Wake Reflection for Sister Ann Victoria Wasylina, OSU
“Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.”
In 1950, the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph welcomed our displaced angels from Poland, some of whom remained with us and have transformed our lives together. Around six o’clock this Tuesday morning, October 12th, perhaps with strains of “Edelweiss” still resonating, one of those angels – Sister Ann Victoria Wasylina – disembarked from her final journey into the arms of her loving God.
Born June 11, 1924, Irena Wasylina was the only daughter of the blacksmith, Basil Wasylina, and his wife, Anna. Growing up in Duliby, Stryj, in the Polish Ukraine, Irena had two brothers, Peter – also a blacksmith – and Nicholas, a cobbler. Irena was baptized and confirmed in the Byzantine Rite at St. Basil Church, and grew up in a faith-filled family.
When she was eight, she lost her father to cancer, but she would also later recall some mischievous childhood memories as she practiced her English. Irena had played hookey from school one day when, as she recounted, she simply had to go to the fields with the sunshine and “gentle breeze blowing the wheat, and field flowers in swing, little birds singing, and colorful butterfly flying over me; but when I come home, my mother find out about my hookey, then wasn’t butterfly but switch was flying on my back.”
But truant, light-hearted daughter was not the only relationship that existed between Irena and her mother. In 1953, when asked to recount how she had found her vocation, Irena would write: “When I was little girl in Poland, one time I asked my mother, have you liked when I go into convent and gave myself to God and serve him? I think this is my best life in the world. My mother was very happy.”
She continued that in 1938, “come communism to Poland and all cloister and churches was shuttering from Russians, some priests and sisters was [deported]. All hamlet was sadness and quiet and can hear no more church bell. When people come from working the field, then see the ground with Catholic bloodshed.” Shortly after the communists came, the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, and Irena’s school years were over. She was forced to quit school and go to work in a cord wood factory, a hardship that ultimately benefited her family, for she was allowed to carry a bonus of wood home with her those cold nights.
Then one morning in 1942, Irena’s life was catapulted in yet another direction. As she came home from Mass, her mother was waiting with an order from the Nazis for Irena to board a train bound for a German work camp in Austria. From the train, Irena saw her mother for the last time and by 1944 she would hear from her no more. In Austria, the Germans lined up the trainload of workers who were then chosen at random by those who had requested workers. Irena had the God-graced good fortune to be chosen by Johann Stieglebauer, a good Catholic farmer. For the next eight years, through the end of the war and beyond, Irena worked with the Stieglbauers cutting hay, tending the farm, learning the German language, and caring for the baby – Rosa – together with the other Stieglbauer children – Fritz, Hanzel, and Pepy.
Although war and its ravages were all about them, the mischievous Irena was still there. In another English-practice narrative, she described an Austrian oxen adventure: “One day I helpt bring the wagon of hay from the field to home . . . I remember when I come with the hay and I post [supposed] to say to the oxen ‘haw’ (left). I say wrong to them, ‘gee’ (right). Oh boy, they broken limbs from the trees, and all bean poles flight up in the air. Oh boy, my farmer was mad and shout on me, but didn’t last very long. He cool up, and was OK. I loved my oxen; they was very graceful . . . and that is my little story about my dear oxen; and I miss them very much.”
While Irena’s joyful nature survived the war, she experienced tragedy and real danger nonetheless. She would learn later that both her brothers were lost in the war, and that she almost lost her mother when she was interred at Auschwitz. Although her mother, Anna Wasylina, was later released, she had allowed herself to be transported to the camp in place of the “other” Anna Wasylina, giving that unknown Anna a chance to escape. At the war’s end, Irena herself narrowly escaped repatriation, or capture, at the hands of returning Bulgarian and Russian soldiers by hiding under the back staircase and fleeing through hayfields to the neighboring hills.
By 1950, Irena knew it was time to move on to the next phase of her life. She contacted the Catholic Relief Services and signed up to come to America. When she heard that she was coming to an Academy – she made it abundantly clear that she was NOT going to go to school; she was a grown woman and was coming to work.
Once again, Irena was in a new place, confronting an unfamiliar culture and language; she would ultimately be able to communicate in five languages – Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, German, and English. In the meantime, however, Irena was in a new country, surrounded by “nuns,” still searching for word of her family, and trying to learn that new language. Sister Casimir Czurles, a Mount Saint Joseph Ursuline who spoke Polish, was a life-saver for Irena, serving as a translator and helping her find her way. Still, the Sisters noted that every evening would find Irena on the porch or in a swing softly, sadly, singing the songs of home. Several months later, when the Stelmachs arrived at Mount Saint Joseph, she would experience a welcome reconnection to the home of her childhood. And to the Stelmachs – Genevieve and Todd, John, Joe, and Mike – please know that we Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph offer you our love and condolences at the loss of your dear friend.
