The Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate

Vignettes - The Voice of our SSMI Past

In honour of the celebration of the 125th Anniversary of the founding of the Congregation of the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate, and the 115th of the arrival of the SSMI in Canada, we have decided to feature a small piece of our SSMI history, joining both celebrations.

Sister Athanasia (nee Theodosia) Melnyk, SSMI, was one of the first seven postulants who joined our Foundress, Blessed Josaphata Hordashevska, forming this new Congregation. She later volunteered to be missioned in Canada, to serve our newly emigrated Ukrainian people. Her mortal remains rest in the cemetery of the SSMI at Mount Mary Retreat Centre in Ancaster, ON.

The following are excerpts of her memoirs. Enjoy!
Sister_Athanasia_Melnyk

Childhood and Adolescent Years — Part 3

Dosia had not openly said anything to her father about her intention. One Sunday she told her father that she would not go to church for vespers for she had a headache and father said to her: ‘I’ll stay with you.’Her father brought her a beautiful apple and told her to eat it and the headache would go away. As they were talking together, Dosia said: ’I would like to be a Sister like the ones in Belz.’ Father did not say anything for awhile. ‘Yes, I have noticed that you have changed. You don’t want to go anywhere … so you want to leave me?’ and there were tears in his eyes. Dosia’s heart pained for she loved her father very much, so she quickly added: ‘No, Father, I will not leave you. Even if I went, I would still love you, and probably would be able to visit. This would not be immediately, but if it came to that, would you give your permission?’ And father replied: ’You are still young; you have time to think about that.’

The family returned from vespers and my brother told us that Rev. Canon said that soon there would be a mission in Zhuzhel. There would be many priests who would preach for a whole week. This news brought much joy to Dosia and Tekla for this would be a good opportunity to share their secret intention with one of the priests.

Mission in Zhuzhel

As soon as the youth of Zhuzhel heard of the mission coming to their village, they started to prepare the church for the spiritual event. The older girls took care of the altar linens, the boys polished the censers, candlesticks and chandeliers, and the younger girls made artificial flowers to decorate the icons. Also the outside of the church had to be made presentable for the occasion. And it was.

At last, the eagerly awaited evening arrived — the mission was to begin after vespers. The entire village, dressed in their best attire, filled the church to overflowing — yet, not a sound was audible. After vespers the priests filed out of the sacristy and stood behind the altar. A tall priest, all in black with dark hair and a swarthy complexion appeared in the pulpit. He looked with his piercing but kind eyes at the congregation, reverently blessed himself and started with the words: ‘In Christ we are united, in Christ we ask you brothers and sisters to truly reconcile yourselves with God!’ His talk flowed like balsam on the souls of the people and spiritually nourished them. With baited breath all listened, for fear that this ‘golden mouth’ might quickly finish. The same was repeated throughout the mission. The eloquent speaker was Rev. Jeremiah Lomnytskyj, OSBM, the leader of the mission, and with him was Fr. Kulyk, OSBM, and two eparchial priests: Fr. Redkevych and Fr. Kazanovych from Lviv.

Theodosia and Tekla faithfully attended the mission and prayed God to guide them to which priest they were to entrust their secret. On the last day of the mission many priests arrived to hear confessions. “we were attracted to Father Lomnytskyj, the leader of the mission, but he appeared too severe and much occupied. Father Redkevych taught catechism to the youth. So we decided to go to him. An older girl15 joined us, so when we approached Father Redkevych she said: ‘Father, I would like to go to the desert.’ Father explained that today people don’t go the desert to live in caves. The Church has other ways by which people can consecrate their lives to God. Then Tekla spoke up and said: ‘We two want to go to a monastery.’ As we were speaking our pastor, Canon Seletskyj, walked by and wondered what his girls were discussing with the priest. Fr. Redkevych told him what we were asking him. He put his hand on my shoulder and said: ‘Your father would never allow it, my Dear.’ And my eyes immediately filled with tears. Then he said: ‘Come children to the porch; I’ll take you to someone who will be able to help you.’

