Slovakian martyr aided local Salesian who escaped communism

Pictured above is Salesian Father Titus Zeman as a youth.

Valerie Schmalz, Catholic San Francisco

A Slovak Salesian will be declared blessed Sept. 30 as a “martyr for vocations” and one of the priests for whom he sacrificed his life will be traveling to Bratislava, Slovakia, from San Francisco’s Corpus Christi Parish for the event.

Salesian Father Titus Zeman will be beatified as a martyr for vocations because of the ordeal he underwent with great faith because of his efforts to help priests and young men who wanted to study for the priesthood escape the totalitarian Communist regime of Czechoslovakia in 1950 and 1951, after the regime closed all the monasteries and religious houses and transported the religious to concentration camps.

“Even if I lost my life, I would not consider it wasted, knowing that at least one of those that I helped has become a priest in my place,” said Father Zeman, who died of broken down health at age 54 in 1969, five years after he was released from prison, according to a Catholic News Agency report.

Salesian Father Aloysius Pestun, a parochial vicar at Corpus Christi Parish, plans to travel to Slovakia for the beatification – because Father Zeman tried to help him escape from the Iron Curtain country to complete his studies for the priesthood.

Salesian Father Titus Zeman (1915-69), who will be beatified
this month as a “martyr for vocations,” aided in Salesian Father Aloysius Pestun’s escape from Communist Czechoslovakia
in 1950 and 1951. Father Pestun, right, is a parochial vicar at
Corpus Christi Parish in San Francisco.

Servant of God Titus Zeman was captured during his third trip to bring the young theology students and priests out of Czechoslovakia, one that included Al Pestun and 21 others, by crossing the River Morava into Austria on their way to Turin, Italy. The young Pestun and five others eluded capture at the time, because they had acceptable non-religious identity papers, told by Father Zeman to take off when it appeared capture was imminent, Father Pestun said. A frontier guard had noticed the group as they debated how to cross the swollen river, according to an account on the website

The young Pestun escaped a few months later, with five others on an inflatable rubber boat. They then were helped travel on to Italy by a Salesian pastor, Father Pestun recalled in a recent conversation with Catholic San Francisco.

Captured, Father Zeman (1915- 69) endured a severe trial and was tortured and labeled a traitor and Vatican spy. Although the prosecutor called for the death penalty, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Imprisoned, waiting for trial, he could hear out of his windows the cries of others being executed. At his trial, facing the death penalty, and after torture that included being stuffed into buckets of excrement to the point of suffocation, the website reports Father Zeman said, “Everything proclaimed as guilt I did of my love for the church, especially of my love of the Salesian Society. Thanks to it I am who I am.”

Captured, Father Zeman (1915- 69) endured a severe trial and was tortured and labeled a traitor and Vatican spy. Although the prosecutor called for the death penalty, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

“I felt the urge to accompany the priests who were prevented from doing the ecclesiastic service here to the West. As my special vocation, I considered to help the young Salesian students of theology and the young confreres to leave for Turin in order to finish their studies because they could not do it here after closing the monasteries. They could not make their desire of becoming priests come true. My conscience does not blame me for anything. I am satisfied.”

Titus Zeman will be declared blessed Sept. 30, with Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, reading the Apostolic Letter from Pope Francis at a Mass in Bratislava. Pope Francis gave his approval for Servant of God Titus Zeman’s beatification cause on Feb. 27.

“Father Zeman was out in the parish when they came” to the Salesian college because he was saying Mass for Easter, Father Pestun recalled. Father Zeman stayed back in the parish when the secret police rounded up clergy and seminarians for the concentration camp. “That is when he decided to work underground,” Father Pestun said.

Right before the secret police rounded up the Salesians, “The director came at night prayers,” Father Pestun remembered, because he had been tipped the Salesians were in danger. “He said, ‘very dark clouds come upon us. Let us say the Sorrowful Mystery.” That night the secret police came, “stomp, stomp,” with police guarding three buses as they were herded onto the buses, forced to drop their cassocks on the floor of the bus, then loaded onto a train that took them to the labor camp, Father Pestun said.

Father Pestun was released a few months later from the camp after being hospitalized because of arthritis and was working a job in an office when Father Zeman’s cousin found him and told him about a chance to secretly leave with Father Zeman, Father Pestun said. After Father Pestun successfully escaped, in his second attempt, he studied first in Italy and then eventually in California, where he worked first as a teacher but primarily as a librarian before moving to Sts. Peter and Paul Parish and then Corpus Christi Parish 23 years ago.

Even today, Father Pestun’s eyes fill and his voice breaks, thinking of the many he knew who suffered. “I should have stayed,” he said.

When the Communists realized Al Pestun was gone, they forced Father Pestun’s father to kneel against a chair in the family kitchen, barefoot, while his feet were beaten severely, he said. Fortunately, a friend lied and said he had seen Al Pestun’s drowned body, so the Pestun family of parents and two other sons suffered few other repercussions, Father Pestun said, adding he learned all this when he was allowed to return on a visa in the 1970s, 25 years after his escape.

The 89-year-old cleric lives his vocation with great devotion, said Gibbons Cooney, parish administrator at Salesian Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in San Francisco. Cooney said when he returned to the Catholic Church in 1993, he made his confession to Father Pestun. “When he’s praying the Mass, at the words of consecration, it’s as if the whole universe stops,” Cooney said.

This article ran in the September 14, 2017 issue of Catholic San Francisco.