Florence Marcinko was born on a cold wintry day, the second of February, 1928—the feast of the Purification-Candlemas Day—the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the temple. Sister Eileen writes, “I was an answer to my mother’s prayers.” Florence, (Sister Eileen) was born on her mother’s thirty-fourth birthday. Florence was told that when her mother first held her, in her joy she offered her to God. God took her mother at her word and eighteen years later— to her parent’s dismay, on the very same day, February second, 1946, she entered the novitiate of the Vincentian Sisters of Charity.
Florence’s mother was Elizabeth Racho, born in1894, and her father was Paul Marcinko was born in 1893. Her mother’s birthplace was Hazleton, PA. Her father was born in Wilkes Barre, PA, was raised in Europe, and returned to this country in 1910. Her mother was Greek Catholic.
Elizabeth had a first marriage at age sixteen and was a World War I widow at age eighteen. She had one son, Joe Dropcik. Elizabeth, herself, had family in the United States and came to this country in 1920. She was indentured to a priest. She was a professional housekeeper and worked for a Jewish family for two years. Florence’s father, likewise, had a first marriage, but his wife died after six years. Paul was left to care for his three children.
A marriage was arranged between Elizabeth and Paul. (Today this is called a “blended” family with four children from two different sets of parents.) This beginning family was composed of Paul’s children, age four, six, eight and Elizabeth’s one, Joe, age eight. Paul and Elizabeth had three more children. The names of all are: Big Joe Dropchik, Helen, John, Joseph (Joey), Paul, Jr., Florence and Tim (Thomas) Marcinko.
Sister Eileen grew up in a Catholic and Greek Catholic neighborhood in Munhall, Pennsylvania. She remembers her mother and the women of that neighborhood gathering to quilt and to share friendship and conversation among themselves. Her mother knew all the Jewish Holidays and what the traditions were. Elizabeth‘s life had certainly been enriched by exposure to different cultures.
Her father was a rigger at US steel and cleaned the big chimneys. Sister Eileen said that they knew when the unions had represented the steel workers because her father came home cleaner. The union had negotiated the installation of showers for the workers. She and her mother still had to wash the dirty clothes her father wore, but her father did not have coal dust on his person. The laundry process started with soaking the clothes on Sunday night, Monday washing, Tuesday ironing. Wednesday patching and sewing, Thursday baking, Friday, clean the top of the house, and Saturday, the lower part of the house.
Sister Eileen was introduced to the Vincentian Sisters in 1935. Her grade school, with eighth graders divided into boy and girl classes, was a very strict Catholic school. Sister Columba Mihalek, who later became Frances Louise, (Frannie Lou), was her wonderful eighth grade teacher. Sister Columba was not as strict as others and allowed the girls to wear knee socks and gave them more freedom in their dress. The eighth graders went to the Motherhouse for retreat and Florence was very impressed with the Academy girls. She decided that she wanted to go to the Academy. Her parents were opposed, but her big brother said,” Let her go.” He believed that she would not last very long and would come back home.
Sister Eileen now remembers that being at the Academy was a hard adjustment. She was so homesick, but it did get easier. She began to enjoy the all girls’ school. In fact, it got so easy and attractive that she joined the VSC Community. She entered on her eighteenth birthday. The hardest thing she had to give up was her pretty clothes. She says, “wearing all that black” was so depressing. In her years as a Sister, she has gone through five changes of habit. She was grateful for the years of learning to sew, since Sisters made their habits and other clothing.
After making vows in 1948, she taught elementary school for six years. During these years, she took classes from Duquesne University. She received her BA in Education in 1958; by 1967 she had her Masters in American History, also from Duquesne. During these years, she taught all elementary school grades and by 1968 she would begin teaching all high school grades.
From 1963 to 1965, her ministry was in Montgomery, AL where she taught history, English, religion, social studies and was the liaison for the student council at St Jude’s High School (Catholic). St. Jude Educational Institute was a private, Roman Catholic high school in Montgomery, Alabama, United States. It was located in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mobile, and was built as part of the City of St. Jude by Father Harold Purcell for the advancement of the Negro people. St. Jude was opened in 1946 and offered a full college preparatory program as well as basic skills and trade programs at night for adults.
