Follow the path of Faustina on her journey to sainthood. Award-winning author and historian Dr. Ewa Czaczkowska tenaciously pursued Faustina to ultimately produce a biography that ... Read more
She Was the 'Favorite'
The following excerpt is from the Marian Press title Faustina: The Mystic and Her Message, by Ewa Czaczkowska. The excerpt looks into the younger years of Helen Kowalska, whom we know today as St. Maria Faustina Kowalska.
The Kowalski children began working at a young age. They took the cows out to pasture, looked after their younger siblings, and helped their parents in the fields. This was the typical lot of village children. All agricultural labor was done manually; grain was reaped with a sickle and threshed with a tool called a flail that consisted of a wooden staff with a short, heavy stick swinging from it. Fortunate was the family who owned a horse to help with the most burdensome tasks. When the Kowalski family had their horse confiscated by soldiers during the First World War, they couldn't afford to buy another one, so they harnessed their cow to the plow. Helen's brothers would help with the threshing when they were only 9 years old.
Helen, too, had responsibilities — not just in the house caring for the younger children, but also taking the cows out to pasture. A neighbor of the Kowalskis, Sophia Olejniczak, described how little Helen "would read books" while grazing the cows "and liked to talk about what she had read." Sister Faustina, on the other hand, recalled years later that she had helped harrow the fields using a plough-like implement — an arduous task for a teenage girl. Nonetheless, she followed all of her parents' instructions obediently, as attested by both her mother and siblings. "She was happy to do any task, and never refused anyone anything," recalled her mother. Helen's sister Natalia Grzelak (Olszynska by her first marriage), three years her junior, confirms, "She was glad to do any type of work, and was cheerful and agreeable, and devout at the same time; our parents loved her perhaps the most of all the children, and pointed her out as an example."
Marianna Kowalska said that Helen was "the favorite and the best of the children." According to her siblings, she was lively and merry like her father, who favored her among the other children for that very reason. Stanislaus Kowalski, Helen's brother, claimed that his father liked her because she was the most obedient. "We didn't envy her for having won our father's heart, because we knew that that was only fair. Her advice to us was, 'Be obedient, too, and Father will love you just as much.'" Helen's mother, however, remembered things differently. "The children would hit and bully her because she was in Daddy and Mommy's good graces." Indeed, her father must have trusted Helen greatly, as she knew where he kept his shotgun, while neither his eldest daughter nor any of his sons did.
Helen sometimes paid the piper for her siblings because when the children would play pranks, they would run off, while she stayed and didn't even try to make excuses. "She was good, always kind, cheerful and kindly disposed towards them; she never got angry," wrote Sr. Wilczek of Helen's relations with her siblings. Helen was a sensitive, intelligent child. "Oh, you merciful baba [old woman]!" the children would jest when Helen took pity on a suffering hen or dog. She once put on some of her mother's old clothes and went begging in the village, all the while saying her prayers; she gave what she collected to the parish priest so he could distribute it to the poor. This was also what she intended to do with the earnings from a raffle, for which she made toys out of paper and rags.
In 1917, Helen started attending the school that had just opened in Swinice. No traces of the school building remain. It stood near the church on the road to Łeczyca. Twelve-year-old Helen already knew how to read. Her father had taught her. "Only Father and Berezinski could read; they subscribed to magazines," remembered Natalia who, like the other children, was proud that her father was one of the only two people in Głogowiec who had mastered the art of reading. It is not known whether there were magazines at the Kowalskis' house during the horrendous years of wartime poverty, or whether they only appeared later. There were, however, religious books that Helen would read while grazing the cows in the meadow behind her house. Helen attended school for nearly three years. In 1919 or 1920, she left school just like the other older pupils. The school administration decided that she should cede her place to younger children. "Though she went to school for a short time ... she knew a whole lot and wanted to teach others," recalled Natalia about Helen. "She could tell us and the other village children about all sorts of things, but spoke most often about the lives of the saints, and she would also teach us our prayers."
Helen had both good and bad memories from school. One of the good memories, which was part of the Kowalski family lore, was when she received a prize for reciting a poem during the official visit of the school inspector. One of the bad ones was the humiliation she experienced at the hands of two schoolgirls who did not want to sit at the same school bench with her because of her shabby attire. The schoolteacher, a certain Mr. Łazinski, noticing Helen's tears, supposedly said, "It doesn't matter if you are more poorly dressed; you are still the better student." Marianna Kowalska remembered that the teacher praised her daughter with great enthusiasm, saying, "I should say that Mrs. Kowalski's child is the best. She never complains."
From early childhood, Helen had extraordinary spiritual experiences. She had visions. She told her siblings, for example, that the Mother of God appeared to her in her dreams. She saw her looking beautiful while walking in the garden of Eden. She also saw a brightness, an unparalleled radiance, the light of God. Marianna Kowalska recalled the conversation she had with 13-year-old Helen, who said she saw a light when she woke up at night. "Where's it at, then? Are you stupid? You're just seeing things and talking nonsense," her mother chided. But Helen would wake up with a start in the night and sit up in bed. She would pray. "You'll lose your mind from not sleeping and waking up so suddenly. Go to sleep!" her mother scolded her. "But no, Mommy, it's probably an angel that's waking me so that I don't sleep, so that I would pray," she responded.
This must have happened many times, because Marianna Kowalska recalls that Helen, who would be sleepy during the day, would ask whether she could take a nap, to which her mother did not always agree.
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