(The remarks of the interviewer are in italics. Sister is referred to by both her baptismal name ‘Pauline’ and her religious name ‘DePaul’ in this story.)
On December 20, 1920, Emro and Pauline (Cibula) Zluky welcomed their newborn daughter Pauline, named for her mother, into their family. Pauline had a total of seven siblings. Matthew, Joseph, and Rudy were all born before her. Both Joseph and Rudy died at a very young age during an epidemic of influenza. When his parents also fell ill with the flu, little Matthew nursed them back to health. After Pauline, her younger siblings John, Margaret, Elmer, and Steve were born, also, a stillborn little girl. John passed away from double pneumonia when he was only a year old.
Pauline and her siblings got along well as children. Their mother would tell them they were the worst kids on the street! Pauline was quick to respond, “No they weren’t,” and told her mother exactly who the worst kids on the street were. Her mother always had the peroxide ready to tend to cuts whenever her tomboy daughter came home.
(When pictures were taken of Sister DePaul for her interview she mentioned that, when she was a child at home, they never took pictures like that. When she was a teacher, however, “we used to go every year,” to have the kids’ pictures taken. The photographers would try to convince her to be in the picture as well but she always told him, “I take a good picture every seven years … it’s not seven years”. She never did get a school picture.)
Sister Depaul Zluky
When Pauline was five years old, she started going to school at St. Michael in Braddock, Pennsylvania where the Vincentian Sisters of Charity taught. It was the only Catholic school in Braddock. She recalls that she and the other students would imitate the Sisters. They would dress up, “I’d take my mother’s black dress and pinned it all up to make sure it fit me,” and used butcher paper to make a veil. Dressed up as Sisters they played school. By the time she got to the 8th grade, Pauline was interested in entering religious life. She spoke to her principal about this interest but Sister recommended that Pauline stay close to home for another year to help her mother who had just had another baby. Since a girl had to be at least fifteen years old before she could receive the habit, Pauline agreed that it would be best for her to stay at home for another year. So for one year, she attended St. Thomas High School. Though she was anxious to go to Vincentian Academy, she had a good time during her year at St. Thomas. All this time, Pauline never mentioned her desire to enter religious life to her mother. After a year at home, she went to school at Vincentian Academy. While there, on the day a friend was received into the Community, Pauline and another girl decided to sign up to become Vincentians. When she went home to her mother on August 17th, Pauline handed her the paperwork and said, “Here’s a slip”. Her mother wasn’t expecting anything of the sort and quickly realized that there were only twelve days left before Pauline was supposed to begin her life as a religious. “You could have told me first! We don’t have anything ready for you! You never mention anything all year and all of a sudden…,” she exclaimed. Pauline calmly explained to her mother that she had witnessed her classmate, Sister Mary Victorine Deley, on her journey to become a Sister and noticed how happy she was. Pauline knew without a doubt that was the life she wanted. (Her friends were less sure, when she told them that she was entering the convent, they said they didn’t believe that she would stay. “See you in a couple weeks,” they said.) On August 29, 1935, Pauline Zluky entered the Community of the Vincentian Sisters of Charity. She was one of fifteen young women in her class.
After nearly a year as a postulant, Pauline received the habit and was given the religious name DePaul on July 26, 1936. She was happy with her name, having been named for St. Vincent de Paul. As both a postulant and a novice, Sister DePaul continued her high school studies and also began learning to teach. DePaul’s sister Margaret also entered the Community but only stayed for two months. She got homesick and decided that she missed her mother and her home too much to stay in the Community. “My mother was washing dishes and all the sudden she turns around, she sees my sister standing, she says, ‘What are you doing here?’.” DePaul told her mother that Margaret wasn’t meant for religious life, God was calling her to a different vocation. Homesickness was never a problem for Sister DePaul, however; she was too busy enjoying everything that was going on in her new vocation.
