(The remarks of the interviewer are in italics. Sister is referred to by both her baptismal name ‘Bernadette’ and her religious name ‘Antoinette’ in this story. Three of Sister Antoinette’s sisters also joined the Vincentian Community. Their stories are closely intertwined so the names Veronica/Canice, Helen/Seraphine, and Anna/John Gabriel also appear throughout this narrative.)
On January 4, 1925, Bernadette Ernestine was born in United, Pennsylvania to Michael Kostelnik and Anna Uhrin Kostelnik. Six days later (January 11), she was baptized at St. Florian Parish by Reverend Paul J. Odelga. Both Michael and Anna were originally from Slovakia. Michael spoke English like a native; Anna was less fluent and had to make an effort to learn the language from her children.
Bernadette was one of ten children: brothers Mike, John, Joe and sisters Veronica, Mary, Helen Monica, Anna Catherine, Catherine and Marge. By the time Bernadette was born, her brothers were already grown and had left home. Despite the differences in age, she remembers that she and all of her siblings got along well. Often they would come home from school to share lunch with their mother. On Sundays, the children always were given the special treat of money to buy an ice cream cone in the afternoon.
Bernadette attended a public school for first and second grades before transferring to a Catholic school, St. Florian. She never cared for public school and was thrilled with this change. It was at St. Florian that she first came into contact with the Vincentian Sisters of Charity. She remembers having such wonderful, inspiring Sister teachers. Sister Thecla Grancaj (third and fourth grades) and Sister Maureen Soltis (fifth and sixth grades) were especially memorable.
Bernadette knew very early that she wanted to be a Sister. She often helped her Sister teachers at church on the weekends doing small things like lighting the candles. On Saturdays they even made Bernadette a lunch and she got to eat with the Sisters; that was something special. In addition to helping the Sisters, one of Bernadette’s favorite things to do as a child was play “school” and “church”. She was never very interested in playing house. Her grandmother let her borrow long black veils and black robes which she used to dress up as a Sister. She would then round up her siblings, cousins, and other children from the neighborhood and teach them their lessons or take them to “church” to pray. She remembers that her cousin Tom never wanted to play school or church with them. He always made a point of avoiding Bernadette when he saw her dressed up as a Sister.
Her sister, Veronica, left home early and worked as a housekeeper in the home of a wealthy family so Bernadette didn’t know her particularly well until later in life. When she came home from work on the weekends Veronica always brought candy, a special treat, for her siblings. Another sister, Helen also found work fairly early and Bernadette herself went to clean her maternal grandmother’s house on weekends.
On November 1, 1930, Veronica entered the Community of the Vincentian Sisters of Charity. She became a novice on July 12, 1931 and was given the religious name Canice. Sister Canice trained to be a dietician specializing in the care of those with diabetes and was missioned to several hospitals over the years in states ranging from as far south as Alabama to Missouri in the west. (While Bernadette didn’t grow up knowing Sister Canice very well, having her big sister enter religious life must have given her even more inspiration toward her ambition of becoming a Sister.)
Bernadette attended high school at Vincentian Sisters High School, a boarding school in McCandless County. Her sister Anna also attended Vincentian High for her senior year after transferring from Hurst High. Students at Vincentian fell into one of two categories: scholastics who were there for the exceptional education and aspirants who came for the education and also planned to stay for the religious life; both Bernadette and Anna were aspirants. Over the summer and on holiday breaks, Anna and Bernadette returned home to spend time with their family.
On August 27, 1939, Anna entered the Vincentian Community and on August 18, 1940 she received the habit and the religious name John Gabriel. A year and a half later, Bernadette entered the Community on February 2, 1942 at the end of her senior year of high school. She remained a student through graduation in addition to her new role as postulant. Her uniform changed to that of a postulant with a net-like veil but, for the most part, school remained the same. Just before entering the novitiate, she spoke with a visiting priest who asked her if she knew what her religious name was going to be. She didn’t have a preference in mind and told the priest that she didn’t know what her superiors were considering. Father then suggested she take the name Antoinette after a sick woman he had been caring for. When Bernadette entered the novitiate on August 15, 1942 she was given the name Antoinette; the priest must have mentioned the idea to her superiors. One day later, on August 16th, Sister John Gabriel (Anna) made her first vows.