She was there during the famous Selma to Montgomery march to register voters in Alabama in 1965. The marchers stayed on the campus of the City of St Jude. The Vincentian Sisters allowed them to use the facilities and some of the marchers were treated at the their Hospital emergency room for injuries sustained during the 54 mile walk….walking for 12 hours a day and sleeping in fields along the way.
The “Stars for Freedom” rally was held, featuring singers Harry Belafonte, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Tony Bennett, and comedian Sammy Davis Jr. The campus was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, and is part of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, created in 1996.
Sister Eileen wondered, “What did I know about segregation?” While attending a meeting of local student councils from St Jude’s, George Washington Carver, and Booker T Washington High Schools, she learned what is was to be a minority. Those in attendance, teachers, high school students, and high school staff were all African American, she was the only white attendee. All participants were very polite and she felt no discrimination from them.
There was a one year stint as a Novice Director and then nine years as secondary school teacher. In 1969, she served as a Coordinator for the House in Johnstown, PA, and taught US history at Bishop McCort High School. She returned to teach at Vincentian Academy for six years. In 1984, she became Junior Directress and Vocation Director at the VSC Motherhouse for four years.
Her first year as Coordinator in Johnstown was the first year that the Vincentian Sisters would have to take turns doing their own cooking. Before there were older sisters who would do the cooking for a house. Some Sisters knew how to cook, but Sister Eileen was not one of those. Learning to manage the cooking was a new experience and Sister Agatha Ferenchak helped with her new found chore. This new chore helped to turn Sister Eileen into a “gourmet cook.” Cooking for 10 Sisters was quite a challenge and making sure you did not waste any food or make meals unappetizing for the house was an even larger challenge. Each summer when returning to the Motherhouse campus, Sister Eileen would cook for the priests on campus for three weeks. She delighted in making meals for them and testing new recipes. Her motto has been, “cook simply and serve elegantly.” She still has a Redemptorist priest friend who remembers her good cooking and keeps in touch on holidays.
Sister Eileen made the decision that it was time for no more secondary teaching for her. She served in St Lawrence Grade School in Monett, Missouri from 1988-1993. Altogether Sister Eileen served God’s people for forty years, twenty years in elementary school and twenty in high school. She had taught in all grades, one through twelve. Her next mission was to be a part of the formation team for five years.
After that ministry she served for eighteen years as parish secretary and charity coordinator in Wauchula, Florida. Sister Eileen worked with the Redemptorist priests at St Michael’s, which was the only Catholic parish in the county. There were, however, two Spanish mission churches within the parish boundaries. At St. Michael’s she served with Sister Barbara Makar, pastoral minister, Sister Bernice Rechtorek, catechetical minister, and, and Sister Mildred Minosky. St Michael’s has a large congregation in the winter where there are twelve RV parks with the “snowbirds”, (persons coming just for the winter) swelling the resident parish attendance.
Sister Eileen reflects on her life missions, “As a child I went to St Michael’s School in Munhall, Pennsylvania, my first assignment was St Michael’s School in Braddock, PA and I feel I have come full circle: ending at St Michael Church in Wauchula, FL. It is with confidence and trust in the Lord that I rise to meet the challenges of each day.”
Sister Eileen is also proud of her niece Eileen Marcinko, who as a Vincentian Academy freshman in 1966 and entered the Voice for America contest. She placed second in the State competition and won a full scholarship to University of Pittsburgh.
Sister Eileen has retired to St Louise Convent….but still is active and interested in everything……
Sister Eileen will have been here at Lourdes Hall on May 12 for six years— she has read 115 books and pieced innumerable puzzles. She is currently reading a book on Woodrow Wilson— 750 pages and loving it! (What else would a retired history teacher love to do?)
Interviewed by Mary Gene Frank, SCNA
Comments by the interviewer are in italics
March 30, 2017