Sr. Columba in Poland

When Sr. Columba with her mother in Lviv, Poland, now part of Ukraine, she informed the local episcopal curia of her intention to establish a new foundation for a religious congregation. She was warmly welcomed by Fr. Prelate Antoni Manastyrski, who administered the diocese. He advised her to stay in one of the local convents while she translated the Nancy Dominican Constitutions, which were to be the bedrock of the new congregation. Sr. Columba followed this suggestion but did not find that same warm welcome with the convents. She was surprised to find her intentions so misunderstood and unanimously rejected. Desperate for assistance, she went to Przemyśl, Poland, about a 100 km away. She knocked on the doors of the Benedictine Sisters, who cordially welcomed her. According to historical archives, it was in that Benedictine chapel where she implored the Eucharistic Lord. Her time of prayer was filled with copious questions for the establishment of the foundation. She was finally inspired to adopt the rule of St. Augustine and the French constitutions to the Polish conditions.

Sr. Columba’s stay in Przemyśl was a time of many inquiries, uncertainties, limited perspectives, and a general human helplessness. It often appeared that she would not be able to integrate the plans she had brought from France but, nevertheless, she endured, trusting God without limits. Seven long months had passed when, on April 20, 1860, the Benedictine Sisters informed her that a certain priest had come to meet her. When she arrived at the parlor, she met Fr. Julian Leszczyński, who had recently been appointed pastor in Wielowieś, a village located nearby Tarnobrzeg. Fr. Leszczyński came to Przemyśl to discuss the possibility of a new religious foundation. He was eager to learn about the mission of this prospective congregation and its planned ministries. Sr. Columba explained that sisters would spread their apostolate among the poorest village population to aid their morality and religiosity. They would catechize and educate children in parish schools. On weekends, they were to commute to smaller townships to teach children and to prepare them to the First Communion. In addition, sisters were to visit the sick in their homes providing medical care as well as to keep vigil at the deathbeds of the villagers. Having heard Sr. Columba’s presentation, Fr. Leszczyński confessed that he had always desired to work with sisters of such an apostolate. He vowed to do everything possible to aid the foundation in Wielowieś.

In September of 1860 Sr. Columba and her mother travelled to Wielowieś to personally assess its conditions. The site inspection left much to be desired. The Sisters’ quarters, for example, were more of a pipedream than bedrooms. Sr. Columba had been offered other invitations, such as to Waręż, near Bełżc where convent buildings were already in place and ready to accommodate sisters. Sr. Columba, however, decided that the first convent ought to be built in the poor village of Wielowieś, where the sisters were needed. Villagers answered their pastor’s suggestion to send a delegation to Countess Gabriela Tarnowska for financial support. Together with her son John, the Countess promised to donate grounds for the convent, as well as wood from her forests.

As material preparations for the foundation were underway, legal matters became an obstacle. According to 19th century laws, Sr. Columba was considered underage. It was therefore necessary for her mother, Ernestine Bialecki, to officially represent the Wielowieś congregation. Two bishops of Przemyśl, Francis Wierzchlejski and his successor Adam Jasiński, blessed the foundation and encouraged Sr. Columba to continue her work. They promised to approve its constitutions when Sr. Columba came of age and gained some necessary experience.

In March of 1861, Sr. Columba traveled to Nancy, France to make her solemn profession, the final step in becoming a fully-fledged religious sister for life. The ceremony took place on April 1, 1861, which happened to be Easter Monday. She made her vows with the full understanding that they were martyrdom, the perfect offering through which she became God’s full possession. A fully professed sister and rooted in the Dominican life, Sr. Columba received official permission of the Nancy Convent to form a new congregation on Polish soil.

Mother Columba arrived in Wielowieś from France on May 23, 1861, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, with the first candidates to the congregation. Leszczyński joyfully welcomed the sisters, thanking God for their presence. On June 23, 1861, Mother Columba requested that the bishop Anton Monastyrski of Przemyśl nominate Leszczyński vicar of the congregation. This position was required of a new congregation, according to canonical provisions of the 19th century. The bishop consented and granted Leszczyński’s request to begin construction of the convent. Ground breaking, however, did not take place until April 20, 1864.

August 8, 1861 is considered the founding of the Congregation of the Dominican Sisters of Poland, the day the first novitiate officially began. The four candidates were Aniela Paulin, Katarzyna Murzyńska, Aniela Kraus, and Karolina Śpilczyńska. Due to the small workforce, Mother Columba combined a number of duties. She undertook the sisters’ religious formation while building the structures for Dominican life. Not only did she need canonical approval for the Nancy Constitutions, she had to ensure they would suit the Polish reality in which they were being lived. Meanwhile, she continued to organize the construction of the convent, a project she had begun from the beginning. These responsibilities did not keep her from her daily ministries to the people of Wielowieś.

Thanks to generosity of the villagers, the convent walls went up quickly. Every day they volunteered for the community project after the rigors of their field work. Construction proved expensive, and the sisters soon ran out of funds. A new collection was necessary. Mother Columba and one of her novices set out on the journey. Donors, too, were generous and it was not long before they returned with the needed money to continue construction. Having been through the experience, Mother Columba always supported her sisters when they took turns going for collections in later years. She not only prayed for them, but encouraged them with letters of spiritual advice.

Mother Columba also had to leave Wielowieś for canonical and governmental approval required of the new foundation. Though she seemed to have enjoyed unceasing cooperation from the bishops of Przemyśl, approvals did not always come easily. Her first translation of the Nancy Constitutions were rejected in 1864 because they were not sufficiently adjusted to Polish circumstances. Good news, however, came from Fr. Ignacy Łobos. In his opinion, preparing the sisters for vestition could accelerate the process of approval of their constitutions. Consequently, on June 10, 1865, two sisters were vested in the Dominican habit and received new religious names. Aniela Paulin became Sr. Maria Ozanna, O.P., and Katarzyna Murzyńska became Sr. Maria Gonzalwa, O.P. Within months, several other novices were vested. In the first six years, the Congregation of the Dominican Sisters of Poland had six novices and five postulants; Mother Columba being the only fully professed sister.

Following the plan in early January, 1867, Fr. Leszczyński sent an official letter to the curia of the Przemyśl diocese requesting the approval of the Constitutions of the Dominican Sisters. Additionally, Mother Columba left during this time to personally see to the matter in Przemyśl and Lviv. Happily, on January 29, 1867, Bishop Antoni Monastyrski approved both the rule and the Constitutions. Now the need was to regulate the status of the Congregation on three levels: the canonical, legal, and governmental. It was completed a year later on January 15, 1868, when Bishop officially erected the Congregation and appointed Mother Columba the general superior, entrusting her religious authority over the sisters. The decree was handed to Mother Columba on February 20, 1868. Monastyrski asked that the sisters act with integrity so he could soon ask the Holy See for the papal approval.

The two visits of Fr. Jandel to Wielowieś were considered joyful moments among the troublesome journey of the foundation of the congregation. His arrival on October 1, 1867 was festively celebrated, not only by the sisters, but by the entire parish. Mother Columba asked him then to receive the five novices’ vows. He agreed and the following day, on October 2, 1867, the parish witnessed the ceremony of first profession into the hands of Master General by Sisters Maria Ozanna, O.P., Maria Klara, O.P., Maria Gerturda, O.P., Maria Alana, O.P., and Maria Gonzalwa, O.P. The second visit of Fr. Jandel on August 7, 1869, was marked by his historic words directed to Mother Columba, which proved a matchless significance for the entire Congregation: “I incorporate You and your Congregation to the [Dominican] Order for ever.”

Fr. Vincent Jandel’s visit was significant for several reasons. Mother Columba took ill with tuberculosis frequently. However, she never sought long treatments since she believed that religious who vowed poverty could not afford such provisions. Jandel insisted she spend several months in the warm and dry climate of Cette in southwestern France to recuperate and recover her strength. Her travels included pilgrimages to holy sites in Rome, Loretto, Assisi, Bologna, and Padua on her way back to Poland. Jandel had appointed Sr. Gertruda Łastowiecka as subprioress during Mother’s absence.