Now, we’ve been told that many of the Sisters at the Mount pitched in to help Irena – a good student – learn her English. According to one chronicler, however, “the best efforts of her English teachers were somewhat complicated by prankster Novices who taught her slang, which got her into trouble with superiors later on. Two incidents stand out; when [a sister] died, Irena looked at her and asked, ‘When she stop kicking?’ . . . and then [had the audacity to] call the cemetery ‘Grasshopper Hill.’ That one was not at all appreciated by [the] Mother Superior.”
Yet, in all this time, Irena had never lost her earlier certainty that the “best life” for her was in the convent. After she had been at the Mount for a few years, in an attempt to validate this choice, Irena spent six months in St. Louis, working at a factory to learn about the other side of life. At this time, she was sponsored, befriended, and supported by Sister Victoria Brohm and the Brohm family. Finally, when, in response to a request from Mount Saint Joseph, word came from the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Church that Irena Wasylina could be admitted to their novitiate and “conform with the Latin Rite in all ways,” the path was paved for Irena to begin her next life’s journey if that were still her choice.
From St. Louis, Irena would write to Mother Ambrose, “My heart still want [to go] to convent; can I come home in August?” So, she came home to Mount Saint Joseph in August and by September, Irena entered the postulancy. On August 14, 1954, she was invested as Sister Ann Victoria – for her mother, Anna, and for Sister Victoria – and joined a class of eleven other novices – perhaps the very prankster novices we heard about earlier. Two of Sister Ann Victoria’s classmates are still with us – Sisters Mary Matthias Ward and Susan Mary Mudd – and to you, her classmates, we also extend our love and sympathy.
Later, Sister Ann Victoria would write that she did not really remember her Novitiate, because she was in the dairy all the time, but that she had “good and kind classmates.” That mischievous streak, though, might still have been alive, because from the official “Questionnaire on Temporary Professed,” we learn that over the years – although a generous and excellent worker – she could only earn a reluctant “generally” for keeping conventual or grand silence. Perhaps even then she was already singing in the dairy.
In fairly rapid succession, three significant events for Sister Ann Victoria transpired:
- Sister Ann Victoria made temporary vows on August 15, 1956;
- Sister Ann Victoria became a naturalized American Citizen (together with the Stelmachs) on February 13, 1957; and
- In the summer of 1957, Sister Ann Victoria returned from her first mission as housekeeper at St. Columba in Louisville to begin her 30-year ministry in the Mount Saint Joseph dairy.
She made her final vows on August 15, 1959, and was already quite famous for her artistically crafted, individually stamped butter pats and the best cottage cheese around. Sister Ann Victoria trained many novices in proper practices for filling the pasteurizer and keeping the dairy clean; in the later years, when record players were allowed, the dairy always had some music and, oh, my goodness, what fun when the German Christmas Carols came on or we could sing along with The Sound of Music. She kept us all kicking.
In celebration of her 25th Jubilee, Sister Ann Victoria went home again – not to Poland, still under communist rule – but to Austria and the Stieglbauers. She was more than warmly welcomed and remembered; and she discovered that some clothes she had sent as gifts in the war recovery years had never been worn, but, as the family said, had been carefully packed away as relics, just “because they were from you.”
After thirty years in the dairy, Sister Ann Victoria was given the opportunity to spend some time at St. Teresa Parish in Grants, New Mexico, working in outreach to the sick and elderly. She fell in love with the high mesas and their people, and the mesas and people returned that love to her. In 1988, Sister Ann Victoria came home to the Mount where she was active in personal and pastoral care and ministered in the Guest House as well. In 1995, she retired from active ministry, joining our powerhouse of prayer.
At around this time, when asked about how she saw her “sunset years,” Sister Ann Victoria wrote: “My sunset is, I’m still happy and that I still kicking, and able to pray and work, too.” In 2002, she joined the family in the St. Joseph Villa. To the staff and Sisters at the Villa, who lived and ministered so closely with Sister Ann Victoria these past years, to you also we offer our particular gratitude and our prayers and sympathy.
Those who lived and worked with her in the Villa remember Sister Ann Victoria’s smile and laughter. They remember she had special jokes with many – anything from seeing frog hairs to big and little chickens. She was an excellent mimic, taught German to any who asked, and always, always, loved her music – from “Edelweiss,” to “Stille Nacht,” to Marian hymns, to the Irish Rovers.
And now, we know that Sister Ann Victoria – our Polish angel in heaven – is asking the heavenly host if each is still kicking; and we know that she would be most happy if we could end our reflection with what she gave as the “Closing Prayer” to her story:
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I give you my heart and soul.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, assist me in my last hour.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, may I breathe forth my soul in peace.
Sister Sharon Sullivan
Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph