From Russia With Love — The Story of the Keller Sisters

May 16, 2021 by

Written by SISTER FRANCESCA KELLER
Compiled by TOM KELLER

Magdaline Keller was born, the first child of Peter and Mary Volk Keller, on Dec. 30, 1898, in the German town of Bezilvoka in southern Russia near the Black Sea port of Odessa. Clementine Keller was born in Russia, Sept. 25, 1906. She was the third girl in the family. Both parents of Magdaline and Clementine were born in Russia, along with their first six children. In 1908, the family came to the United States settling in Collyer, Kansas. Magdaline was 10 years of age and Clementine was 2.

Ten years after arriving in the United States, Magdaline entered the Congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph of Concordia, Kansas, at the age of 20 and was given the name Sister Mary Francesca. In 1922, at the age of 15, Clementine also entered the Sisters of St. Joseph and was given the name Sister Renilda. In 1938, at the age of 21, Mary Keller, their younger sister, entered the congregation and was Sister Mary Antoniens Keller and later, Sister Mary Keller.

Sisters Francesca and Renilda shared memories of their time in Russia and their travels to the United States. Recently, Sister Francesca and Renilda’s cousin, Tom Keller, completed the genealogy of the family and sent a copy for the archives of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia. In the genealogy, the story of the sisters’ family leaving Russia and traveling to the United States was included. In one of the sister’s files, it is written that “the migration was a response to Catherine the Great’s 1763 offer of free land, freedom of religion and freedom from taxes and military service. But when some of these freedoms were abrogated, many people moved to America.”
Sister Francesca recalled the long tiresome, seven-day voyage on the big steamship, “Kaiser Wilhelm II”. They settled at Collyer, Kansas, in the heart of the rich wheat land of Kansas. Eight more children were born there, bringing the total to 14 children.

She spoke of her life in Russia, her memories and where they lived and then began her story of her father, Peter Keller and family, emigrating to the United States. He was the first one in the Keller family to leave and so was her mother from her side of the family (Volk). Three years later, Francesca and Renilda’s uncles Tony and John, along with their families, migrated to America as well, leaving Russia because of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Sister Francesca wrote, “In the spring of 1908, Dad (Peter Keller) decided to migrate to America. This was a difficult step to take, because America was so far away. It took much preparation. The whole family had to go to Odessa to have our eyes examined. Dad had to go across one corner of the Black Sea to Nikolaiev to get our passports. We had to sell everything we had except the feathers, which we took along, and our clothes of course. Dad said if we dress like Americans we won’t have a hard time.

“Some said we should have an agent to bring us over like many of them did, but Dad said we will find our way without one. We finally sold everything we had to Uncle Valentine including our home place, 12 horses, 10 cows, pigs, poultry, machinery, wagons and our carriage. If I remember right, he paid us $12,600 for everything we owned.

“We decided to go by rail as far as Germany then take the ship, instead of taking a ship in Odessa across the Black and Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. That would have put us on the water all the way. Everything was packed into two big trunks made out of reeds, also a smaller one in which we kept the food. The feathers were packed into two big strong mattress covers that had served as mattresses on our beds. There were well marked in red paint with our names.

“The last day all our relatives, on both sides, including Grandma Volk, went to Razdelnia from which place we took the train. They all had supper together as a farewell meal. I came from Odessa with a friend of ours. When our eyes were examined, I was the only one with white spots on my eyelids called trachoma, so I had an operation to remove them. I was blindfolded for about a week and the good people I stayed with took me to the doctor every day. I came out fine even if my eyes were still a bit red.

“We visited around until midnight when the Flier train came through. Everybody seemed so sad and were crying when we left. They all stood by the train close to the window where we looked at them for the last time. Mom was inside and Grandmother on the outside and both of them wept bitterly. Dad was out on the platform waving his white handkerchief at them until they could no longer see us. As young as I was, this was one of the saddest times of my life and I am sure the folks would have said the same. The next morning, I remember Mom saying, ‘Now we are far from home,’ and she wept again.

“We rode on to Warsaw, Poland, which at that time was still under Russian rule. It was a beautiful city, what we could see of it. There were so many passenger trains and the cars were all different colors which impressed me. We stopped for some time then went on until we reached the German border where we had to get off and take another train. Before they let us on the train, they examined us, especially our eyes. We all passed.

“We rode on until we reached Berlin, what an immense city to see. We finally stopped on the west side of it and changed trains. On the way, we saw so many tall and beautiful buildings, even Kaiser Wilhelm II’s mansion. From Berlin, we went to Bremen. We had to wait around there for a couple days, as we came too soon. We all knew what the ship would look like as it had been advertised in Odessa on several big windows. It was the largest ship that then sailed the Atlantic. It had four big funnels and several stories with two big decks, one in front and the other in the back. The name of it was ‘Kaiser Wilhelm II’ which was written in large letters on the outside. It belonged to the North German Loyd Company.

