In a moving ceremony, Ruth’s life was honoured in reflections by fellow volunteers, staff and Adelaide Archbishop Patrick O’Regan. Her daughter, Krystyna Kahmann, presented the papal medal and certificate to the chair of the Hutt St Centre Board Tim O’Callaghan.
Earlier in the day, a special roast lunch was provided to clients in memory of Ruth who died on July 26 at the age of 95.
In 2018, Ruth was invested with the title ‘Dame of the Order of St Gregory the Great’ by Pope Francis, one of the highest honours for women in the Catholic Church.
This was not the first time she had been recognised for her service to the community. In 2007 the SA Parliament recognised Ruth’s 50 years of volunteering by putting on a special reception for her at Old Parliament House. The Lower House was sitting but that did not stop an endless trail of politicians including ministers and the Premier (Mike Rann) taking time out from the Chamber to come and pay tribute to Ruth and the Hutt St Centre.
On Christmas day dignitaries such as the Lord Mayor, ministers and often the Premier would visit Hutt St Centre to wish the clients and volunteers a happy Christmas.
Recalling this annual ritual at the presentation, fellow volunteer Piers Horwood said it “irked” Ruth that they would “circulate for a few minutes, smile at the TV cameras and leave”.
“She cheekily asked the then Premier Mike Rann if he might like to stay on and help serve meals,” Mr Horwood recounted.
“He readily accepted her invitation and dutifully took instructions from her. While serving he asked her if he could ladle the gravy to which Ruth said she’d think about it and to come back next year to find out if he had secured the position.
“He did return, and Ruth assented for him to receive the Order of the Gravy Ladle (and, as bonus, peas too). The Premier was chuffed. As the Christmas days came and went Ruth was always there to welcome the Premier.
“The Premier would not leave until the last dish had been washed and put away. Christmas day became a highlight of Ruth’s year.”
Ruth’s journey with Hutt St Centre began in early 1957 when a Sister from the Daughters of Charity knocked on her Osmond Street door and asked if she would like to help them feed the poor and homeless.
Without hesitation, Ruth agreed for, as she told The Southern Cross in an interview in 2018, it was a way for her to thank God for enabling her to survive as a child growing up in Poland during World War II.
She recalled at the time her family being evicted from their house and being forced to sleep in a cemetery with her sister for weeks to avoid being found by the Germans.
“Ruth knew only too well what it was like to be homeless,” said Mr Horwood, who shared her memories of the early days at Hutt St Centre.
“The Sisters wore habits, all hot meals were cooked on an old Kookaburra gas stove, and those in need lined up in the back lane to receive tea in jam jars and sandwiches wrapped in newspaper.
“Her stories were overwhelmingly happy. She worked alongside at least 20 Sisters and countless volunteers and – with one or two exceptions – built lasting friendships with many of them.”
Ruth and her family attended Mass in the Daughters of Charity’s chapel and two of her daughters were married there.
“Hutt St Centre was Ruth’s home-away-from-home,” Mr Horwood said.
“She would invariably be one of the first to arrive, and as soon as she slipped on her favourite apron, she’d be singly focused on preparing delicious hot meals. Many of us here today are left with the everlasting memory of Ruth preparing delicious meals and nourishing meals – including her gravies and custards in those giant saucepans.
“After kitchen-service had concluded, Ruth loved nothing more than sitting down with a cup of tea and chatting to all the volunteers over sweet goodies which she selectively purloined from the pantry. It was a scene repeated thousands of times.”
Ruth’s work extended beyond the kitchen. She loved helping with the annual Jumble Sale to raise money for the Centre’s vital work and applied her professional seamstress skills whenever asked.
When Ruth received her papal award, she was immensely proud but she stressed that it was as much as a papal recognition of the work of the Daughters of Charity, the staff and volunteers of the Hutt St Centre as it was for her.
Today the Ruth Kobylanski Award is presented each year to a volunteer who has given exceptional service.