The novitiate meant a lot of hard work but Sister was happy to do it. One of DePaul’s responsibilities as a novice was cleaning a bathroom. A toilet wasn’t working too well one day so she made a sign saying that it was out of order. However, she couldn’t get the sign to stick to the door. She knew that she had to do something to keep people from using the toilet in question so she went to her room where she got a pair of stockings and some old rags. She filled up the stockings with the rags and took her old shoes that she used for working in the fields and her apron. She attached everything to the toilet to make it look as if someone was using it. She even locked the stall door from the inside and then crawled under the door to get out. Later on, an older Sister came at 9 o’clock in the evening and saw the bathroom light on. She knocked on the door and asked, “Sister, are you sick?”. Of course she received no answer so she assumed that the “Sister” didn’t want to talk. She went back to check every hour on the poor “Sister”. She was so worried about the sick “Sister” in the bathroom that she couldn’t sleep. Finally, at midnight, she got down on her knees to wake up what she assumed to be a Sister who had fallen asleep on the commode. When she grabbed the legs, they both came out. Startled, she just threw them in the corner and went to bed! The next morning, frustrated after her lack of sleep over what turned out to be just a pair of stockings and some shoes, she was waiting with the legs for Mother Superior before she even got up for the day. When Mother Superior came down to the novitiate Sister DePaul thought she was for sure in trouble now! Only Sister DePaul would think of a plan like that!
On July 3, 1938, Sister made her first vows and before she knew it, she was in a classroom teaching little ones. Her first mission was St. Michael School in Munhall, PA where she taught 2nd and 3rd grades. After making her first vows, Sister DePaul was ready for anything and greatly enjoyed that first teaching mission.
For forty-nine years, Sister DePaul taught elementary grades in ten different schools. She earned a degree in Education at Duquesne University. Though she also took several courses in science so as to be able to teach high school students, she is happy to say that she stayed with the elementary grades teaching the little ones. The children always kept her entertained and Sister has many wonderful stories about her experiences as a teacher.
While teaching a third grade class, Sister was also helping in the church. She had a packet of matches in her pocket one day for lighting the candles in church. She noticed that the matches had fallen on the floor. Though she knew the matches to be her own, she joked with a nearby student, asking if they were his matches. To her surprise, he responded, “No Sister, I don’t use that kind”. He then informed her of how he and a friend went to smoke cigarettes every day except for Sunday (because, “it’s a holy day). They would buy the cigarettes, saying they were for a parent, and go to a bridge so that the smoke was quickly blown away in the wind. Needless to say, when the boy’s mother found out she was not very pleased and his smoking jaunts ended rather abruptly.
In another third grade class, Sister admonished the children for not being able to do a math assignment. She asked them, “Who taught you this math?”. They were quick to answer, “You did, Sister!”. Sister DePaul, who had indeed had the same students the year before in second grade, claimed she never taught them anything they were demonstrating. Their only excuse was that they forgot what she taught them while away from school over the summer.
While teaching in Ohio, Sister DePaul had a student named Janie who talked quite a bit. Sister tried moving her to different seats, sitting her next to different classmates to see if that would help the problem. One day, Janie was caught talking to her neighbor again and was told to move to another desk. Exasperated, Sister DePaul said, “I hope this is the last time”. Little Janie got settled in her new spot and said, “Oh thank you Sister! You put me by my best girlfriend!” Immediately, DePaul told Janie to bring her desk right next to her own; from now on, Janie would sit by Sister. Janie was quite pleased with this arrangement as well and Sister DePaul had to instruct her to keep her eyes on her own desk more than once.
Another memorable student of Sister DePaul’s was a little boy named Bobby. Sister recalls that he was quite needy. His mother had died giving birth and his father blamed him for his mother’s death so he didn’t want to see him. Bobby’s maternal aunt couldn’t have children of her own and was more than happy to take him in and raise him. However, she was extremely overprotective and as a result, Bobby didn’t know how to do a lot of things that other kids his age could do. When he entered Sister DePaul’s class in September he wouldn’t do any assignments or otherwise participate. Since he wasn’t disturbing anyone, DePaul suggested that his aunt leave him in the hopes that he would at least get socially adjusted. Finally, in March, he came to Sister and told her that he was ready to do his paper. He even “read” a book for her. She realized that he had simply memorized the story by listening to the other children read. He could recite the entire story without turning to the second page. Now that he was willing to do the work, Sister DePaul could teach him. His aunt was always very grateful to DePaul for her willingness to let Bobby stay and learn in his own time.
