When 18-year-old Rose Wnek left her family in southern Poland to come to America in 1913, she didn’t know at the time that she would never see them again. Nevertheless, the young immigrant kept up ties to her homeland through a correspondence that has spanned two world wars and communism and a Polish Pope’s papacy — and continues nearly a century later through her granddaughter, Sister Nancy Strillacci, and her Polish cousins.
Sister Nancy, a member of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, has roots in both Poland and Italy, but she’s especially familiar with her Grandmother Rose’s family, who lives more than 4,000 miles away in the area of Kicznia, Poland. For the past 25 years, she has continued the family correspondence with her mother’s first cousins and their children through letters, and now emails.
Last summer, Sister Nancy did what her grandmother didn’t have a chance to do: She traveled to Poland with her sister, Francine, to visit the family she knew through her correspondence, including her cousin Marek Wnek, with whom she currently exchanges emails.
“I think we shocked the relatives, because after all these years, someone was actually going over to visit,” she said. “It was so nice to see them in the flesh.”
In her 45 years as a nun, Sister Nancy has taught junior and senior high school in dioceses around the country. She now runs programs for deacons, priests and religious for the Office of Clergy and Religious in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., and lives with three sisters in Shelton, Conn., as part of the international order.
Like many immigrants, Sister Nancy’s grandmother came to the United States to escape poverty and find a better life. Rose settled in Meriden, Conn., where two of her aunts lived and where she became part of the local Polish community, Sister Nancy said. “When she left, she had no idea that she’d never see anybody again, but that’s what happened. She never saw her siblings again; she never saw her parents again; never saw the homeland again.”
Rose found work and eventually married a Polish man, while maintaining contact with her siblings, especially the family of her youngest brother, Jan. As much as she could, she sent needed items to her family along with her letters. During World War II especially, her relatives asked for medicine. If they requested shoes, Rose sent one shoe at a time, so they wouldn’t be stolen by postal workers, according to Sister Nancy.
“If somebody opened that package, what would they do with one shoe?” she asked. “The idea was that the relative eventually would get the whole pair.”
Contact during the wars was sporadic, especially World War II, but the letters kept coming. Under communism, Polish family members didn’t include their usual greeting of “Praised be Jesus Christ” in their letters for fear of censorship, she said.
Since the end of communism, family members have been more apt to acknowledge their faith, Sister Nancy said. “I guess people worried about whether things were looked at in the mail,” she said. “They couldn’t really trust the mail system. But now, if you want to talk about religion, certainly on email, it’s easy enough to do that.”
When Sister Nancy was a girl, her mother took over the correspondence from her grandmother: “Once my mother started writing for my grandmother, when my grandmother got older, I would know more what was happening and who they were talking with still over there.”
In 1987, after her mother passed away, Sister Nancy decided to take on the correspondence. But there was a problem: Both her grandmother and mother had written in Polish, a language she hadn’t learned. Her overseas family members did not know English either.
“The reason why there weren’t too many people speaking English was, during the communist take-over after World War II, it was mandatory [in the schools] to learn Russian,” she said. “Out of resistance or spite, they didn’t learn Russian.”
Sister Nancy asked neighbors and colleagues to translate the letters, and a teacher in Poland translated for her relatives. The family continued to write. “They just kept writing to me,” Sister Nancy said. “I think they were happy to keep having contact with someone from my grandmother’s family.”
The letters contain mostly family news rather than news about current events, she said. “I’d ask about family members by name. I’d ask about work and what they were doing. You get news of new children, new babies in the family or the progress in school, colleges, what majors kids had in college, whether or not they got jobs.”
The family also wrote about changing conditions in Poland and about Blessed John Paul II, who spent the early part of his life in their region. On Sister Nancy and her sister’s visit to Poland, their relatives took them to the Poor Clare convent where John Paul II canonized St. Kinga in 1999, about 20 miles from their town.
They also exchanged information about the celebration of Church holy days and customs in each country, said Marek Wnek, who is doing postgraduate work at Krakow University of Economics.
For example, they wrote about the Polish custom of placing hay under the dining room table to symbolize the stable and the manger at Christmastime.
Now, as many of her younger cousins have learned English, the correspondence continues through email. When she’s no longer able to write to her family members, Sister Nancy said she hopes that Francine or one of her nieces or nephews will keep up the tradition. “It will be easier for her to keep up. I hope she keeps up with it.”
Maintaining contact for so long over such a distance has given the family a strong sense of connection with relatives and also curiosity about their lives, Wnek said.
“For many years the correspondence was to keep contact between sister and brother, so the main benefit was the possibility to get information about changes in their lives and, generally, how they were doing,” he said. “Nowadays, it’s also a great opportunity to know something more about American culture and traditions.”
Susan Klemond writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.