September 26, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Possible U.S. saints: Mary Theresa Dudzik

John F. Fink(Eighteenth in a series of columns)

Josephine Dudzik emigrated from Poland to Chicago in 1881 when she was 21. Two sisters had preceded her and prepared the way for Josephine, their mother and three other children. The family settled in St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish, which served as the center of religious and community life for the immigrant Polish community.

Resurrectionist Father Vincent Barzynski had become pastor of the church in 1874, three years after the Great Chicago Fire. Within 12 years, the parish grew from 400 to 8,000 families—40,000 people—with a school for 3,000 students, a convent for 40 teachings sisters, and meeting rooms for 51 societies. It became the largest parish in the United States.

Upon her arrival, Josephine became aware of the city’s poor, sick and homeless, who were living in crowded and unsanitary conditions. She began to bring many of these people into the apartment she shared with her mother. Father Barzynski referred needy people to her, and soon came to depend upon her to solve problems that the people brought to him. Parishioners elected Josephine to leadership positions in the parish’s societies.

Josephine later wrote in her journal, “Once while at prayer, a thought suddenly occurred to me to rent or purchase a home in the vicinity of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church and assemble all the [Franciscan] tertiaries from this parish who would desire to join me in a common life of prayer, labor and service.”

She did exactly that in 1893 and established the community that, beginning on Dec. 8, 1894, became the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago. It was the first order of nuns founded in Chicago and the first Polish religious community in the United States.

Josephine, who now called herself Sister Mary Theresa, was unanimously elected superior. The community at first lived in her apartment, but soon moved to larger quarters. The sisters sewed and did laundry to support themselves and the penniless residents they took in. Then, on the advice of Father Barzynski, they moved to Avondale, five miles northwest of Chicago.

In 1897, the community obtained a loan to build St. Joseph Home for the Aged and Crippled. Father Barzynski signed the document since unmarried women, especially women religious, could not secure loans.

In 1898, when St. Joseph Home opened, Father Barzynski removed Sister Theresa as superior of the order. She wrote that she felt “as if a heavy stone had fallen from around my neck, and I perceived unusual happiness.” She remained, however, administrator of St. Joseph Home.

A year later, the sisters expanded the mission of St. Joseph Home to accept the care of the children of St. Vincent Orphanage Asylum.

Sister Theresa was diagnosed with cancer early in 1918, and died on Sept. 20, 1918, at age 58. At the time of her death, the community she founded had grown to 125 sisters, who were serving at St. Joseph Home, St. Vincent Orphan Asylum, three day care centers, and 31 elementary schools in seven states. Today, their motherhouse is in Lemont, Ill. †

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