At St. Matthias School, Sister DePaul started a new music program in addition to her teaching responsibilities. She taught the children to play flutophones and to read music. Though no one believed she could do it, she had the children ready to participate in an area wide concert two months after starting the music program. A local company that sold instruments would let the children practice with them for free. When children exhibited talent with an instrument, the company recommended to the parish that they be given their own. Sister DePaul herself played the trumpet and remembers having to practice in the basement so as not to disturb anyone.
Sister DePaul celebrates her Silver Jubilee in Pittsburgh in June, 1963.
First row (L-R): Sisters Rita Osley, DePaul Zluky, Theophane Kuzma
Second row: Sisters Concepta Fudala, Innocent Lisi, Mary Grace Yesko
Third row: Sisters Adalbert Vandzura, Joan of Arc Midlo, Vivian Mitala
In the 1950s, Sister mentioned to Mother Ildephonse Manik that she was interested in doing mission work in Africa or South America. They told her that they would keep her in mind if any such missions were opened in the future. Ten years later, VSC leadership finally got back to her but instead of being missioned to a foreign country, Sister DePaul was sent to the southern United States: Alabama. She was assigned to Mother Mary Mission in Phenix. “I went there in 1965, the year they had those Freedom Riders…Mother Superior told us, when we get to Montgomery, give her a call because there’s so much trouble going on with the whites and the blacks.”
When Sister DePaul and her companion Sister Mildred Benedik traveled to Alabama, they went with Sister Julian Griffin, an African American Sister. She was about to make vows and it was decided that she could make them down South in Columbus, Georgia, Sister Julian’s hometown. Sister Julian was to stay with Sister Mildred in Montgomery for about a week to prepare to make her vows in Columbus.
About ten Sisters including Sisters DePaul, Mildred, and Julian, along with Sister Julian’s mother and grandfather, traveled on a school bus destined for Alabama. On the way, they stopped in Monett, Missouri to drop off two of the Sisters traveling with them. After leaving Monett to complete their journey to Alabama, Sister Julian’s mother needed to stop and get water to take medicine. The group stopped at a gas station to get water and gas for the bus. “As soon as she [Sister Julian] got out of the bus, that attendant ran right into the office, shut off the water, shut off the bathroom. You couldn’t do anything. And he looked at Sister and he says, ‘No gasoline’.” The group offered to pay with cash if the credit card wasn’t good. Because some of in the group were African Americans, the attendant refused them any service at all and told them to just get back on the bus and go. Sister DePaul got off the bus and got a drink from the vending machine to give to Sister Julian’s mother but they weren’t able to get any gasoline. Somehow they made it to another gas station. Because they didn’t have enough gas to make it anywhere else, they made sure to take precautions so as to prevent another scene like the one at the first gas station. Sister Julian and her mother and grandfather got down on the floor of the bus and covered themselves with a blanket so that this new gas station attendant wouldn’t know they were there. Because of this, they were able to get gasoline for the bus. The attendant walked around the vehicle but never saw the three in the back under the blanket. Finally, they made it safely to Montgomery.
The morning after delivering Sister Mildred and Sister Julian and her family safely to St. Jude in Montgomery, Sister DePaul and her companion continued on to Phenix, known as “Sin City, which was about ninety miles away. The Vincentians first came to the area in 1940. When they first arrived they lived in shacks and put nails in the walls to hang up their clothes. The Sisters missioned in Phenix in the early years arrived to find children running around the streets naked or nearly naked so they made sure to give them clothes. They often wrote to the Sisters back in Pennsylvania to ask for children’s clothing. When Sister DePaul arrived in Phenix twenty-five years later, the Sisters there had acquired better housing and built a school for the children. The Salvatorian Fathers came to join in the mission and they set about fixing up things. A school with four classrooms and a church right above the classrooms was built. Early on, the number of students was low; only a few dozen. By the time Sister DePaul joined the mission there were about 300 children enrolled in the school. All were welcome regardless of religious background. “We had in our whole school about twenty Catholic children. The rest of them were all Baptists, Methodists, or no religion at all. But they came for their education and they received it.”
Seven Sisters were responsible for the roughly 300 children at the school when Sister DePaul first began teaching at Mother Mary Mission. Initially, they had lay teachers as well. Teaching help also came from the Salvatorian Brothers who supplemented the teaching force of Sisters and laywomen.
DePaul taught first grade with 40 to 50 children in a classroom; somehow she managed all of them! The children in her classes were wonderful and the parents very helpful and grateful to the Sisters. All were very anxious to study and learn. Sometimes, the children’s parents had to be at work at 6:00am but they still made sure to get their children to school. They dropped them off at the convent at five o’clock in the morning. The Sisters were up to greet them. They put mats on the floor of the living room for them to sleep until it was time for school. At about 7:30am the Sisters woke them up, gave them breakfast, and sent them off to class. The students were also remarkably well behaved. For all the years she was in Alabama, Sister DePaul believes that only two boys got in real trouble.
One thing that DePaul had to get used to in her new mission was the Southern accent of her students. To her ears, they counted very quickly and she had a difficult time understanding them. So one day, she imitated them so they could understand what she heard and why she had a difficult time understanding. They thought her imitation was pretty amusing! On another occasion, the children kept asking her to “mash the button”. When she said no, they asked if they could mash the button. Sister responded, “Oh, no, you’re not mashing no kind of button. I’m only here two days … do you want Father to get me out of school [for mashing buttons]?” The students gave up on their request and a few minutes later, one piped up saying, “Sister, I can’t see. I can’t see the board”. Sister asked why no one had said anything before and the children said, “We’ve been trying to tell you to mash the button!” The whole time they had been asking DePaul to turn on the light! Sister had to get used to the Southern accent as well as phrases such as “mash the light” and “cut out the light”.
Sister DePaul never developed a Southern accent despite her many years in Alabama. On the contrary, she says that she turned all of her students into Northerners. When they said words such as “door” or “four” without pronouncing the “Rs” at the end she lectured them on proper pronunciation. “Put that R on the end,” she told them. In the chapel one day, the eighth graders were by the altar helping Father Jerome Jacobs with the singing. They sang the word “over” and pronounced it “o-vah”. All of Sister DePaul’s first graders looked to her and pointed laughing to the students at the altar. This left Father very confused. He came over to Sister and quietly asked her what was going on. She informed him that the eighth graders didn’t properly pronounce the word “over” and the first graders noticed!
On one occasion, Phenix got fourteen inches of snow. School was out for about three days. Sister DePaul convinced her students to go outside and play in the snow where they made snow angels and a small snowman. However, these children from the South weren’t as accustomed to snowy weather as Sister DePaul was. They were ready to come back inside long before DePaul was!
One day, when her students weren’t listening very well, Sister DePaul said she was going to go back to Pittsburgh. She grabbed her bag and began to walk towards the door, telling the children that she might as well go if they weren’t going to listen. Every one of them quickly stood up and she asked them what they were doing. They promptly replied that they were going with her to Pittsburgh!
Unfortunately, racism was still a major issue in Alabama in the 1960s and 1970s. DePaul experienced segregation firsthand on many occasions. African Americans had to get off the sidewalk if a white person was also walking on the sidewalk. On one occasion such as this, Sister DePaul told the man that there was plenty of room for both of them on the sidewalk but he continued to walk in the street. A similar experience was waiting in line at the bank. African Americans were supposed to get in the back of the line if any white persons came into the bank. When a man went to the back of the line after Sister DePaul walked into the bank, she told him that she could wait, that he had been there before her. His response was simply, “I don’t mind Sister”.
Hospitals only provided room for African Americans in basements. When black people went to the doctor’s office, they had to wait in the furnace room for all of the white patients to be seen. Only then would the doctor would examine them; regardless of the severity of each person’s medical ailments. On more than one occasion, this led to an African American dying before they received medical attention because they were waiting for all of the white patients to be seen first.
At the store one day, Sister DePaul was behind a woman who bought three items and paid with a $10 bill. Sister noticed that the store clerk only gave the woman change for a $5 bill. DePaul stood up for the woman and insisted that she be given proper change. She then recommended that the woman, who hadn’t even known she was being treated unfairly, pay for small orders with only $5 bills.
Sister eventually decided to get her driver’s license and took driving lessons. When she took her test to get her license in Phenix she did very well on everything (except parallel parking, “I was about a block away from the sidewalk”). She asked the police officer if she could try parallel parking again and on the second try she parked perfectly. She passed her test and the officer was about to give her the paper permit that she could carry until she received her license about a week later. As he was filling out the information on the permit, he asked her what kind of work she did. She responded that she was a teacher and he asked her where. When she told him that she worked at Mother Mary Mission School, a school for African American children, he tore up the paper permit and said she wouldn’t be getting a license that day; she could try again next year. Despite doing very well on her test, Sister DePaul was refused a license because of her connections to the African American community. That summer, while working in Montgomery, she took the driver’s test again and finally got her license without any issues. She drove around in Alabama for thirty years but when she came back to Pittsburgh and saw the many cars she said, “No driving!”.
Perhaps the worst example of prejudice during the Sisters’ time in Alabama occurred before Sister DePaul got there but she heard about it from Sister Maryann McCall after the fact. In the early 1940s, the Sisters at Mother Mary Mission learned that members of the Ku Klux Klan were going to come to the school and burn crosses in protest of the Sisters teaching African American children and otherwise helping them and their families. “In the meantime, the black men, the black people found out they were coming. So they all…got together to take care of the grounds.” About 100 armed men stood guard when the KKK arrived with their crosses. “As soon as they were … coming out of the cars, and getting the crosses ready, these men all jumped up…They were ready to kill them, ready to take care of them. So the Ku Kluxers got back into their cars, got back their crosses and left the grounds. Nothing happened that night and they never came back again.”
Sister Julian experienced similar problems of prejudice in Georgia. When she was missioned in Savannah, Georgia she couldn’t find anywhere to stay. Even various communities of women religious refused to let her stay with them because she was an African American. When a group of Irish Sisters met her, they asked where she was staying and she had to tell them she was staying in an apartment because there was nowhere else. The Irish Sisters, “had a house but they only had…five bedrooms in the house and five Sisters. But they had one room they were going to use for storage.” When these Sisters learned that Sister Julian was staying alone, they quickly cleaned out the storage room and offered it to her. Sister Julian had finally found a community to live with while she was in Savannah.
When some students from Phenix City were ready for their Confirmation, there weren’t enough black students to have a separate ceremony. One ceremony was offered at Holy Family Church for both black and white Confirmation candidates. The white people all sat in pews at the front of the church while the last four pews in the back of the church were saved for the black people. All were dressed in their finest in honor of the occasion. The white people were confirmed followed by the black people. “When they [the African Americans] left the church, eight ladies jumped up, ran to the back, to the sacristy, got buckets of water and soap and washed all the seats and chairs where the blacks were sitting.”
Back in Sister DePaul’s first grade classroom, Sister Julian’s nephew, Percy, was a student. Having known him since he was very young, Sister DePaul had spoiled the boy and let him get away with a lot. He was used to being quite a source of entertainment and liked to stir up a little trouble for amusement. One day, Sister DePaul was having a difficult time getting him to quit his antics and pay attention. Finally, she took him out in the hall, rapped him on the head once with the palm of her hand, and said, “Don’t you ever do that again”. Thoroughly chastised and very serious, Percy returned to his desk and sat quietly the rest of the day; a model student. When he went home, his mother asked how his day was. He hung his head and solemnly declared, “She whooped me”. He wouldn’t say anything else about the matter. Though she had only mildly rebuked the boy, Percy took very seriously the fact that dear Sister DePaul had scolded him.
In the next decade, the Salvatorian’s lawyer in charge of the finances, “…put the whole community into a 17-million-dollar debt”. Several schools in the community had to close. Only two schools in the area remained open, one of which was Mother Mary Mission. The Sisters and students worked to raise money to keep the school open. For three years they worked to raise $45,000. Sister DePaul was always writing late into the night to different organizations and foundations asking for financial assistance. They eventually received a grant of $150,000 from the Bradley Foundation. Combined with the $45,000 that they raised, they had enough to keep the school open.
After twenty-one years of teaching at Mother Mary Mission in Alabama, Sister DePaul changed from teaching to social work. She and the other Sisters ran a rummage shop with donated clothes for the poor. At first they simply gave the clothes away to the needy but people would tease them saying that they hadn’t even paid for the clothes they were wearing. So the priest in charge of the mission instructed the Sisters to charge a small amount of money for the clothes so that the people could say they had paid for them. They charged a penny, a nickel, a quarter for different things and if ever anyone couldn’t afford the small price the Sisters simply gave them the clothes they needed. The money they earned was spent to help the mission buy more food so that it always benefitted the people.
Some clothing donations that the Sisters were offered didn’t seem fit to be worn. In one instance, a woman brought twenty pairs of socks to donate but Sister DePaul said she wouldn’t even put them on her feet. She told the woman that she couldn’t take the socks because they were in such sad shape. The woman wasn’t dissuaded, however. She promised Sister that she need only wait and see how good those socks could look. She brought them back two days later and they looked brand new! When Sister asked her how she got her whites so white, the woman responded with instructions to wash them in cold water first with some Clorox. Then wash them in hot water. Sister DePaul took that recommendation to heart and always washes her whites that way. “Sometimes some of the Sisters from… Kentucky, three of them, they says, ‘Who washes your blouses?’. I says, ‘I do… why?’ ‘They’re so white!’”
The Sisters also helped the African American community by giving people rides to different places whenever they needed one. Sister DePaul took them to places like the grocery store, the doctor, and she ran errands to get other things that were needed. Many of the ladies in Alabama used snuff. Sister would pick up things at the store for one lady, Mrs. Anthony, already 99 years old. Mrs. Anthony always requested peach snuff. One time when Sister DePaul went to the counter to pay for Mrs. Anthony’s snuff, the girl said to her, “Sister, you still at it?”. DePaul replied that the snuff wasn’t hers but the girl at the counter simply responded, “that’s what they all say”.
Each year Sister DePaul only left Alabama to make her retreat followed by a week’s vacation with her family in the summer. “Someone always had to be down there ‘cause [we] had to take care of the sick, the poor. There was always someone by the door asking for food or something.” Not to mention, when she was away with her family or on retreat she would miss her “little old ladies” that she cared for and helped.
She feels that the Sisters’ ministry in Alabama helped the people there quite a bit. She recounted a story of Sister Clarence Kominak, a nurse, who went to Alabama in the 1940s. She would take her bag of supplies and go out to care for the people; often walking long distances to get to them. On one of these outings, she was tired and decided to flag down the next car that she saw to give her a ride so that she didn’t have to walk all the way back. The first car that she saw ended up being a police car. When Sister Clarence stopped him to ask for a ride, the officer asked where her arms were. She held out her arms and said, “Why, they’re right here!”. The officer told her, no, not those arms, he meant: where were her weapons? She had to explain to him that she came to help the people, not hurt them. He then told her how it was very common for people to be killed or injured in the area. A change seemed to be occurring however, “since you girls came down here, we don’t have that much work like we used to”. The effect of the Sisters was being noticed.
After thirty three years in Alabama, Sister DePaul returned to St. Louise to retire. She really enjoyed her years in Alabama and found them to be very rewarding. “I mean, the faith those people have… Sometimes I don’t think some of the Northerners invoke God’s help like those black people down there… They’re grateful for everything and anything you do for them. We had wonderful people there. Never had any trouble with them. In fact, you learned from them how to suffer a little bit more… we always had everything and they had nothing. And yet they were always so happy in spite of it.” Her students went on to pursue careers as teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers, and other remarkable fields. “It is a privilege to serve the poor. I have learned much from their faith in God, and have much to be grateful for in my ministry.” It was a lot of hard work but she enjoyed every minute of it and missed it after she returned to Pittsburgh.
Sister DePaul enjoyed all of her missions, especially teaching. She taught for a total of forty-nine years, twenty-five of which were spent teaching first grade. Upon her return to St. Louise she volunteered to help in the mail room but she has now retired from that role as well. Today she is a master at completing puzzles which are framed and grace the walls of St. Louise. She also crochets towels which are sold in the gift shop at Vincentian Home. Sister crochets mats for the homeless out of recycled grocery bags as well. She has made two of these large mats and is also making smaller ones for soldiers to use on the floor of their showers. Religious life is what you put into it. “You put yourself in, I mean, your whole heart and soul… if you don’t, you’ll never succeed… It’s all up to you – one individual. If I was younger, I’d go back again!”
Interviewed by Kelly McDaniels, Archivist