Sister Julie Zilka
Interviewed by Sharon Cecil
June 21, 2016

In the beginning, when God created the heaven and the earth, God had already envisioned the sacred marriage of a young, handsome, brown-haired, blue-eyed lad from Eastern Europe to a lovely blonde, blue-eyed, strong-willed young maiden of the age of sixteen, also from Eastern Europe. They met for the first time here in the Promised Land of America in an old coal mining town of Berlin, in south central Pennsylvania. It was love at first sight. Stars were in their eyes and they began to “REACH FOR THE STARS”, Ad astare per aspere.”

About six months after becoming acquainted, they were united in Holy Matrimony in a small nearby Roman Greek Catholic Rite Church, Saint Gregory in MacDonald, Pennsylvania. The coal mining community had begun to flourish with new Slovak immigrants. They loved the surrounding mountains and valleys that reminded them of the beautiful Tatra Mountains of their homeland that they sadly left behind to find newness of life in this New World. God blessed this newlywed couple saying to them, “BE FERTILE AND MULTIPLY”. Therefore, George and Julia obeyed God’s command and did so. Subsequently, they journeyed on to and did REACH FOR THE STARS, BUT WITH MUCH DIFFICULTY! God showered them with thirteen children, yes, thirteen STARS!

Dad was a coal miner and after he left the mines the family moved to Monessen, Pennsylvania. It was here that he worked in the steel mills. Mom suffered with arthritis therefore she did not work out of the home. She had a challenging task of caring for their thirteen children.

My parents’ first-born son, John, was soon taken to the Lord at the age of two and a half during the “Great Flu Era”. Soon came Anna, followed by George, Mary, Julie(died of consumption at age of twenty one),Cyril, Helen, Andy, Veronica(died as a baby), Joseph, Agnes and then last but not least…THE UNEXPECTED…you guessed it, ‘’TWINS”!! And what a memorial and auspicious day it was!

Sister Julie playing bells with Sister DePaul Zluky and Sister Mary Ruth Sedlak

Right in the midst of the coldest wintry of months February, there was a small bungalow cottage nestled deep in snow along with the ice covered roads leading up to the highest of Monessen hills in “Uptown Monessen”. Three women came trudging into the cottage with their large black satchels and the “instruments for birth”. First was the midwife, Mrs. Babinsky, and then her two assistants, Mrs. Suchy and Mrs. Kovalsky . Time was near, first came the hearty and healthy boy, he was soon bundled and thrown gently into the “perina”(feathered bed) and some minutes later the baby girl who was not breathing even after being spanked. So the assistant, Mrs. Suchy, took this lifeless child and quickly opened her mouth and kept on breathing into this tiny mouth over and over again. She tells the story in her Slovak language: “Ya dychala, a ya dychala, a dychala. Lo and behold I gave you life”.

My mother, hearing that there were twins, a boy and a girl, and also there were some difficulties, said, “SAVE THE BOY, SAVE THE BOY, LEAVE THE GIRL ALONE!” Mrs. Suchy had already had the boy safely bundled and in the “perina”. She told me I did not listen to your mother, who was thinking like a good Slovak woman of culture about carrying on the family name, “I gave you life!”

And Mrs. Suchy continued to vigorously tell the tale down through the ages! Thinking that the weak little baby girl may not live long, the doctor and priest were called immediately. Guess who came first in this treacherous weather? Father Kitz, the pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Church arrived to baptize the babies and then Doctor Skirpan came. God blessed this marriage doubly to make the number of children thirteen.

“AD ASTARE PER ASPARA”…TO THE STARS, BUT WITH DIFFICULTY!” What about the names? The boy was named after the deceased first-born, John. Father Kitz wanted the girl to be named after the second child, Anna, whom he had married a year before my birth. My parents wanted the name to be Irene Ann. However, honoring the wishes of the priest, I was baptized Anna Irene, but my birth certificate says Irene Ann, my official name.

