Immigration from Poland

Trials and tribulations

School Sisters of Notre Dame were required to write a biography before they took vows. The biographies provide an interesting glimpse into the early life of sisters. Sister Vintilla Walczak, SSND, immigrated from Poland as a young woman and her biography tell of the trials and tribulations of that trip.

Helen Walczak (later Sister Vintilla) was born in 1873 in Zasutowo, Posen, Poland; the second of Bartholomew and Mary Anne Walczak’s nine children. Helen wrote that her father learned of the prospect of obtaining work in America, so he decided to sail there with a friend. He remained there a year before he returned and took her mother and the “small children” with him back to the United States.

Helen’s passport did not arrive in time, forcing her older sister and Helen to remain in Poland. After Helen’s sister was married, Helen left for the United States alone, at age 16. She left behind a written account of her eventful trip.

Helen took a train from her town to Hamburg, Germany and from there she sailed to England. She remained there for four days before she embarked on a ship for Canada. She wrote “It was very lonesome on the large ship since I was all alone. Finally, I met a family which was traveling to Canada and since they were Polish they befriended me.”

When she arrived in Canada she got lost and “in an effort to find my benefactors and friends I was late for the train.” She sat alone at the depot for several hours until another train for Bay City, Michigan set out. “In the meantime, my father arrived in Bay City to pick me up at the station and not seeing me, went from home to home inquiring about me.”

Helen’s train arrived after midnight. She had fallen asleep and when the conductor woke her up she was alone on the train. She didn’t know English, but managed to make the conductor understand that she was Polish. A Polish policeman came and asked for her parents’ address, but “In all this turmoil I had lost it.”

Family reunited

Instead she produced a letter that a friend in Poland had asked her to deliver to a friend in Bay City. She was taken to the home by “horse and buggy” only to find that the family was less than enthusiastic about taking in a “poor, helpless and harmless girl” for the night. “After some persuasion, I was brought into the house, given some hot coffee, taken to a very comfortable bed in a lovely bedroom, and allowed a lovely rest. The next morning, I found all my clothes washed and ironed.” The family helped her locate her father and she was reunited with her family.

For the next few years Helen worked at home and helped on the farm while her father worked in a factory. When the factory closed, her parents decided to move to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She said that work and housing was difficult to obtain in Milwaukee and she “worked here and there wherever I could find work.”

One day she was walking to church when she met two Franciscan sisters. She went to see them and liked the life of the sisters and desired to enter religious life. She went to talk to her priest and told him she wanted to become a Franciscan, but he said “Oh, no! You will go to the Notre Dames.” He sent her to the Milwaukee motherhouse and she entered the candidature in 1898.

Helen took her vows in 1900 and was given the name Sister Vintilla. As a novice, she was sent to Canada where she worked as a domestic for 26 years. She then moved back to the United States and worked as a housekeeper and laundress at various locations. Sister Vintilla died on Aug. 26, 1969 at Notre Dame of Elm Grove.