Alexander Frison - 20th Century Martyr

Limbach, M. "Alexander Frison - 20th Century Martyr." Sendbote Des Hl. Antonius, Offizielle Zeitschrift der Franziskaner-Minoriten, Basilica del Santo, Padu, 110. Jahrgang, Heft Nr. 1 Januar 2008.

Translation from German to English by Alex Herzog

German Text PDF Document (PDF 415KB)



This, the final article in a series, memorializes the fates of many faithful in the former Soviet Union. The little-known life and death of Bishop Alexander Frison is hereby cited as an example of the nameless victims of the Stalinist dictatorship.

On June 20, 1937, following months of imprisonment subsequent to a nine-day show trial in March of 1936, Alexander Frison suffered a martyr's death in Moscow. The false accusation leveled against him, namely, of acting as a German spy, was not ever very original. During the so-called "œcleansing period" of Josef Stalin this was a common indictment that seemed to require neither further precision nor any detailed investigation.

The Nameless. Confessions obtained via torture served to the outside to legitimize sentencing, should those in power even be interested in justifying themselves. Whether it was a politically motivated trial or simply a case Stalin's paranoia, the sentence would be determined from the outset. Suspected political enemies, former comrades-in-arms such as Trotzki or Bucharin fell victim just as military people with outstanding service records. At the same time, it also struck millions of apolitical people who were murdered simply for their ethnic or religious affiliation. Human stories which the world was aware of only perhaps numerically. No grand documents pay witness their personal martyrdom. Having people disappear, keeping them "nameless" as much as possible - this was and is part of the methodology of a dictatorial regime. Among the army of these nameless, Bishop Dr. Alexander Frison tends to take on at least a minimal outline form, even if not much is known about him. But it is exactly in this that he is one with all the other, nearly forgotten martyrs of the past century.

Ominous Developments. Even the biographical data we have for Frison are not entirely reliable. The data cited herein are based on the book "Deutsche Martyrologie" [German Martyrology] by Prelate Dr. Helmut Moss. What is certain is that Frison was from South Russia, an area in which Germans had settled ever since the time of the Tsarina Katherine II. He was born in May, 1875, in the village of Baden in the Kutschurgan region near Odessa, a settlement area of Germans predominantly from Alsace and Baden [Germany]. At the time this region was part of the Tiraspol Diocese. Following decades of tolerance, Russian nationalist trends arose toward the end of the 19th Century, tendencies that made life for these "strangers" increasingly difficult. In an attempt not to keep the Russian-Orthodox Church from further hostility, the Vatican had decided to name Tiraspol the seat of a bishopric, although (and perhaps because?) there was not a single Catholic church there. Odessa, and Saratov later, had been the actual seat of a bishop.

Secret Studies. The increasingly difficult relationship between Russia and its state church with the Vatican forced Alexander Frison to live under a false name at the Germanicum in Rome and enrolling in 1897 as Alexander Frank for his studies at the Gregoriana - studies that were Russians were not permitted to take part in. In 1902 he was ordained to the priesthood in his home diocese by Bishop von der Ropp. Another stay in Rome led to a doctoral degree and several pastoral engagements in his home region, and finally to a professorship at the priest seminary in Saratov. He is described as being modest and diligent, a Volga-German who enjoyed the good will of Vatican offices.

The Fight Against Catholics. The so-called October Revolution changed the situation in South Russia drastically, including and particularly for the churches. The Orthodox former state church lost its influence and was to suffer deeply under the Bolshevists. But the Catholic Church did not receive any mercy from the new people in power, either. Had it been assumed at first that the Catholic Church might from then on be treated better, it soon became clear that it would not be spared the fate of its sister church. Initial show trials and death sentences demonstrated that the Communists viewed the catholic Church as being steered by "anti-Communist agitators" in the Vatican. Thus they declared war on it, too.

Politicians in the West now had to try to support the endangered Catholics while attempting at the same time to cooperate somehow with the new State - a balancing act that failed. In 1926 it was none other than the Jesuit Herbigny who, as an envoy from the Vatican, found his way to Russia - officially responsible for famine aid by the Vatican. This was not a fortunate move, given the Jesuits had for centuries been viewed with suspicion in Russia. His activities were therefore observed with the utmost care, and thus it did not remain a secret that he had quietly ordained Alexander Frison as bishop. Soon after, Frison was put under house arrest. Additional arrests, on various grounds, soon followed.

The Arbitrary State. A decree on religion in 1929 had caused the situation for Catholics to become even more problematic and provided outstanding opportunities to oppress Christians with the flimsiest of accusations. For example, Bishop Alexander Frison was accused, among other matters, to have permitted minors to participate in religious services when religious instruction of children and youth was officially forbidden in Russia. In 1935 he was arrested a final time, and this time he would not be released. The accusation of espionage was just as arbitrary as all previous accusations and merely served as a means to get rid of the bishop. In the struggle by an atheistic State against religious concepts and institutions Bishop Dr. Alexander Frison died on account of his faith.

Hide Me Within They Wounds: The Persecution of the Catholic Church in the USSR

Witnesses for Christ: A German 20th Century Martyrology: German-Russian Bishops' Diocesan Priests and Priests from Religious Orders

Like Alexander Frison, Christians under Stalin had to live their faith in
secrecy. Today a memorial stone is to be erected in memory of the barely known victims of this regime.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller