After Death

Understandably, Mother’s death echoed on all levels of civic and ecclesial circles. How many were filled with sorrow can be deduced from the amount and variety of correspondence arriving at the time to the Wielowieś convent. Letters of condolences were authored by clergy and laity who had met and admired Mother Columba in so many facets of her presence, efforts, and ministry . All of the letters unanimously expressed sorrow, but, more importantly, they reflected an unwavering conviction that a true saint had died.

People who experienced loss most acutely though were sisters themselves. They knew that a person who loved them most sincerely had left forever. Under the entry from March 22, 1887, that is, only 4 days after Mother’s death, the Chronicles of Wielowieś registered the following:

Deep down in our hearts we hope that perhaps one of us will experience some manifestation proving holiness of our Foundress! Oh! Her life radiated with virtues and she went through many sufferings before she arrived to the limit of her earthly pilgrimage! But she is already over with everything, our Mother! Now blessed! While we, orphans!

In sync with the motherhouse, chronicles of other existing convents of the Congregation also expressed similar feelings and observations. It appears that all sisters had a high degree of conviction about an extraordinary degree of virtues which Mother had practiced. What complicates today our perception of the initial cult of Mother is the fact that she had wanted to be forgotten to the world. Still before her death, out of humility, she had requested nothing to be said or written about her, not even an eulogy at the funeral. With great pain, yet with highest respect, sisters obeyed her will. For this reason, there are only few brief, though systematic, entries in all accessible chronicles. Without saying much about the beloved Mother, they prove that sisters frequently visited her tomb. For what purpose? They sought strength and guidance. In a way, there was nothing unusual to implore intercession for various graces, particularly spiritual ones, for they were much used to do so in life.

The tomb of Mother Białecka as well as her cell became a place of visits for many: first, bishops: Bp Ignacy Tokarczuk, Bp Wojciech Tomaka, Bp Franciszek Barda, Bp Stanisław Jakiel, Bp Bolesław Taborski, Bp Tadeusz Błaszkiewicz; second, generals of the Order: Fr. Wincenty de Consenongle, O.P., Fr. Aniceto Fernandez, O.P.; and, third, provincials: Fr. Edmund Sochacki, O.P., Fr. Walenty Potworowski, O.P., etc. The entire Dominican family: male and female represented by postulants, novices, and seminarians came yearly on a pilgrimage to the tomb of Białecka. What calls our special attention is the fact that from the very beginning the people of Wielowieś adults, youth, and children alike, individually and in groups, visited the tomb on their way to work, school, or just in passing by the convent. They were often joined by organized groups from nearby parishes as well as individual guests visiting from distant corners of the world. Unfortunately not all visits were recorded in Chronicles.

From the very beginning sisters started to celebrate various dates related to Mother Białecka. To list just a few, there were consecutive anniversaries of her birthday and death, name’s day, spiritual and canonical beginning of the Congregation. For example, in the entry from 1907 we read: „Twentieth anniversary of death of our Dearest Mother Foundress. This is always a maudlin day for us.” And in a different place it says: “Name’s day of our Mother Foundress. We prayed or rather requested intercession of our Venerable Mother for us.” To commemorate her, sisters of first generations were used to organize evenings of reminiscing when eyewitnesses of Mother’s life would tell first hand stories. Testimonies of such sisters as Benwenuta Pasławska, O.P. (first biographer), Joanna Zielonka, O.P. (general of the Congregation), and Alana Chodzińska, O.P. (biographer) were meant to foster the common heritage.

As the time passed by, understandably a need for a written biography arose. The very first one titled “A Brief Sketch of Life” by Fr. Jacek Cormier, O.P., the then general of the Order, was written only three years after Mother’s death, that is, in 1890. The Blessed general sent it along with the biography of Fr. Vincent Jandel, O.P. Interestingly, this additional resource contained several pages dedicated to Mother Białecka highlighting the importance of her work in Galician province of the Order that Jandel was very much concerned about. In 1896 yet another written source came to light. Thankfully, this time it originated with the Nancy Dominican nuns who described the birth of their foundation. This work as well contained a fragment describing Mother Columba’s times with the French community as well as canonical opinion about her. Lastly, in 1911a first full biography was carefully crafted by Sr. Benvenuta Pasławska, O.P. for the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Congregation. It was titled “The Life of Venerable Mother Rose Columba Białecka, the Foundress of the Dominican Sisters.”