“We again boarded a train and rode about an hour to get to the harbor where the ship was docked. The harbor was called ‘Bremerhaven.’ While the people got on, the orchestra played. It took quite a while to get the people and the freight on board. We were taken to the hold under the deck with a lot of people as we were traveling third class which we were told was a good way to go. Dad didn’t like the looks of this so he asked one of the lads if we could have something a bit more private. Yes, on the same floor of the deck there were two rooms, a small one for Mrs. Kraft, who was traveling with us, and a large one for us. This was fine as all our meals were served there too, so we had real privacy. It cost Dad 75 marks extra for these rooms.

“Finally, we were on our way, down the English Channel and we stopped at Dover, I believe, and took on more people and freight. Then on to France. We did the same as in England. After we sailed awhile, a small ship brought some more passengers and their baggage. It didn’t take us quite seven days to cross the Atlantic. We had four days of terrible weather, the worst in months, but the rest of the time it was nice. One evening they had a big dance on deck. All of our family except Dad and myself, including Mrs. Kraft, got sea sick. Dad took me to the boiler room where the engines were. That was quite an experience. They also had a map down there which had flags pinned on it showing where we were. Several times we passed ships which were going the other direction to Europe and people would wave at each other from the deck.

“Our last day aboard was beautiful. We sailed into the New York harbor which had many ships in it. We finally got to our dock with the help of several tug boats. This was about 6 p.m. All first and second class passengers unloaded right away. The third class had to wait until next morning because we had to be taken to Ellis Island to be examined again. I forgot to mention when we passed the Statue of Liberty, Dad said, ‘That must be a statue of Christopher Columbus, who discovered America.’

“At Ellis Island, they again looked at our eyes as well as the rest of our being. From there, we went to a big depot, purchased our tickets and some food to head on West. We didn’t know how to pronounce Collyer, so every time we changed trains. Dad pulled out his long ticket from New York to Collyer and the conductor took a piece off the ticket.

“We left New York at midnight and the next morning went through some pretty hilly country and Dad said, ‘If all America is like this I won’t stay long.’ However, when we got into Indiana and Illinois, it looked quite nice and much better. We went through Missouri at night and got into Kansas City in the morning. About 10 a.m., we rode through beautiful Kansas wheat fields for miles and miles. This was on Saturday, the 23rd of May. When we got to Victoria, quite a number of people got off.

“They came from the Volga in Russia. Many of their relatives were there to meet them. This must have been around 6 p.m. We finally got to Collyer, Kansas, around 10 p.m. and nobody was there to meet us. Dad had sent a telegram from Chicago to the Millers, but the agent was new, didn’t know who they were, so he didn’t bother. While we were there talking and wondering what to do, a young lad about 11 years old came to us and asked who we were looking for. We told him Franz Miller. He said, ‘They live just a short way across the railroad track and I’ll be glad to take you there.’

“It was about a quarter of a mile to the Miller house. We settled in a two-room house right next to the Millers, which belonged to them, until we got our own place later on about 5 miles south of Collyer. Dad helped the Millers with their wheat harvest which was very good that year.

We bought 160 acres of land without any improvements on it for $17 an acre. We had to fence in the 30 acres of pasture, make a well, and build a barn and house. We built the barn and lived in it until the house was ready. Our house was built of lumber and was 161’ x 321’ with just two large rooms. We moved in before it was completed because it got too cold in the barn. The barn was not all that tightly built and we woke up one morning with a bit of snow on us.

“In 1911, we got word that Uncle Tony Keller and Uncle John Keller wanted to migrate over here. They arrived in June of that year and what a welcome and rejoicing there was! There were now 30 Keller children in all.
The Keller brothers farmed as much as they could, but we didn’t get much of a crop the first year, and the second wasn’t much better. In 1912, we had so much snow that the roads were all closed but that did produce a better crop. Those were hard times and we even had to buy our seed wheat one year. We just couldn’t make much of a go of the farm, no crops, no feed for the stock. A number of horses died due to lack of feed. “Uncle Tony started to build a home with stone east of us. Time passed and we didn’t get any crops, so he gave it up. One year, the grasshoppers ate everything, so there was always something it seems. No wonder they gave up. Living that close together had its drawbacks, but I always enjoyed it.

“In the fall of 1912, Dad decided to go to Russia. He had asked Grandma Volk if he could come over and sell Mother’s inheritance and she said to come ahead. He left home right after our Barbara was born on Oct. 28, 1912. He had also gotten permission from Aunt Barbara’s children in Hague, North Dakota, to sell their inheritance that Grandfather Keller left them. It took some time to find a buyer and there were further delays, sending paper back and forth that our mother had to sign. He sold the land and sent them the money, and they would have lost it when the Revolution came. Dad got $3,000 for Mother’s property. We had such hard times in those days, so it really came in handy.

Dad visited all of his folks. He stayed with Aunt Mary. He finally came home in April of 1913 and we Kellers were all together south of Collyer in those days.

 

 

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