Franciscan sisters share memories of refugees helped after World War II

Following Betty Pietrzykowski’s death in November, several sisters agreed the story needed to be shared beyond the convent. Pictured talking about Betty and Joe are (from left): Sr. Matthias Gangl, Sr. Donna Guyott, Sr. Colette Tonies and Sr. Therese Lenz. Not pictured: Sr. Joan Gerads, Sr. Mary Blase Kulzer and Pietrzykowski neighbor Irene Becker.

Following Betty Pietrzykowski’s death in November, several sisters agreed the story needed to be shared beyond the convent. Pictured talking about Betty and Joe are (from left): Sr. Matthias Gangl, Sr. Donna Guyott, Sr. Colette Tonies and Sr. Therese Lenz. Not pictured: Sr. Joan Gerads, Sr. Mary Blase Kulzer and Pietrzykowski neighbor Irene Becker.

Joe and Betty Pietrzykowski’s family among those helped

by Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer

One of the charisms (gifts of the Holy Spirit) of the Franciscan sisters in Little Falls is to live in poverty, recognizing that absolutely everything is a gift from God and as such we are owners of nothing.

“Caring for those in need oes with our charism of living our poverty,” said Sr. Therese Lenz, a Franciscan sister in Little Falls.

Joe and Betty Pietrzykowski and their daughter, Ingrid, were three of the World War II refugees who came to Little Falls and were helped by the sisters. Betty’s recent death started the sisters reminiscing.

“We were sitting around the table talking about it after Betty died,” said Lenz. “The story just needed to be shared beyond the convent.”

The other refugees from Europe — called “displaced persons” at that time — who came soon after the war include Kyra Posadshidi, an elderly lady who spoke Polish, Greek, German, English and Russian; Henryka Sieradska from Yugoslavia and Mary (Mitska) Ambrosiz.

“Mary was a friend of Monsignor Trobec and we took care of her for him,” said Sr. Joan Gerads.

The sisters agreed that it was Sr. Thomasine Schmolke who probably arranged for the refugees to come to St. Francis.

“We provided housing, food and jobs for them until they got on their feet,” said Lenz.

Joe, from Poland, and Betty, from Germany, had met at a concentration camp. They married after the war, in 1947 and came to the United States in 1948 with their infant daughter.

“I was very sick when we came,” said Ingrid Pietrzykowski Lestico of Grand Rapids. “I had pneumonia and was hospitalized for a while.”

“Ingrid was skin and bones,” said Sr. Colette Tonies.

Lestico remembers living in a little house on a corner near the convent with four women who often took care of her.

“I remember Margaret and Sr. Donald and two others,” Lestico said. “I used to run away to the nuns, to Sr. Angela the baker. She made wonderful cookies. Then she would have to take me home.”

Joe started working at the convent’s laundry

“I knew him when I was a novice,” said Gerads. “Both he and Betty were lively people, a delight.”

“Betty worked at Clare Residence giving baths and doing the whirlpools on the second floor,” said Sr. Donna Guyott. “She and Joe were really hard workers.”

Sr. Mary Blase Kulzer knew German and acted as translator at times.

“When Betty was sick in the hospital, I helped her tell the doctors what was wrong with her,” Kulzer said. “Other times, I would visit her and we would just speak German together.”

The Pietrzykowski family grew in 1950 with a second daughter, Ilona. The family moved into their own home in the mid 1950s.

“They had apple trees and we got to go pick apples,” said Tonies. “They took wonderful care of those trees.”

“They gardened,” said the family’s neighbor, Irene Becker. “Joe would be out in the spring when the ground was still hard, getting the garden ready. They thought, ‘God gave it to us and we’re willing to share.’”

“They were very generous and gave much away,” said Lenz.

Becker recalls Betty’s love for angels, “Her house was just filled with them. There were almost 100 angels.”

“One whole wall in her house was just filled with photos of her relatives,” Lenz said.

Through these refugees, the sisters have touched many lives.

“They were ever so kind to us; it wasn’t just one or two — they were all that way,” said Lestico. “I loved them to death — they were my family.”

Sponsoring refugees was not something the sisters could easily afford in the years just after World War II. They were busy with many things, and resources were tight.

“We were busy building hospitals,” said Tonies. “I admire the sisters in leadership at that time for taking the initiative in welcoming these people from all over.”

“In doing that, we’ve lived our poverty …” said Gangl.

“… and our hospitality,” added Lenz.

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