Sometimes you are given a gift but don’t realize just how special it really is. The gift may be something you received a long time ago, or perhaps it simply blends in so well that you hardly realize it is there. The gift could be an heirloom of unrealized value, which has always been in your family, passed down through the generations. Or the gift could be a person, a person who somehow exhibits all of these traits. For nearly five decades, St. Basil Parish in Edmonton has had just such a gift — Sister Petronella Dybka, SSMI.
Back in 1967, St. Basil celebrated the completion of the new parish complex consisting of the church, a large monastery and the significant Cultural Centre. Moving from an extremely small parish hall — which was in fact the original St. Anthony’s Church, now on display at Fort Edmonton Park — to the Cultural Centre was an almost unbelievable blessing. In addition to the main hall, which could seat some 700 people, there would now be dedicated rooms for the youth of the parish and, significantly, a children’s kindergarten.
With the both the moral and financial support of the St. Basil’s Ukrainian Catholic Women’s League (UCWL), a sadochok — little garden — program was established. Sister Petronella agreed to be the teacher of the 24 children who had enrolled. Eventually the program expanded to include classes for three-, four- and five-year-olds, all benefitting from this unassuming woman who has dedicated her life to building the church.
This is not to say that Sister Petronella is not appreciated. Lena Sloboda, honorary life member of the UCWL, is eager to let people know just what Sister Petronella has contributed to St. Basil over half a century.
“We all know that the development and growth of a parish depends on the formation of its children. It is evident that Sister Petronella’s apostolic work and service among the children did much to assist the efforts of our parish pastors in the development and growth of our parish.”
Mrs. Sloboda notes that St. Basil’s sadochok program provides fertile ground for future enthusiastic parishioners. “We observe that children who attend sadochok classes continue with church programs. We see them serve as altar boys, enter Children of Mary. Later, they take an active part in the parish. Their establishment in the parish begins with sadochok. We now see how the program has influenced the mothers who were in sadochok; they are now bringing their children to sadochok.”
Katherine Bily is one of those now bringing a second generation to benefit from Sister Petronella’s spiritual guidance. “Thirty-three years ago, I was a student in Sister Petronella’s four-year-old sadochok program, and I looked forward to seeing my friends two mornings every week. She taught us how to sing Ukrainian folk songs, how to count in Ukrainian, and even a few dance steps. We practiced for the Christmas and Mother’s Day concerts and waved to our parents in the audience. We wore costumes for the concerts — angels, shepherds, elves, snowflakes — and Sister Petronella told us that, on stage, singing for Jesus, we truly were angels! Today I have a daughter in Sister Petronella’s four-year-old sadochok program. Her classmates are also children of Sister’s former students. Now I get to watch her on the same stage, in the same costumes, singing the same songs to Jesus.” The sadochok Christmas concert remains a highlight of the annual parish calendar.
While the sadochok program is a remarkable accomplishment in itself, Sister Petronella did not hesitate to take on more duties when asked. From 1968 until 1997 she assumed the responsibility of preparing St. Basil’s children to receive the first solemn holy eucharist. During that time she taught some 1,800 children. Sister also prepared first communicants in the two rural parishes of Calmar and Thorsby. For 15 years beginning in 1983, she served as catechist for the annual St. Basil summer camp at Pigeon Lake. That same year, Sister was given even more responsibility as spiritual director of St. Basil’s Children of Mary, a program for girls aged five to 12. At regular meetings, the girls learn about their faith and Ukrainian traditions. Divine liturgies are regularly enhanced with their presence in veils and blue capes.
Each of those girls has a special story to tell about how Sister Petronella has influenced her life. Victoria Kostyniuk is one of them. “Sister has always been a huge role model in my life. She always encourages me to be a leader in our church community. From nurturing my love for Ukrainian dance and culture, to leading the Children of Mary choir, Sister has always supported me, no matter what. I can’t thank her enough for doing so.”
No one is certain just how many children have been influenced by Sister Petronella over the years, but the number is certainly in the thousands. Equally immeasurable is the contribution these children have made to the church in their adult years.
Today, Sister Petronella’s warmth, deep spirituality, kindness and joy attract children, as they have for nearly 50 years — a remarkable achievement by this hidden treasure.
Kostyniuk, who lives in Edmonton, has a bachelor of theology from Newman and is a freelance writer. He and his wife Bev have been married for 37 years and have eight grandchildren.