Sister recounts story of coming to America, establishing St. Joseph's
When Sister Olga Poluch was a young woman in Slovakia she often sang a song about going out into the world, not knowing that she would indeed do so.
“I never dreamed I would go to the United States,” Poluch said, adding that she felt like she was led by God.
Poluch became a sister at the age of 15. Her aunt, who was also a sister, prayed that, she herself, could go abroad to do missionary work, but never did.
“She was happy that she could go through me,” Poluch said.
In 1946, when Poluch was 20 years old, an exciting opportunity presented itself. The Benedictine Fathers of St. Bede College in Peru, Ill., invited Poluch and other Slovakian sisters who were part of the Daughters of St. Francis of Assisi, to work at the college.
Traveling during war time was difficult, but 15 sisters left in two groups Aug. 30, 1946, to make their journey. Poluch, Assunta Kutis, Bertha Stodola, Clara Mudrak, Cornelia Blasko, Ignatia Strapak, and Stephanie Crho went in the first group. Alphonse Husak, Augustine Kollar, Boleslava Gazo, Boniface Matuga, Ludmilla Roman, Marcella Patoprsta, Milada Davidek and Rita Golianova went in the second group.
They traveled by car, train, bus and ship, each carrying one habit and one suitcase.
Poluch said at the beginning of their trip they could not find a car, so they traveled in a hearse. As they traveled along the Russian border, they had to be extremely quiet for fear of being shot by enemy soldiers.
Along the way, the sisters witnessed towns in rubble from the effects of World War II. After arriving in Sweden by train, the sisters got on a boat for an 11-day ride across the choppy Atlantic to New York City.
Upon arriving in New York, the sisters saw the Statue of Liberty, which Poluch said she studied in school. Seeing the statue gave her a feeling of freedom.
Poluch said she thought, “Now I am really free. I can say what I want.”
“The first thing we did when we got off the boat is kneel down and kiss the ground,” Poluch said.
From New York, the sisters traveled to Chicago where they were greeted by the Benedictine fathers.
Poluch stayed at St. Bede’s for five years. She said during that time she was not homesick because there were other sisters to keep her company.
“I said, ‘I made this decision, so I can’t go back now,’” Poluch said.
After five years, Poluch and the other sisters became U.S. citizens and were allowed to travel outside of the country. However, Poluch’s father told her not to come home because of the “sickness” there. By “sickness,” Poluch’s father was referring to communism.
It was not until 1966 that Poluch returned home and was shocked by what she saw.
“It was a surprise for me — huge red flags with sickles on them and houses painted red —slogans with ‘communism forever.’ I felt like I was in hell,” Poluch said.
When Poluch became a sister, Slovakia was not communist and religious freedom was OK. But, when she returned to her homeland from the United States, the country was then under Russian rule. Poluch was told she could no longer wear her habit while in the country.
Poluch, who is now 84, recently returned to her homeland to visit her sister, said Slovakia is not under communist rule now.
A new direction
After their time at St. Bede’s, the sisters moved to Lacon.
Lacon resident Elizabeth Specht donated her large home to the sisters to be used as the first Motherhouse of American Province — St. Joseph Convent. Specht donated the home with the condition that the sisters would care for her; however, Specht died before the sisters moved into the home in 1948.
All of Specht’s furnishings were auctioned before the sisters arrived to an empty home. Poluch said the sisters asked the parish priests in Chicago to help them furnish the home. Bishop Joseph Schlarman helped the sisters purchase land around their convent.
“When we opened the convent, we advertised in different newspapers and went to conventions. ... We needed something to do in Lacon. That’s when we made the decision to build the nursing home,” Poluch said.
Bishop Joseph Franc supported the idea of a Catholic nursing home in the Peoria Diocese.
However, the sisters were on their own to raise the money to build the nursing home. They requested help, and Lacon business owners, Slovakian parish members living in the U.S. and Chicago priests donated to the cause.
“The farmers even helped. They gave us tickets to sell a pony, a cow, a pig and a lamb,” Poluch said.
In 1956, eight of the sisters were sent to reopen and operate St. Francis Hospital in Mountain View, Mo.
In 1965, the St. Joseph Nursing Home opened at 401 Ninth St., and included a new motherhouse since the Specht home had been demolished.
Today, the nursing home is still owned and operated by the Daughters of St. Francis of Assisi. Four of the original sisters who traveled to a new country so long ago remain there today. They are Stodola, Husak, Kollar and Poluch.
This year, the sisters will celebrate the 45th anniversary of the nursing home with a rededication and other special events.
Marketing director Harriet Cowell said, “We’re more personable. We don’t know any strangers here. It might be someone’s first time, but you’d never know it.”
For more information about St. Joseph Nursing Home, call 246-2175, or visit www.stjosephnursinghome-lacon.com.