I have only been back from magnificent, historical Prague, capital of the Czech Republic for two days but the memories, the visits, the sightseeing, the long wonderful conversations with new friends, the relaxing and delicious meals but especially the people are embedded deep in my mind and my heart.

This is a land that has been marked by Christianity for over 1000 years and I touched only the tip of this special iceberg

My first morning in Prague, I spent two wonderful hours with Cardinal Dominik Duka, archbishop of Prague, whose fascinating life story, especially the years under communism, could be made into a film.

As a seminarian and priest in the then Czechoslovakia, he was forced to work in various factories, at one point he was a locksmith, at another he worked in the design department of an automobile factory. He spent some time in prison and one cell-mate was the playright and dissident Vaclav Havel, who served as the last president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992 and then as the first president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003.

Cardinal Duka spoke to me of the physical and spiritual rebuilding in the new Czech Republic that had to be done after the fall of the Berlin Wall and communism in 1989. Churches and schools, convents and monasteries had to be physically repaired or rebuilt. The Church had to re-build many of its services and pastoral ministries as well – those for families, vocations, youth, education to name but a few.

He emphasized two aspects of Church life – one was the very strong pro-life movement in his nation, citing in particular last spring’s 10,000-person March for Life in Prague. He also emphasized the importance and impact of Caritas in Czech society – an NGO in the Czech Republic and very respected by the government. Caritas has over 7,000 employees and large numbers of volunteers throughout the country. One of their big annual events is Christmas dinner in the archbishop’s place for 300 poor people and the cardinal plays an important role that day.

Photos from my first evening in Prague, a walk through the Franciscan Garden to a restaurant for dinner with Stanislav Zeman, the archbishop’s spokesman:

The restaurant –

As I mentioned Friday in my column, I visited two monasteries – the Benedictine monastery of Brevnov – founded in 993! – and the Premonstratensian monastery of Zeliv, about 85 kilometers from Prague, founded in 1139 by Prague’s Archbishop Otto and Prince Sobeslav.

I chose to visit the monasteries not only because of their amazing history but because of how they survived the darkest period of their lives, the communist decades, to come back and become thriving religious communities, closely linked to the cities and towns nearby.

I immensely enjoyed my time at the monasteries but my joy was doubled when I discovered my new friends from the Czech Bishops Conference had never been to either place!

Both were fully functioning monasteries up to the communist years when they were forced to close, the religious sent away (or imprisoned or in forced labor) and became offices for communist officials or, for example, Zeliv served as a prison from 1950 to 1956 and after that became a psychiatric hospital until 1990!

Today both Zeliv and Brevnov are fully functioning and financially autonomous monasteries – places of prayer, of course, but they have restaurants and small hotels and spaces for seminars and meetings, etc. Zeliv even has a terrific brewery!

I will be doing separate stories with photos on each of these monasteries, as I will of my visit with Cardinal Duka (once I listen to our 90-minute taped conversation!), and I’ll post photos of the city, the Charles Bridge, St. Vitus Cathedral, and Our Lady Victorious church with its celebrated statue of the Infant of Prague!

Pix from my hotel balcony – the Jalta (prounounced Yalta) Boutique Hotel – that overlooks the famous Wenceslas Square which, as you can see, is not a square at all! It is a long, very wide boulevard with a broad meridian that has pathways, gardens, play areas for children and cafes. This is flanked by several lanes for traffic on either side and the street side houses hotels, restaurants, stores and offices.

St. Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle

I fully intend to return someday and that might even be this fall for a surprising reason. I learned something quite astonishing when I had dinner with Cardinal Duka’s spokesman, Stanislav, the night of my arrival….a fact the cardinal mentioned the next day when he was my host for two hours in the archbishop’s residence.

How many of you know that the former Eastern European country of Czechoslovakia was born in Washington, D.C. in 1918!? The Czech and Slovak peoples will jointly celebrate this 100th anniversary and many events have taken place, are underway or will take place in October this year, the actual anniversary month. Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, in what has been called “the velvet revolution,” a revolution without bloodshed.

The First Republic was declared on October 28, 1918, when novelist Alois Jirásek read the proclamation of the independence of Czechoslovakia in front of the Saint Wenceslas statue on Wenceslas Square. That will be the principal day of celebrations this year.

What has been called the Washington Declaration was drafted in the U.S. by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and American sculptor Gutzon Borglum and presented to the U.S. government on October 17, published in Paris on October 18, and read at the statue of St. Wenceslas in the square named for him on October 28.

The wesbite of the U.S. embassy to the Czech Republic tells the story nicely:

The year 2018 marks the centennial of the founding of Czechoslovakia and the formal beginning of U.S.-Czech diplomatic relations, and the U.S. Embassy in Prague will proudly celebrate the occasion throughout the year. We will mark 100 years of U.S.-Czech relations by supporting projects focused on the U.S.-Czech friendship and history, and by participating in events around the country that highlight the U.S.-Czech partnership.

There are many U.S. links to the founding of the Czechoslovakian state. The United States hosted Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, along with other prominent Czechs and Slovaks, for the signing of the Pittsburgh Agreement on May 31, 1918 – the first step towards the establishment of the independent state of Czechoslovakia.

After Germany and Austria proposed peace negotiations in October, 1918, Masaryk issued a declaration of Czechoslovak independence while in the United States. Masaryk was then elected the first president of Czechoslovakia on November 14, 1918 and used the U.S. constitution as a model for the first Czechoslovak Constitution.

Masaryk also had strong personal links with the United States through his marriage to an American citizen, Charlotte Garrigue (whose name he took as part of his own), and through his lectures at the University of Chicago in 1902 and 1907.