“In a few minutes Canon Seletskyj walked out, leading Father Lomnytskyj by the arm, like a father his son. As soon as Father Lomnytskyj smiled at us, we were certain that he was the priest to whom we should entrust our plan. He asked us whether we attended the mission. How we liked it? Then, he said, ‘but you girls had something to ask me.’ Immediately the older girl said: ‘I would like to go to the desert.’ He also explained that people don’t go the dessert today. The territories where they had their caves are now inhabited. And Tekla spoke up: ‘We want to go to a monastery.’ He told us that there is only one monastery in the Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) for women in Ukraine — the Basilian nuns, but to enter there you have to have a higher education or a big dowry. ‘Would your parents be able to afford that?’ And I timidly said: some of them would. Then Tekla asked: ‘And if a poor girl wanted to serve God, is there no place for her?’ And Father responded: ‘Well said, my child. Tonight during supper we shall discuss this subject with the priests, and you children go home, be happy, pray and love Jesus. I will see you again soon.’ He also told us that there were girls in Lviv who also wanted to serve God. With that we left much consoled, a hope filled our hearts, and we realized that God guided us to the priest who would help us to obtain our goal.”16

The mission finished, the priests left, except the two Basilians had difficulty to part with the people and the people with them. A great many people escorted them to the railway station and tearfully said good-bye, especially with the much loved Father Jeremiah. Theodosia and Tekla were also at the station and witnessed the love of the people for the missionaries.

Canon Seletskyj and Fr. Lomnytskyj agreed to jointly found an apostolic Congregation for women, the first such venture in the UGCC. The Congregation was to be founded actually in Zhuzhel. The parish donated a piece of land, close to the church, for a house for the sisters, but it was much too small, so they decided to buy the house of a widow, a Lady Huminova. She would sell on the condition that she would remain with the sisters until her death. They had to add on to the existing building and make repairs on the old section. The financing of this project was to be realized by collections made by the Basilians on their missions, and Canon Seletskyj would solicit funds among his many wealthy friends. Of course the people from Zhuzhel would also help.

Fr. Jeremiah came often to Zhuzhel to discuss the building project, and he always called the three girls who had spoken to him. They informed him that there were many more girls who would like to enter a religious congregation. One day, Fr. Jeremiah Lomnytskyj told them that he would like to preach a retreat to all the girls of the village, and the three were to be his advertising committee. They were to get as many girls as possible to make the retreat. Many young women did attend the retreat. There were even a few from the village of Tseblow, another parish of Rev. Canon Seletskyj.

“The building project was going full force, and the two priests did the supervising. Every evening, Tekla and I went to visit the construction site and hoped their house would soon be finished. The older girls even helped with the plastering. One evening, one of the older girls said to us: ‘you just come and look like signorinas. It would be better if you took off your shoes and did some mixing of the clay with your feet.’ We immediately took off our shoes and started to mix the prepared mud with straw. We even took two tub-full of ready plaster to the workmen.

“We encountered an obstinate resistance to our entering from our parents, family and even the neighbours joined in. The resistance appeared undaunted. The date for the official opening of the home for the Sisters was scheduled for the feast of the Dormition of the Blessed Mother, August 2717, according to the Julian calendar. On top of it all, my sister, Anna, also decided to enter. Two from the same house! My father felt this blow deeply. He told me: ‘I will allow your older sister to go, but not you. You are still too young and inexperienced. You will have to wait.’18 I struggled all I could, I told father that I asked him for permission when Anna didn’t even think of religious life. Father was adamant. However, I didn’t feel completely discouraged, for somehow I was certain that the Blessed Mother would intercede for me, and I was certain that Jesus wanted me in the convent.

“Seven weeks before the feast of the Dormition, Anna became sick with typhus. Her temperature was very high, and she was delirious most of the time. She continually kept calling for me. Father sent me to fetch Canon Seletskyj to hear her confession. It happened that Fr. Jeremiah arrived in Zhuzhel that day, so he came instead. After Anna’s confession he talked for a long time with father about us. From that time, my father changed. My sister endured a very heavy form of typhus. Often it appeared that we would lose her. But she slowly began to recover. However, she certainly would not be ready to enter this new Congregation together with the first group.

“I started to ready myself in earnest, for there was a lot to get ready — We were going to an empty house. One day, Rev. Canon told us that our superior, Sister Josaphata Michaelina Hordashevska, would be arriving soon. She had been sent by Fr. Lomnytskyj to the Felician Sisters to learn the apostolic way of life. She spent a year with the Felicians. Then in Lviv, in the Basilian church of St. Onophrius, Sister Michaelina received the SSMI habit, which she herself designed, and chose the religious name of Josaphata. The day came when we were notified that she has arrived, and is housed in the residence of Rev. Canon Seletskyj. She came out to meet us in our beautiful habit! We greeted her in the monastic way and we felt that love united us forever. It seemed as if we had lived with her for a long time.”19

...to be continued.

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On to Part 4
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Notes

15 Anna Muzyka, later Sr. Alexandra (back to text)

16 Theodosia Melnyk, My childhood years, a manuscript, p. 3 (back to text)

17 The feast of the Dormition of the Blessed Mother was on the 27 of August in 1982; in the 1900s it became August 28 on the julian calendar. (back to text)

18 Dosia was almost 17 years old; at that time, young women her age were considered marriageable. (back to text)

19 Ibid. p. 5. (back to text)