Conducted by Jocelyn Renner Tang (JT)
1 February 1998, Sacred Heart Monastery, Richardton, North
Transcription by Margaret Templin
Editing and proofreading by Lena Paris and Beverly Wigley
JT: This is February 1st, 1998. I am Jocelyn
(Renner) Tang, a volunteer interviewer for the Germans from Russia Heritage
Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries at Fargo,
North Dakota. It is a pleasure to visit with Sister Joan Nuss,
and we are here at Richardton, at The Sacred Heart Monastery.
Sister Joan, I'm going to ask you a few questions
about your family history. Are aware of what village your ancestors
came from in Russia? You believe they came from the [Beresan]
colony of Muenchen, in the district of Kherson in South Russia,
and the county of Ananjaw. Now, did both sets of your parents
come from here or grandparents?
SJ: They both came from Russia, but my mother
was from a different place in Russia.
JT: Sister Joan, you were you born here. When were you
born, what is your date of birth?
SJ: November the 22nd, 1917.
JT: 1917. And your parents, were they born
in America or in Russia?
SJ: No, they were both born in Russia.
JT: How old were they when they came to America?
SJ: Well, my mother was 19 when she came
over accidentally. Her brother was supposed to come, but then
he got called into service so he had to go to war. They told my
mother to go on in Manual Wanner's name [her brother's name].
They had a hard time. When they were on the ship, they thought
it was a man. She said, "No, I'm a girl." [They asked]
"Why you got a man's name?" She said, "I can't
help it." They badgered her a bit, but they told her to go
by that name or else she wouldn't make it. She had a hard time
on the ship.
JT: What happened to her on the ship?
SJ: They were going to put her in with the
other guys - where the men, you know, in that department. They
had told her to be sure and go by that name and don't change it
or else she would be sent back. But she made it across. Then
when she came across, when she came to Dickinson here, that would
be her brother-in-law, Mr. Mischel, he went down to pick her up
on that train and brought her home to my aunt's house, Rosella
Mischel. Then he said, "You visit for awhile and I'll go
out and get a pail of coal and put it in the stove so it's warm
He would not tell them who they were - he didn't
introduce them. By the time he came in, they had each other around
the neck and both were crying!
JT: They were sisters?
SJ: They were sisters and he never told them.
It was a shock to my aunt.
JT: Oh, I'm sure! So, how did she [your mother]
get from New York to here?
SJ: That I don't remember.
JT: And then your father came. How old was
he when he came to America?
SJ: I don't remember, but he was only early
50's or 49 years old when he died here [in America]. My mother
only got married after she was over here, I don't exactly know
- he was here longer before my mother was in the United States.
JT: Okay. Where are your parents buried?
SJ: My dad is buried in Dickinson and my
mother is buried in Dickinson. They went to the farm that belonged
to Schefield; they had a lot out there. They resold it, and they
went to Dickinson cemetery, St. Joseph's Cemetery.
JT: Are there iron crosses on their graves?
SJ: I don't know, not iron, but concrete
JT: Are they the crosses, those old German
from Russia type cross grave markers?
SJ: No, no. They had those concrete - a little
bigger than this, you know, with their names on. They had to get
rid of the crosses. They couldn't cut the grass; they were in
JT: They made them take them down?
SJ: Yes, so they can go right over them [grave
markers] with the lawn mower.
JT: How many brothers and sisters did you
have in your family?
SJ: There were twelve of us and three died
as infants: Sebastian, Frankie and Francis. No, he was about twelve
years old [when he died].
JT: What did he die from?
SJ: Flu. There was a real bad flu and he
didn't make it.
JT: Now, when a child died, did they have
a wake or did they keep the body in the house, then, before the
SJ: They kept the body, I guess, in the house.
My dad was in the house and my little brother was in the house.
JT: You remember your little brother?
SJ: I remember he was only three days old
when he got buried.
JT: Oh. So, from the time after he was born
- and then he died immediately after birth or he died when he
was three days old?
SJ: I don't know how long [it was] after
he was born.
