Living Proof: Sister Florence

Lehigh Coal & Navigation’s Mine No. 6 in Lansford, Pa., was notorious for taking more than she gave. No one knew that better than young Flossie Kruczek.

The infamous colliery claimed her father in spring of 1934, when she was just 6½ and the nation was languishing in the Great Depression. Old No. 6 struck the Kruczek family again 19 years later, swallowing Flossie’s brother Joey and uncle Stan, just as it had with so many others who tapped the region’s rich coal veins for a livelihood.

“Daddy was a proud Polish soldier who immigrated to America and eventually found his way to Lansford to get a job in the coal mines on the advice of some buddies he had in New York,” recalls Kruczek, who is better known around Alvernia’s campus these days as the much-beloved Sister Florence. “That was common for so many who came to the U.S. at that time.”

“I remember running to greet my father as he walked home from work, covered in soot. He always had something special for me in his lunch pail — and also had such big plans for all of us.”

Initially, it seemed those plans would fall by the wayside, never to be realized — or would they?

A diamond in the making

They say that when coal comes under constant pressure, diamonds are formed. And so on that gray May day in ’34 when No. 6 belched out a ton of coal, claiming the life of Stanley Kruczek, a process began that would produce a priceless gem all its own.

What remained of the Kruczek family was forced to move from their home in nearby Summit Hill to the town of Lansford proper, where they lived with an aunt and uncle in the shadow of the unforgiving mine. Her father’s tragic death had left a cavernous black hole in young Flossie’s heart. It was a void she longed to have filled.

“We knew and understood pain and loss very early in life. But mom told us, ‘God always provides. He took your father away, now God has to be your father. He will take care of you.’”

“When I heard that, I felt a strong sense of trust and peace,” said Sister Florence. “The concept of God being my Father filled the void in me and replaced it with His goodness and love.”

Soon she was attending first grade at Saints Peter and Paul School, a Catholic parish now known as one of most prolific for fashioning future members of the Bernardine Franciscan religious order (producing more than 35 sisters). “Mom would help clean the church to pay tuition and picked up piecework to do at home from a local garment mill to make ends meet,” said Sister Florence.

“Even though we were poor, I never thought of it. It just never occurred to me. We always had what we needed. Our family nourished us. The church supported us.”

A little flower blooms

It didn’t take long before she crossed paths with an endeared Doctor of the Church — Saint Therese of Lisieux — who would remain a constant inspiration throughout Flossie’s life. It was at her parish church that she came face to face with a captivating statue of the much-venerated French Carmelite nun, best known as the Little Flower.

The icon became a frequent destination for the youngster. “I felt a strong connection with Saint Therese right away,” said Sister Florence. “I asked the Little Flower to ‘make me a Sister like you.’ I believed she watched over me, helped me. She was my friend.”

It proved to be a fortuitous friendship. Flossie soon found herself dressing up like a nun to teach other children from the neighborhood, something that foreshadowed both her future life as a religious and her 44-year tenure as an educator. “The moms just loved it,” she said, “and so did I.”

But the Little Flower was soon to bloom in her life in another way. When it came time for the third grade play, the young student who was already fluent in both Polish and English tried out and landed the lead role — a dream of her then-short life … playing none other than Saint Therese herself! (To this day she can still recite lines from the production in Polish, the language it was performed in!)

Each year after that, Flossie claimed a different role in the school play, following in the footsteps of her father, who fancied himself an actor and musician.

By 1941, with finances becoming increasingly tight, it was time for young Florence to move on to high school. The Sisters at Saints Peter and Paul School encouraged her, and two other girls from the area, to attend a school with a growing reputation, run by the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters in Reading, Pa., — Mt. Alvernia High School.

The rest, as they say, is history. Florence left home to attend Mt. Alvernia, living in Saint Francis Home (later named Francis Hall) alongside other students as well as the orphans who called the venerable building home. “I loved Alvernia right away,” she said. “I missed home and my family, but I knew I belonged here, and mom knew it too.”

Alvernia becomes home

“I was an aspirant … a sister in training, if you will,” Florence continued. “There was never any pressure to become a sister, but I already knew that the church and God were to be the center of my life.”

Mt. Alvernia provided a good home and a great education, and the bilingual Florence quickly learned that she had a knack for foreign languages. “I took Latin and French, and picked up both quickly.”

After graduating in 1945, she entered the Bernardine Sisters order. Over the years, her studies would take her to a number of colleges and universities to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in French, with regular teaching posts at a variety of different primary and secondary schools.

One particular study abroad trip was a dream come true. “I was sent to study at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. While there I also visited St. Therese’s home and convent…something I will always cherish,” she said. “She has been a constant in my life and has always been there to help and assist me. I truly have a deep love for her.”

Eventually she earned her doctoral degree in French from Penn State, where she served as a graduate assistant and also taught. Returning to now Alvernia College in 1971 at the bequest of the order’s Provincial, she soon became head of the foreign language department and later a professor of French, Latin and English as a Second Language.

Her time at Alvernia gave her the chance to assume a number of roles during the decades. In addition to leading the Foreign Languages Department, Sister Florence served as head of the Division of Humanities, interim dean of students, director of mission effectiveness and later as campus minister.

Up to this spring, she continued to serve in Campus Ministry as a sacristan and as sponsorship representative on both the Alvernia Faculty Council Executive Committee and Graduate Faculty Council, where her opinions were both sought after and respected.

“Sister Florence is an Alvernia treasure, and her impact can be seen in the thousands of students at all levels she has taught and ministered to,” said Provost Shirley Williams. “As a faculty member emerita, she continues to set an example for all our newer professors, most whom have heard of her work ethic and commitment to students well before meeting her.”

But for Sister Florence, who has been active as a religious and educator for 44 years, her focus has always been on a higher calling. “I have learned that nothing is yours to hold on to, for all is gift,” she said. “These gifts are to be used to spread His kingdom and to best serve others.

“God is always present. He is always here. Even in our trials, He is with us.

“I believe in God’s providence. He never calls you to do something without giving you the grace and courage to carry that through. And I am living proof.”