The early 1870s, however, began a chain of bitter spiritual desolations for Mother Columba. First, on December 11, 1872, Fr. Vincent Jandel, O.P., Master General of the Order, died in Rome. For Mother Columba, this meant the irreplaceable loss of a father to the Congregation and her personal spiritual director. Jandel knew her heart well and had proven an invaluable help in every circumstance. Second, after many days and nights in prayer for her conversion, Mother Columba witnessed the death of her younger sister, Władysława de Tergonde, on July 17, 1873. Finally, a mere seven months later, her older sister, Maria Rubczyńska, became critically ill and died on February 1, 1874.

Difficulties continued to accumulate. Regarding the Congregation’s interior matters, Mother Columba was confronted with the uneasy imposition of Fr. Julian Leszczyński, who increasingly intervened into the sisters’ matters, disregarding the intentions of the young foundress. Mother Columba interpreted his attitude to be the result of serious illness, namely, a type of facial cancer, causing the priest intensive pain which impacted his brain activity. In order to protect Fr. Leszczyński and shield the congregation from needless suffering, she endured his intrusions with heroic patience as she faced numerous humiliations and a deep spiritual darkness. She decided to seek spiritual guidance and, in January of 1878, returned to Lviv. God’s answer to her prayers came in the from of Fr. Joseph Weber, the spiritual director for the Lviv seminary. Having received her confession, Fr. Weber promised to be of help if and when they could correspond in writing. Additionally, Mother Columba asked if he could serve as her spiritual director. After consultation with his own confessor, Fr. Weber agreed. Mother Columba was overjoyed and grateful, but this turned out to be a short lived gain. Having learned about this, Fr. Leszczyński categorically refused the arrangement. Taking into account his enormous contribution into the Wielowieś foundation as well as his failing health, at a great personal and spiritual cost, Mother Columba decided not to seek Fr. Weber’s assistance.

The constant tension and distress of the relationship soon began again to take a toll on Mother Columba’s health. Fr. Leszczyński demanded she headed off for Lviv for an extended time for her to recover. Such was his assertion, at least. The reality of his intention was simply to remove her from the community she had founded. Mother Columba departed from Wielowieś on June 17, 1879, leaving the rudder of the congregation in the hands of Sr. Gertruda Łastowiecka, O.P. Back in Lviv, Fr. Weber showed great tact in his care of Mother Columba. He organized a retreat for Mother Columba to give her the much needed, rest hoping to revitalize her strength and determination.

The compulsory rest in Lviv spent in prayerful retreat unexpectedly awakened her long forgotten desire to enter the Cloistered Dominican Sisters in Gródek, Cracow. In 1880, Mother Columba obtained the necessary permissions to do so from both her spiritual director, as well as Bishop Maciej Hirschler. The Bishop of Przemyśl, however, suggested she reconsidered her decision to enter the cloister, and encouraged her to return to her young community instead. By this time, Fr. Leszczyński had moved to Orzechówka, near Krosno, to live with his brother. Fr. Władysław Ciechanowicz had succeeded him as vicar. Having discerned this to be the will of God, Mother Columba returned to Wielowieś to the great joy of the sisters.

After her return, Mother Columba had several urgent decisions to make. The first pertained to Fr. Leszczyński’s new situation. Despite the difficulties of their relationship, Mother Columba made every effort to foster good memories about his help and openness to the congregation in its beginning. She consciously passed on to the next generation of sisters a sincere gratitude for the good she and the congregation had received from Fr. Leszczyński. For this reason, she sent two sisters to Orzechówka, where they tirelessly cared for the ailing benefactor for the two years prior to his death on August 5, 1882.