More or less about fifty years into the life of the Congregation, the sisters began to preserve in writing descriptions of graces received through the intercession of their Foundress. Up to this period, graces received were rather kept in the oral tradition: there was no need to write them down as the time distance from Mother’s life was still relatively short and many eyewitness were still alive. The very first recorded testimony by Sr. Melania Zammler, O.P. depicts miraculous survival during the First World War. In the concluding fragment of her beautiful, lively, and touching testimony she writes:

The 18th of August 1915 was a happy day. At 9am we met in the convent chapel to sing a thanksgiving Te Deum and the Magnificat. Then we thanked Mother Foundress Columba who rests in the tomb behind the altar that she implored the miracle of a healthy return to the convent, and to console us with this unusual grace of first religious profession. We took it after an 8-day retreat on November 26, 1915, with my novitiate class who unbendingly expected our return.

The above testimony I lay down with a grateful heart as an homage to our Venerable Mother Foundress. She cared for us with tender motherly love during our sojourn in captivity. And after so many trials and dangers (which hereby I have briefly described), happy and sound, we returned relatively promptly to the motherhouse.

Sisters Melania, O.P. and Elekta , O.P. expressed in this testimony thanksgiving for supernatural graces received in extraordinary circumstances of the World War One. Imprisoned for their ministry to the wounded at the war front, they were taken captive to Moscow. Seeking protection with their Foundress, they were not only saved from deportation to Siberia and their lives were spared, not only they returned happily to their homeland, but they also made their profession of first vows with their novitiate class. Their untiring trust in the intercession of the Foundress was not disappointed. The testimony was written down by Sr. Melania Zammler, O.P. and confirmed with the signature of the then General Mother Cherubina Schreiber, O.P. along with the seal of the Congregation.

Over time, more and more testimonies of various people who received special graces were recorded. One of such examples is the story from July of 1945 by Fr. Reginald Wiśniowski, O.P., a friar who’s three sisters belonged to the Congregation.

Wacuś N., age 4, was deathly ill. Fever of 40˚C (104˚F) lasted already several days. The sisters took the boy to the Holy Spirit hospital in Sandomir (Poland). As Dr. Stawiak, the director of the hospital, diagnosed typhoid and – what further observation was to confirm – also pneumonia, he ordered hospitalization. Because the boy’s parents entrusted his care to the sisters, the latter ones refused to leave him in the hospital and brought him back to the convent. Seeing tremendous distress of the sisters and being overtaken by it myself, I desired to help by any means particularly because I had to return to Cracow on the indicated by my superiors date. A thought crossed my mind: I will return to Cracow as planned, but first I will pray for the little one’s health with Mother Columba Bialecka. I will pray at her tomb for the intercession promising that, if the child returns to health, I would make it public. After a heartfelt prayer at the tomb of Mother I returned to my room. Next, when I visited the sick, sister who cared for him informed me that the fever was decreasing. It went down below 37˚C (˚F) and never went up again. Medications ordered in the pharmacy in Sandomir that were brought in later did not have to be used.

Another person, Kazimiera Rysterówna of Pozań (Poland), described in 1937 a dual grace she received. She struggled with the unemployment and poor health.

To the Most Holy Trinity through the intercession of Our Lady and venerable Mother Foundress of the convent of the Dominican Sisters in Poland, Mother Columba Białecka, I pay my heartfelt thanksgiving for the grace received. Despite all odds, I have received a good post. Taking into account today’s critical times for clerks seeking employment and my poor health which, thanks to God’s intervention has improved, I consider it a special double grace. Therefore I make it a public statement of gratitude. In turn, I make a promise to spread the Kingdom of God among my new friends.

Out of necessity, in the interwar period in the twentieth century, sisters started organizing documents related in any way to the life of Mather Columba. Such housekeeping activity moved the cult of the Foundress into an entirely unknown earlier phase. Sisters started rereading letters and writings of Mother, her Directory for the Novitiate, the Constitutions, her spiritual diary as well as the existing biographies. In response to this renewed familiarity with Mother, a considerable number of poems, songs, and stage pieces came into existence. Also some articles appeared in The Spiritual Rose, a journal published in Lviv. Finally, thanks to the first sisters having moved to the United States, promotion of Mother Columba made its way to the English speaking world due to numerous translations of the existing materials as well as periodic publications which made appearence in local newspapers.

1929 saw yet another biography written within the community. It was Sister Alana Chodzińska, an eyewitness of Mother’s life and a member of the original community who compiled a biography. Praiseworthy an effort, nonetheless, Chodzińska’s biography virtually repeated facts already known from “A Brief Sketch of Life” by Fr. Cormier, O.P. and multiple entries of Wielowieś Chronicles. The interwar period sadly bids goodbye to the last sisters who personally had known Mother Columba Białecka: Sr. Akwinata Ligoń, O.P., Sr. Alana Chodzińska, O.P. , Sr. Benwenuta Pasławska, O.P. to mention just a few.