married. My mother and brother drowned, while my father and I were rescued. Most of the people died; only 114 people survived.”
One of the websites of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion explains that even today, every December 12, Sr. Regine goes to Mt. Herzl to participate in a ceremony in memory of the victims of the shipwreck.
Meeting the Sisters of Sion
Sr. Regine and her father made their way to Israel and found refuge in a kibbutz, a sort of Jewish agricultural community. The congregation’s website explains that the Sisters of Sion back in Bulgaria heard what had happened to the ship and to their former student, and sent word to their community in Israel.
The sisters sought out Regine and invited her to Jerusalem. “They told me that they would give me what I needed, and I went,” she says.
Eventually she chose to convert to Catholicism and requested to join the community. Since then, for 80 years she has served the Lord by teaching in several Arab countries, in schools run by the Congregation.
She wakes up every morning knowing that could be the day when God welcomes her into his eternal embrace. A book about her life was published in 2016, and her incredible story is well worth hearing.