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Ruth’s promise pays off

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As enemy planes flew overhead strafing everything below, a young Ruth Kobylanski huddled with her sister and made a promise to God: If she survived the horror of this war she would “repay” Him in some way.

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Her efforts to keep her promise were acknowledged recently when she was named a Dame of the Order of St Gregory the Great, in honour of her 61 years volunteering at the Hutt St Centre.

“I wasn’t doing it (volunteering) because I had to do it – I was doing it because I enjoyed it,” said Ruth, who will turn 91 later this month.

“Just to see them (the clients) come and thank you… and when my husband died it became my outing and I knew I could always go to Hutt St. They are like my extended family.”

Her decision back in 1957 to offer her services to assist the homeless coming into the Hutt St Centre was, in part, her way of thanking God for enabling her to survive as a child growing up in Poland during World War II.

“The war was very hard, we lost everything in 10 minutes,” she explained.

“The Germans kicked us out of our house and we went to live with my Grandma. I was hungry and we suffered a lot.

“When I came here I was always thinking about these poor people sleeping in the parklands as during the war I slept in the cemetery with my sister for weeks because that’s where we were sure no one would come to find us.”

Ruth recalled a time when enemy planes came in low and bullets flew around the sisters, with one narrowly missing her.

“I remember I promised God then that if I get out alright from the war, I will repay what I received. And I’m still there at Hutt St Centre, repaying, but I’ve loved it,” she said.

With her survival instincts kicking in during the war, Ruth told of being sent at the age of 13 to work on a farm in Bavaria – little did she know at the time that would be the last time she saw her mum. She eventually found herself living in a camp for displaced people in Germany, where she met her husband to be, Mike.

Although her family in Poland also survived the war, Ruth never made it back to see her mother before she died – something she regrets to this day and still brings tears to her eyes.

Newly-married and with their oldest daughter Ruth in tow, in 1950 Mike and Ruth decided to make a new life for themselves and they migrated to Australia.

After living in the Sale Migrant Holding Camp in Victoria they moved to Adelaide to be close to Polish friends. It was tough times, especially as their family had now grown to include two more daughters, Sylvia and Krystyna.

“It was very, very hard, I had to learn English… it was a really hard time for us because everything cost so much money, but my husband worked very hard.”

The girls went to St Aloysius College in the city and it was through them that Ruth was introduced to the Hutt St Centre. The Daughters of Charity who opened the centre in 1954 were running a youth club and the girls were invited to go along and learn how to cook.

Ruth saw this as the opening to make good on her promise to God.

“When I started I was the youngest volunteer and now I am the oldest and longest serving,” she said.

“I did everything back then. I learnt to sew and was doing some of the outfits for the priests, then I was working in the kitchen and did the cooking for a few years.”

Ruth recalled how in those early years they cooked in a small kitchen with just one gas stove but there was always a “proper” meal for the 30 or 40 men who came through the doors.

“People would come in for food but there was no room to sit so they would take the meal away with them. They were always friendly and would say ‘hi, how are you’.”

She formed some great friendships with the other volunteers over the years and described one of the early Daughters of Charity Sisters as one of her best friends.

When Mike died 37 years ago, Sr Margaret organised for the funeral service to be held at Hutt St Centre’s chapel. Ruth’s three daughters were also married there.

Despite her age, Ruth remains fit and healthy and continues to volunteer on Saturday mornings – “just buttering bread” – and taking the opportunity to have a chat with clients and other volunteers.

As for the Papal Honour presented to her at Mass on September 30, she was overwhelmed by the occasion.

“I only found out two or three days before and I was so surprised. It was the most beautiful Mass I have ever been to,” she said.

“I just wish my mum was with me to see me.”

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