At the time, Sister Valentine Hornik was novice mistress. During the first year of the novitiate, novices were not allowed to contact their families. It was hard to go without seeing them for so long. Whenever her family visited John Gabriel, Antoinette’s sisters would sneak off to find her so that they could at least wave hello. Novices were also not permitted to speak to professed Sisters except under certain circumstances. Antoinette spoke to her sister, the newly professed John Gabriel anyway! When year one of novitiate life came to an end, Sister’s family was there the first day that they were allowed to visit. Her mother missed her three girls in Community terribly and confessed that she often embraced her daughters’ clothes that they had left at home whenever she was especially missing them. It nearly broke Antoinette’s heart to hear how difficult it was for her mother to be separated from her daughters!
(When Sister Antoinette reached this point in her story I was struck by how incredibly strong her mother was. Not only did she endure the separation from her daughters necessary for religious life, she did everything in her power to ensure that her daughters could pursue their dream of serving God and His people. When girls entered the Community they were expected to bring with them a dowry. Michael and Anna were not able to provide so many dowries up front for their daughters entering religious life. Anna didn’t let that stand in the way of her girls’ ambitions though. She personally called and spoke to the Mother Superior and made arrangements for the girls to enter and their dowries to be paid as the money became available. What a courageous and devout woman she was!)
On February 2, 1943, Antoinette’s sister Helen entered the Community. Though Helen was older than John Gabriel and Antoinette, she remained at home longer to help the family and be with their mother. Finally, she told her mother that it was time for her to go join the Community. She received the habit on August 16, 1943, to be known in religion as Seraphine, and joined her sister, Antoinette, in the novitiate.
A year later, on August 20, 1944, Sister Antoinette made her first vows. The experience of making vows was wonderful but also daunting as it meant that she had to leave the Motherhouse for her first mission. Sister Antoinette’s first mission was in 1944 at St. Michael School in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Traveling there with local superior Sister Bernadette Fialko made the ordeal even more stressful. Leaving the Motherhouse and suddenly being responsible for a class of students was difficult but Antoinette soon mastered the art. She taught second grade that first year at St. Michael. “They were lovely kids and I loved them!” As second graders, the children were preparing to receive their First Holy Communion and Sister Antoinette bore the responsibility of guiding them in their preparation. She remembers that one challenge of this first mission was a young boy who got highly agitated when certain religious topics were mentioned. He would start yelling and run out of the room. Sister would go after him and try to figure out what was bothering him but he never did tell her. This made teaching religious topics difficult because she was always wondering what would set him off. No one could provide much help with the matter either. Sister Bernadette, superior, was at a loss and advised her to, “Do the best you can”.
Sister Antoinette was at St. Michael from 1944 until 1947. On August 19, 1945, Sister Seraphine made her first vows. During summer breaks when the sisters were allowed to visit home, all four stayed busy helping to clean their sisters’ and nieces’ houses. Antoinette remembers how Seraphine always had boundless energy. While the rest would clean until suppertime, Seraphine would go back to work for a few more hours after eating! “Nothing was ever too much for her.”
In 1947, Sister received her second assignment. She was missioned to St. Mary School in Pierce City, Missouri where she taught 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades all together in the same classroom. The trip to Pierce City was a long one taken by train to reach rural St. Mary. Sister’s classroom had a round potbelly stove that sat in the corner of the classroom and provided heat in the colder months. The school janitor got the stove going in the mornings but sometimes he forgot to return to tend to it in the afternoon. The country setting led to some extra challenges but Sister Antoinette loved her new mission. Her students were so bright; the 1st graders would pick up on what the 3rd graders were learning! This often resulted in some jealous 3rd grade students who thought the 1st graders should be learning only 1st grade material, but Sister Antoinette patiently explained to them how wonderful it was that the 1st graders were catching on so quickly. A special joy of being missioned in Pierce City was that it brought Antoinette close to Sister Canice, who was missioned in nearby Monett MO, and they were able to visit each other often. Being born fifteen years apart, it was in religious life that the two women finally had the opportunity to become close.
On April 26, 1951, the Vincentian Sisters of Charity received Papal Approbation and with it the privilege of making perpetual vows. In 1952, all four Kostelnik Sisters became perpetually professed. Sister Canice made her vows on June 27th and Sister John Gabriel made hers on June 30th while Sisters Antoinette and Seraphine both made their final vows on August 8th.
