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!

Consecrated Life — part 5

About ten days after the eight young women settled into their convent home, Theodosia became ill with typhus – she had looked after her typhus-sick sister Anna. She was advised to go home and have her father bring a doctor. Theodosia cried inconsolably, for she was certain that she was being dismissed from the convent. Finally Rev. Canon Seletskyj assured her that this wasn’t a dismissal, only that she would have the care of a doctor and wholesome food at home, which would help her to more readily return to health.

Now Anna was able to repay her little sister by taking care of her, and Sister Josaphata visited her young charge every day, and assured her that as soon as she was back to health she would join her group. Theodosia’s typhus was not as severe as that of her sister. She had a high fever, but was not delirious. In three weeks, father Melnyk escorted both of his daughters to the convent.

Three months after the blessing of the convent, there were ten members in the Zhuzhel community – two postulants entered a few days after the blessing of the home - all zealous to serve God and neighbour whole heartedly. It seemed to the two priests Seletskyj and Lomnytskyj, and to Sister Josaphata, that the clothing in the religious habit of the postulants should not be put off any longer. The people of Halychyna were eagerly waiting to benefit from the apostolate of the Ukrainian Sisters Servants.

On November 20, 1892, the feast of St. Michael the Archangel (according to the Julian calendar), in the Zhuzhel church before the Divine Liturgy, nine postulants received the habit, sewn for them by Sister Josaphata. The postulants, along with receiving the habit, acquired religious names: Theodosia became Sister Athanasia, her sister Anna received the name Sister Anastasia, and her friend Tekla became Sister Teophilia. The large church could not contain all the people that came from neighbouring villages. This was an historical event, witnessed for the first time by the Ukrainians of Halychyna. These young women dressed in navy blue habits were their own Sisters, and they were proud of them.

During Divine Liturgy, after the reading of the gospel, Sister Josaphata Hordashevska knelt before the iconostas and pronounced the first vows in the Congregation of the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate, valid for three years. Responding to the question of the priest-celebrant, she vowed:

“I desire, for the love of God and His Holy Mother, to be admitted to the Congregation of the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate, in order to serve God through poverty, chastity and obedience, according to the spirit and the Constitutions of this Congregation.”23

Sister Josaphata, superior and directress of the novitiate, taught the novices, firstly, the spiritual foundation of their vocation, and also the many works of the Congregation: first aid to the many sick that came to their door, to give dry cuppings, herbal plasters, etc. Sister Josaphata was very cognizant in herbal medication. To those who were not able to come to the Sisters, the Sisters went to their homes, on foot or in a wagon. It often happened that the Sisters were called to the sick by a doctor. With seriously sick people, the Sisters remained all day and often during the night.

Sewing church vestments was also very urgent at that time. Almost every church in the three eparchies needed new vestments and altar linens. Sister Athanasia was very apt at sewing, and became an expert at sewing church vestments. Also gifted with a beautiful voice, she helped Sister Josaphata teach church singing to the older girls in the village.

The lay directors of the church vestment department in Sambir asked for two Sisters to help them reorganize, and to better their vestment sewing. Sister Volodomyra Pinionzyk and Sister Athanasia were sent there. They tried not to aggravate the lay seamstresses who openly resented the fact that the Sisters, newcomers to the staff, were put in charge. However, before long the ladies noticed the Sisters’ precise and dedicated work, and began to better their own. The Sisters were employed there for about two years, and then their higher superiors needed them elsewhere.

In 1899, a Lady Klodnitska, the patroness of the village of Kozhych, near Lviv, asked our Sisters in Lviv for a Sister to look after her 84 year old mother. Lady Klodnitska often travelled abroad with her son for educational purposes, and didn’t want to leave her elderly mother in the care of lay servants. One Sister was at the Klodnitska home for three months and another for four months. One day Fr. Lomnytskyj and Sister Josaphata sent Sister Athanasia to the Klodnitska home.

The Klodnitska home had a chapel where there was a Mass once a month. Sister Athanasia used to pray all her morning prayers there, even before the others were up. Then, in the afternoon, when the others were taking a siesta, she prayed her evening prayers. “Or I went into the orchard and read. My responsibility was to care for the mother: that her meals were served well and on time. I had the keys to the linen closet and to the food pantries. I was to help keep the lady comfortable and happy. In the evenings I read to her various stories in Polish, sometimes until 9:30 P.M. And she related to me many interesting episodes. Fr Lomnytskyj told me that I would learn much from living in that home.”24

“The Sisters from Lviv came to visit me often, especially in the summer time; here they would pick berries and fruit in the orchard. The Klodnitskas were happy that they could help the Sisters. I also visited the Sister in Lviv; it was a short ride. Usually around 3.00 P.M. I returned home.

“Once in July, I went to Lviv, and when I was returning, being in a hurry, I took the train going the opposite direction. When the train was several miles away from the station I realised my mistake. In my panic, I turned to the young gentleman nearby and told him my problem. He told me that we have to go the next stop and we will both get off, for that is where he had to get off. Then we will decide what to do. When we got to the station, we were told that the train to Kozhych would go the following day.

“The gentleman told me that his estate was quite far from this stop, and he didn’t advise me to pass the night in the station alone with station agent. I said that I would walk back to Lviv if I had someone to go with me. And here, returning home from work was a train worker still dressed in his uniform. We told him my pitiful story. He was tired; he said that he lived not far from this station. Though he would venture the long walk to the Lviv station, he was concerned about the Sister. Would she be able to take that strain? I assured him that I would be able to do the walk. So he agreed to escort me to the Lviv station. Then I borrowed two “renski’ from the kind gentleman, so as to have something with which to pay my escort.

“And so I was off on my walking trip back to Lviv with a man I didn’t know. I thought I ran away from one danger, and who knows what this will be? I prayed God to take care of me. Then I hesitantly started to speak to the man, asking him about his family, etc. He told me that he had a wife and children, that he had a cousin in consecrated life. He continually asked me whether I was tired. In my soul I prayed, thanking God for His care of me. This man knew many short-cuts. When we finally got to the Lviv station the agent told us that the train will be going to Kozhych the following day in the afternoon. It was 10:00 P.M. We had walked for four hours. I thanked and paid my kind escort. There was a man and a woman in the station. I told them that I wanted to go to the city to our Sisters. They both took me to the bus that went to Lviv - that was the last bus going to the city!

“I arrived at our home in Lviv. I rang. Will the Sisters hear me? I prayed to all the saints. I heard footsteps and: ‘Who is there?’ ‘Athanasia, I will explain in the house.’ It was Sister Josaphata herself. She, like a real mother, took me to a room and said: ‘My child, your clothes are all wet from perspiration.’ She gave me a clean change of clothes, and I briefly told her my story. As I laid my weary body on the comfortable bed, before falling asleep I remembered hearing: ‘Don’t get up until I come for you.’ ”25

Sister Josaphata brought Athanasia her breakfast, and later herself escorted her to the station. Athanasia took the train to Kozhych, and there explained her absence. Lady Klodnitska kept counting the miles that Sister walked that fearful evening be continued.

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23 Article in Poslany/Messenger, No. 23-24, 1984, Berezhany, eyewitness, copied in AGS Chronicle, v. I. pp. 45-46. (back to text)

24Sister Athanasia Melnyk, Memoires, manuscript, p. 13, in SPA. (back to text)

25 Sister Athanasia Melnyk, ssmi, Memoire II, p. 2. manuscript in SPA (back to text)