She then requested that the local bishop assigned Fr. Joseph Weber the director of the congregation. Fr. Weber was appointed the position on September 7, 1881 and served generously for 25 years. This was a much needed time of abundant grace for the renewal of a peace of mind for all sisters, Mother Columba in particular.

Finally, she needed to attend to the redaction of the congregation’s constitutions without delay. Twenty years of existence was a sufficient time to test their vitality. The Congregation grew in number and could spread its wings into new ministries. At times, some ministries needed transformation, while others required readjustments to new circumstances and to multiple duties of sisters. When new mission houses opened in Bieliny, Wielkie Oczy, and Tyczyn, constitutions needed to be broadened by elements that would regulate life within the houses and their relationships with the motherhouse in Wielowieś. On September 17, 1882 Mother Columba started working with Fr. Weber on the new redaction which included compilation of two separate laws: the deletion of out-of-date entries and introduction of new laws in accordance with norms of the Holy See. Mother strived to have the new Constitutions approved by the ordinary bishop, and then by the Vatican Congregation for Bishops and Religious. The first approval by Bishop Łukasz Ostoja-Solecki occurred on January 6, 1883. Translated into French in February, they were sent to Rome.

Amidst all these efforts Mother’s health was failing once again. Doctors diagnosed her with tuberculosis and ordered treatment, again in Lviv. Unfortunately, this time it did not bring the expected results. Nevertheless, Mother decided to travel to Rome to personally attend to the Congregation’s affairs. She arrived in the Eternal City on January 25, 1885, the Solemnity of the Conversion of St. Paul. On March 13, 1885, Pope Leo XIII pronounced the mission and ministry of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Dominic and directed the Congregation for Bishops and Religious to issue the Laudatory Decree, which occurred on March 21, 1885. Though some minor flaws caused the constitutions a delay in approval, the Holy Father had confirmed that the mission of the congregation was praiseworthy. The final approval of the constitutions occurred on September 3, 1887, some five months after Mother Columba’s death. Nonetheless, Mother Columba considered the Laudatory Decree a great reward and a grace which gave her great peace of heart on the way back to Wielowieś.

The interval in Rome significantly improved Mother’s health and allowed her to return to work with renewed energy, but the harsh climate of the Vistula quickly took her health. Doctors did not predict more than a few weeks for Mother Columba. She was so ill, in fact, that she was unable to join the sisters in the refectory for Christmas vigil in 1886.

The New Year commenced dishearteningly. In addition to her permanent condition of tuberculosis, she contracted pneumonia. Doctors in her care gave her only few more days to live. With great concern, Fr. Weber arrived in Wielowieś only to say his final goodbyes, saying: “Mother, see you in Heaven”. On February 2, 1887, Mother Columba stopped eating and could only consume liquid in small amounts. Despite these limitations, she still summoned the sisters to instruct them. She encouraged them to practice humility, love of neighbor, and selflessness in their ministry to the poor. She pleaded with them to embrace the spirit of prayer and silence, and to make the Eucharistic and Marian devotion the hallmark of the Congregation. Lastly, Mother Columba requested of the sisters to respect and obey her successor.

Physical and spiritual suffering never ceased throughout her final illness. Still, Mother Columba endured all torment with heroic patience, “burning like the Eucharistic lamp out of love for her Celestial Bridegroom”. On March 18, 1887, at about 9pm, the agony started. Sisters gathered in her cell while Fr. Ciechanowicz anointed her for the last time. All prayed the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. When the last of three invocations “Lamb of God who take away the sin of the world” was said Mother gently breathed a sigh and handed over her soul to the Most Merciful Father. It was about 9:30pm. The sound of the bell from the convent bell tower announced to the people that their beloved Mother Columba had died. She was burred on March 22, 1887 in the convent garden, next to the chapel.

At death of its Foundress, the congregation counted 47 sisters and 4 convents. Thanks to God’s mercy, her work has endured for over 150 years. Even today, the spirit of Mother Columba lives in the succeeding generations of the Dominican Sisters who preach Christ to those most in need, not only in Poland, but on 4 continents and in 8 countries.