Immigrants Among Us is a series of stories proposed by the Sisters of St. Joseph’s Immigration Committee. These stories will highlight immigrants in our communities.
Sister Barbara Ellen fled communism as a child for a better life in the U.S.
Immigrants in America can be found around us everywhere — sometimes in the least expected places. For example, Sister Barbara Ellen Apaceller, a familiar face as the long-time Salina Diocese Religious Education and Youth Ministry Director, came to the United States and enrolled in school unable to speak any English as a child — and today she spends her days working with youth and making sure that all of their voices are heard in the Catholic Church.
Sister Barbara Ellen was born in an Austrian train’s boxcar, enroute to Germany. The year was 1946 and the Russians had taken over the Apacellers’ native Hungary, so the family was headed for what they thought would be a better life.
“My mom and dad, they were born in Hungary and they grew up there and married. My older sister was born in Hungary, and then in 1946, communism was taking over Hungary,” Sister Barbara Ellen said. “They were unhappy and everyone was leaving and going to Germany.”
There were four girls in her mother’s family, and three of them immigrated to the United States, while the eldest stayed in Hungary. Sister Barbara Ellen’s parents, Sebastian and Barbara (Assman) Apaceller, were from the town of Gurd, near Budapest.
“My sister, Anna Flaim, was born in Hungary, she is 18 months older than me. My mother was very pregnant with me when they left Hungary on the train,” Sister Barbara Ellen said. “Then the train stopped so I could be born in a box car in Wittmansdorf, near Vienna, and then we went on to Germany.”
Unfortunately, the reception in Germany was not what her parents had hoped.
“The Germans really didn’t care to have all these immigrants coming in. We lived in Germany for about five years, but so many other refugees were there that my father couldn’t find work, so in 1952 we came to the United States, thanks to a Catholic Relief Services family in Indianapolis. After four months in Indiana, we moved to Aurora, Illinois, where my two aunts lived,” she said. “I think I was six years old, and my sister would have been eight.”
“I didn’t speak any English when I came to the U.S.,” she said. “I spoke German, and my folks only spoke German and Hungarian.”
Despite the language barrier, both of her parents were able to get jobs in Aurora and enroll the two girls in the local Catholic school, which was just down the block. Her father had been a train conductor in Hungary, and found a job at All Steel Manufacturing Company, where he worked for more than 30 years until his retirement.
Overcoming language barriers
She and her sister Anna were enrolled in Aurora’s Sacred Heart Grade School, conducted by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia. She said that despite not speaking English, the transition to school in the United States was made easier by the sisters.
“They were just always very welcoming. And the kids made us feel very accepted. Naturally, the first time I went we were both very scared because we got there in the summer so we hardly knew any English,” Sister Barbara Ellen said. “Anna and I, we just had to learn what the kids were talking about and what the teachers were saying. Each of the teachers always had someone sit with the both of us in each of our classes to help us and to make sure that we knew what they were saying and how to pronounce the words. The sisters were very open. They really helped Anna and I. We always felt a part of the classes.”
But it was, as she recalls, “very scary.”
“When we went home we just spoke German,” she said. “It took me two to three years to get fluent. But when we were at school the kids were pretty patient with us and taught us a lot. They would show us things and say, ‘Now that was a pencil or a blackboard.’ When I think back it was hard.”
While busy learning English and integrating into the U.S. life, her family also was keeping their heritage alive at home. Luckily, there was a group of other German immigrants in Aurora.
“My mom loved music, and she could always get things started. She’d have the adults and the young adults that were German get together. She would teach them German songs and on Mother’s day or Christmas they would put on a program and sing carols in German and songs about mothers in German and dress up in German attire,” Sister Barbara Ellen said. “She also did that with the little kids. Just to bring their ancestry back and they just loved it. And she loved working with the different age groups and making sure they wouldn’t forget about their ancestry.”
Her parents went on to become U.S. citizens.
“My mom and dad became citizens. I remember they had to go to classes. They went into Chicago and became citizens. Anna and I also went in with them,” she said.
While her parents did have to pass a test, the children did not.
“They did the paperwork for us, because we were so young. I would have been I the third or fourth grade and Anna in fifth of sixth.”
While attending Sacred
Heart she met students Marilyn Wall and Philomene Reiland, who both would later become Sisters of St. Joseph. And it is where she first encountered Sister Mary Paul Buser.
“She and all of the sisters in our school were young and full of life, and they seemed so happy. They had such a sense of joy and happiness that I was attracted to the religious life,” she said.
In 1964, she found herself on a train again, journeying to Kansas to join the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia.
And today, since 1984 and after many ministries including in Western Kansas, she can be found at the Chancery in Salina where she is known for her vibrant leadership in youth ministry work and religious education. And in that position it is important for her to welcome immigrants into the Catholic Church.
“There are a number of Hispanic kids in our youth groups. They don’t have so many language barriers because I think their parents were the immigrants, and the children were born here,” she said. “But I think some of our problems is that they get separated. Many of them go to public schools and not Catholic schools. We need to reach out so their voices can be heard in our youth groups. We need to find ways to include them.”
How to make that happen
“I mention to our youth leaders, in Hays, Manhattan and Salina, especially, that we need to be reaching out to the Hispanic community,” she said. “And we need to encourage our kids to invite them to come.”
But it’s not an easy problem to solve.
“I think that in the United States, the different nationalities, especially in the bigger cities they have Hispanic, they have Anglos … they all have their little clusters,” she said. “But you know, we really are one. And how do we make it happen? I want to get there. I want to have all voices heard, not just certain voices, and I think it starts young when they are in grade school. There is an acceptance. Kids accept. They don’t see color or nationality. They’re just friends. What happens to adults? Because we can be so judgmental and non-accepting of different nationalities.