Soon all the children who were at home at this time, were lined up according to seniority to view the newborn twins and with great delight my brother Cyril seeing the tiny baby girl said, “SHE LOOKS LIKE A BABY DOLL, LET’S CALL HER DOLLY”. To this day family members still call me Dolly.

(I remember fighting a lot with my twin brother. We were the youngest of the thirteen children.)

Yet, another name was to be given this special girl later in life. On July 4, 1953, Bishop John Francis Dearden said, “IN RELIGION YOU WILL BE CALLED SISTER MARY JULIA”. On August 15, 1958, Sister Mary Julia made perpetual vows. She shares, “ My parents were very religious and were happy that I went to the convent. However, other family members and friends wanted me to get married and to have children.”

I went to Holy Name of Jesus grade school for all grades except the fourth grade. I was a sickly child and would not eat at school so I transferred to a public school near my home. That way I could go home for lunch each day. I went to Monessen Public High School. My brothers, sisters and I often had to trudge through the snow to get to school.

Sister Robertine Ujlaky, my sixth grade teacher, was very kind to all the children. Since I was in the first grade I wanted to be a Sister, and Sister Robertine was so kind she helped to foster my vocation. I was afraid of Sister Hermana Kopco, my eighth grade teacher. She was strict and had a whip she used on the bad children. She told me to tell my parents that my brother John was bad and I did. My Dad also whipped him. Today, however, John is a loving and caring father of two children and three grandchildren. Most of my brothers and sisters have married.

Sister Julie and Sister John Gabriel Kostelnik playing bingo.

My Novice Mistress, Sister Ildephonse Manik, was very strict. My novitiate years were ones of hard work such as helping to prepare food. On Fridays I had to scrub the corners of the floors on my knees. Sister Ildephonse did take time to teach me about my vows and spiritual reading.

My first mission in August, 1955 was as an aide in Vincentian Nursing Home in Pittsburgh. It was a challenging task working with the patients.

My teaching career in elementary education began in August,1956 at Saint Matthew School in Pittsburgh; through the years I taught at various schools in Pennsylvania and Missouri. I especially enjoyed my years as a second grade teacher at Saint Denis School in Versailles, because I got to prepare children for their First Communion. This was a very enriching time for me too.

A challenging mission was when I was assigned as principal of Saint Catherine School in Wildwood, Pennsylvania. The school was on the verge of closing because of low enrollment. Franciscan Sisters had been teaching in the school but were being called to other places. The Bishop contacted our Mother Superior and said since we had closed a school elsewhere, he wanted us to staff the school. I was assigned as principal and two other Sisters were sent to teach in the school. We were able to keep the school operating for three years. Then the Diocese closed the school due to low enrollment.

I moved into a new ministry in 1978 as a CCD Coordinator. Although this was new to me I felt like the things I had learned as a principal helped me in this position. I later began taking classes and became Director of Religious Education which I continued for twenty years.

After over sixty years of Religious Life, I am truly and firmly convinced that this gift of a religious vocation is a great gift from God and it is God’s Will for me for which I am utterly grateful. Being a teacher in Catholic Schools for many years and a Director of Religious Education in four different dioceses, my life has been fulfilling yet challenging. God is still not finished with me.

Sister Julie and other Jubilarians in Sacred Heart Chapel.
Back row L-R: Sisters Charlotte Gambol, Maurice Wayda, and Mary Kenneth Hrbal
Middle row L-R: Sisters Vincent O’Neill, Annette Kasper, Barbara Makar, Julia Zilka, and Antoinette Kostelnik
Front row L-R: Sisters Mary Jude Milko and Anne Kremenik

Particular prayer experiences throughout my life have been spiritually uplifting. A retreat I recently made was very good and I still continue to use materials I received at the retreat. Today my ministry is one of prayer and I pray for everyone God challenges me to continue to evangelize the residents in our wonderful Villa de Marillac Nursing Home. To those interested in Religious Life, I say, “Pray, pray earnestly to know if this is what you want to be and what God wants you to be. You will not regret it. Trust in God and He will lead you to what His plans are for you. And count any scars along the way as STARS. LOVE THE STARS! LOVE GOD!”

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