After leaving St. Mary in 1950, Sister Antoinette taught elementary grades at four other schools in Pennsylvania: St John in Connellsville, St. Matthew in Pittsburgh, St. Bartholomew in Crabtree, and St. Ursula in Allison Park. Sister’s mission at St. Ursula stands out because the children in her 8th grade class were so very smart. In 1964, Sister received a new assignment to teach high school religion at Bishop Boyle High School in Munhall, Pennsylvania. In her twenty years of teaching elementary school, Antoinette taught everything from 1st through 8th grade but she was excited for a new challenge.
Though she loved the little ones, Sister preferred teaching high school. While high schoolers could present their own unique challenges, they were also capable of discussions with greater depth. Antoinette was at Bishop Boyle High in Munhall until 1967 when she was changed to Boyle High School in Homestead, PA. From there she returned to her alma mater, Vincentian Academy. In all three schools she taught religion which she was uniquely qualified for, having earned a Master’s degree in Theology from Notre Dame University. (Sister also has a Bachelor’s degree in Education from Duquesne University.)
In 1983, Sister Antoinette’s religious instructions gained a new focus when she was assigned to be Director of Ongoing Formation. For four years she led classes for the Community’s postulants and pre-postulants, occasionally novices would join the classes as well. After this mission, in 1987, Sister was again assigned to teach religion at Vincentian Academy.
Meanwhile, Sister Canice had returned to the Motherhouse. A wonderful cook, she worked as chief baker for the Motherhouse and served as Dietician Consultant for the patients at Vincentian Home. Though she never complained or asked for help, Sister Antoinette could tell that Canice’s health was failing due to cancer. After leaving the school at the end of a day’s teaching, Antoinette always stopped by the kitchen and offered to help Sister Canice with the dishes. Canice surely appreciated her perceptive little sister helping to ease the workload. On April 14, 1990, at age 79, Sister Canice left earth for heaven.
In 1999, Sister John Gabriel returned to the Motherhouse. She had been missioned at nearby St. Sebastian School for 25 years. (Or, to hear Sister Antoinette tell it, John Gabriel, “must have worked at St. Sebastian for at least 100 years”.) When she finally returned to the Motherhouse to serve as a part-time phone operator, Sister John Gabriel had been teaching elementary school for 57 years, enriching the lives of children in sixteen different schools. She also served as principal at one school for two years and assistant principal for three.
In 2003, Sister Seraphine also returned to the Motherhouse after working as a nurse at St. Vincent Hospital in Monett, Missouri for 44 years. The three sisters were finally all living together once again. Seraphine worked in childcare from 2003 until she retired in 2006. She loved to work with the babies and Sister Antoinette remembers that all Seraphine needed to do was hold the babies and they would fall asleep or quiet down for her. Even after Sister Seraphine retired from childcare, she stayed busy by visiting the patients at Vincentian Home across the street from the Motherhouse three times a week and going to visit the children in the Childcare Center every Tuesday.
From 1987 until 2009 Sister Antoinette worked full-time teaching religion to the high school students in multiple grades at Vincentian Academy. The year 2008 saw the merger of the Vincentian Sisters of Charity with the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky. Antoinette has been accepting of the merger with the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth since the beginning, viewing it as part of God’s plan. In 2009 she became a part-time teacher but continued teaching her students even though she experienced considerable back problems. She finally retired in October of 2012.
The year 2015 was a challenging one. On March 14, 2015, Sister Seraphine passed to eternity. Only six months later on September 30, Sister John Gabriel also went to be with her siblings and parents in heaven. (Despite this recent loss, Sister Antoinette still has such a beautiful, joyful spirit. It is hard to imagine losing two siblings so close together. Sister Antoinette’s joy is a testament to her faith and the knowledge that her Sisters have gone to a well-deserved rest.)
Today Sister Antoinette lives in Lourdes Hall at St. Louise Convent. She misses teaching quite a bit but enjoys spending her time praying and reading. Even though her Sisters in the VSC Community finally convinced her to retire from teaching due to her health, Sister Antoinette still looks forward to leading a monthly prayer group. In this way, and many others, she is still passing on her wisdom.
(Throughout our interview, Sister Antoinette often raised her eyes to heaven and spoke to God, offering thanks for one thing or another that had come up in conversation. Far from being in any way disruptive, these prayers were a beautiful addition. It was as though God had joined us to listen to Sister Antoinette gratefully recount the many blessings in her life.)
Interviewed by Kelly McDaniels, Assistant Archivist