FELICIAN SISTERS CELEBRATE
150th ANNIVERSARY
Decades of Devotion
by Eugene Obidinski

Polish American Journal, May 2006

Long before any celebration of Mother’s Day, Polish American parishes shared May devotions to Mary encouraged by parish “Sisters”—often Felicians—whose dedication to Polonian community formation survives after more than 150 years.

The Felicians—and other orders of Polish American nuns—encouraged the memorable May devotions where crowning of the Virgin’s statues concluded the church prayers and procession of young ladies dressed in fine, starched white dresses. Girls chosen to place the flowery crown received special honors and, sometimes, a newspaper photo.

Those in May processions were sometimes students in parochial school classes taught by nuns like of the Felician Sisters—an order founded in Warsaw, Poland in 1855 by Blessed Mary Angela Truszkowska. who was born prematurely as Sophia Truszkowska, in Kalisz, Poland on May 16, 1825 “...with little hope for survival …,” according to Sr. Ellen Marie Kuznicki’s (CSSF) biographical note.1

As a “frail child,” Sophia was nurtured by concerned parents. Her particularly devout mother encouraged prayer and Sophia’s “longing for religious life” through service that eventually became a basic Felician mission.

“From early childhood, Sophia exhibited a “...an unusual sensitivity to human misery ... That generous spirit surfaced especially in the 1850s when she gathered the abandoned children in Warsaw, giving them shelter, food, clothing, and even basic education.”2

After joining the St. Vincent de Paul Society at Warsaw’s Holy Cross Church in 1854. Sophia cared for needy children and elderly in two small rented rooms in a Warsaw suburb. The small center—known as the Institute of Miss Truszkowska —attracted attention and some support as well as recognition of the need for larger quarters. With the assistance of her cousin, Clothide Ciechanowska, Sophia responded—in October 1855— to the increased needs by moving into the center at larger building owned by the Dominicans. There, on Nov. 21, 1855—considered the founding date of the Felician order or the St. Felix of Cantalice Sisters congregation—Sophia and her cousin dedicated themselves to lives of service.3

A year before, a group of Polish migrants from Silesia arrived in Texas to establish a pioneer Polish American colony at Panna Maria. Several years later, a school existed in the new settlement and with the arrival of three Resurrectionist priests in 1866, the possibility of Felician Sisters to staff the school apparently was considered—but not fulfilled—by Mother Mary Angela.

Although Felician sisters did arrive later to staff schools in several schools in the rural Polish settlements in Texas at Bremond, Czestohowa, Panna Maria, St. Hedwig, Kosciuszko, Helena, Pulaski and Poth, the first Felicians sent from Poland to staff Polish American parish schools were five Sisters—including three teachers—who arrived in Polonia, Wisconsin parish in November 1874 at the invitation of the pioneer pastor, the Rev. Joseph Dabrowski.4

No doubt Fr. Dabrowski recognized the instrumental educational and social service of the newly arrived Sisters as the number of Polish immigrant settlements and population increased more rapidly than the number of priests available to serve them. Most Polish immigrants found employment and new homes in northeastern and midwestern urban areas.

In larger Polish American urban parishes, church “societies” and groups, such as the sodalities, Holy Name Societies, and parochial school PTO units met regularly and supported a crowded calendar of events from Nativity observances to Assumption Day blessings of flowers. May devotions after Easter not only were essential rites of Spring in honor of Mary but also opportunities for parish ethnic sociability.

The parochial schools staffed by Felicians and other “Polish” religious orders provided basic education mandated by state Boards of Education from New York to Texas but also included ethnic reinforcement through Polish language and history instruction.

By 1881, the Felician Sisters expanded their American mission service from the Polonia, Wisc. School—which opened in December, 1874 with 30 students—to new schools in La Salle, Ill. (1877); Bay City, Mich. (1879); Otis, Ind. (1880) and Buffalo, N.Y. (1881). Headquarters for the new congregations was established by 1882 in Detroit where a teacher training seminary began. The teacher training program provided precedent for an aspirancy training program established by the Buffalo Province in May, 190l. 5

As the very young members of the community continued basic education and some considered college degrees, Buffalo provincial members encouraged the expanding education program which, in 1918, received New York state charter as a private academy. With the completion of a new Provincial buildings on Doat Street (Buffalo) in 1929, day students were enrolled in the new school eventually called Villa Maria Academy.

The academy’s educational activity and, by the mid-1960s, new Villa Maria College courses, met the higher education goals of Buffalo’s Polish Americans and expanded Felician community service social far beyond that of Mother Mary Angela Truszkowska’s 1855 “Institute” for the needy children in Warsaw.

As the largest community of women religious in the Buffalo diocese, according a recent report, the Felician Sisters not only supported the academy and college but also staffed St. Rita’s Home for Children, Villa Maria Institute of Music, Villa Maria Learning Center and Villa Maria College Child Care Center. Along with their Buffalo area contributions, the Felicians in other U.S. cities and Canada served at 123 parochial schools, seven Catholic high schools and four colleges. 6

Several months ago when they recognized the Felician order’s 150th anniversary and 124 years of local Felician community service in Buffalo’s Polonia, observers concluded that the size and influence of the local Felician community had changed—or was “waning”—as the original Polish American neighborhoods, churches, parochial schools, businesses and traditions faded or disappeared.

Such reports considered the closing of Villa Maria Academy on June 30 a declining number of Felician vocations, possible changes in an original six story convent—built when the local community had 800 members—and now serving as an infirmary and residence for less than 150 persons. Signs of inevitable change? Decline or waning?

Perhaps. But selfless devotion—to Mary or to others— shaped by the Sisters is both memorable and durable as a legacy to be invested by Polish Americans before and long after May.

     

    1. Kuznicki, Sr. Ellen Marie, C.S.S.F., Poverty, Child Abandonment, Partitions Provide Milieu for Sophia’s Formation” A Call to Celebrate,v 1, p. 5, Buffalo: Felician Sisters—Immaculate Heart of Mary Province, 1993. For a more detailed discussion of Felician history—especially in separate units of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Province, from 1900 to 1976, see Sr. Ellen Marie Kuznicki, C.S.S.F., Journey In Faith, Buffalo (N.Y.): Felician Sisters, 1996.
    2. ibid., p. 5.
    3. Wolak, Sr. Rose Mary C.S.S.F., “Institute is Beginning of Felician Sisters,” ibid., p. 7.
    4. For description of arrival of five pioneer Felician Sisters in Polonia, Wisc., see Kuznicki, op. cit. .p. 16. Detailed descrption pf service of Felician Sisters in Polish settlements of Texas, see Kukula, Sr. Mary Genette, C.S.S.F., In the Footsteps of Padres Felician Sisters in the Southwest, 1960-1980, manuscript: Felician Sisters of the Southwest U.S., 1987.
    5. Kuznicki, op, cit., p. 19.
    6. “Felician Sisters Celebrate 150th Anniversary,” in Am -Pol Eagle Nov. 17, 2005,, p. 12.
    7. “Felicians Celerrate 150th Year,” The Buffalo News, Nov. 20, 2006 p. B 1.

     

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