JT: Do you have any memories of what your
parents or aunts or uncles told you about living in the old country,
living in Russia?
SJ: Not too much, because my mother was only
about three months old when her mother died. She died through
childbirth when she was born. So, it wasn't very long and she
was adopted out.
JT: Your mother?
SJ: My mother was adopted out; she was a
orphan over in Russia. And then, it was about a year and a half
afterwards, her father died over there. That's all I remember
JT: Sister Joan, I'm going to ask you some
questions now about your religious life and why you decided to
become a nun and who and what influenced you. Growing
up, can you remember any particular religious customs practiced
in your home?
you have a God's corner or like the Rosary? Can you tell me any
of your memories concerning that?
SJ: We had a God's
corner; it was all my mother's pride. She set that up every Saturday,
everything and all. She had artificial flowers on there, homemade,
real pretty. They had tin cans and they opened them on the top
and they cut slits in them all the way around. Then they made
the flower and put it in one of those slits, and they bend the
flower open, and it was just like real flowers on the little altar,
you know. It was big, high [with] steps down, you know. Beautiful.
It was her pride always to fix it up.
And, of course, we always
said usually something special during Lent; we always said the
Rosary all together. My dad usually led it. It was all in German
those years. In fact, when I entered the convent, I could hardly
pray in English, you know! Everything was
JT: Do you think that over in Russia, did
they have these little God's corners?
SJ: I'm sure that's where they got it from.
JT: Your mother never said anything if she
had that when she was growing up?
SJ: She never said. Maybe not as big, maybe
just a little table with a statue on it and a bouquet of flowers,
if they had any homemade flowers like that.
JT: So, a lot of your praying was done in
SJ: In German, um hum.
JT: Do remember celebrating Feast Days or
Holy Days or Name Days? What could you tell me about Holy Days?
SJ: Yes. Holy Days were always holy to us.
Easter Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday were all three just like Easter
Sunday. They were kept holy; went to church on those days. I don't
know if that was the custom over there, that they brought it here
or not, but those were three Holy Days.
Then Name Days, my dad's was Stephen and I had
two brother Johns, you know, Frank and
then two brother Johns. We kept them holy too. Christmas was a
big thing, Christmas Day. Then St. Stephen Day was my dad's and
St. John was my brother John's. John wasn't always home, but we
kept the day holy anyway.
JT: Do you remember special customs you did
on Christmas or foods that maybe they did over in Russia and then
they did it here too?
SJ: They didn't have so much food at that
time that I remember. It was in the '30s, you know. It was kind
of poor and we didn't have much. Like we lived on potatoes and
meat and meat and potatoes, you know. We seldom had dessert or
anything, you know, because we had no deep freeze or anything;
we had to butcher as we needed it.
One time they
were out of meat and Dad said, "Boys, we'll slaughter the
cow, the calf out there because there's no [food]." "Oh,"
he said, "We have the skin!" Then the inspectors were
supposed to come. Then the boys said, "Should we had hide
My dad said, "No, leave it right there. If
he asks us why we butcher without yet asking permission to butcher
- " (It was real bad there for awhile in the '30s, oh, yes!)
He said, "If they ask me why we butchered it without asking
them, we tell them there was nothing to eat in the house."
That's how honest my dad was. So they left it [the skin] there
but they [the inspectors] came there but they never asked [about
JT: At what age did
you enter the religious life?
JT: Twenty-three? Okay.
Did somebody influence you, you know, a particular person or an
SJ: A teacher, a Sister.
I liked her so much; she died a few years ago. There were two
Sisters, but especially the one, Sister Jeninzia from Annunciation
Priory from Bismarck. She was always so good and so kind that
I wanted to go for a Sister. When we were small, we always had
dishtowels over our heads. And we'd have Ma's little sherbet dishes
for chalices and had [a] Christmas bell. And then we'd have those
wide wafers that come in a package like this; we used those for
Communion hosts. We were always playing Sisters!
JT: So, and your family
encouraged you to be a nun, I mean, they didn't -
SJ: They said, "It's
your choice; you do what you want." My stepdad said, "Sister,
if you don't like it, you're always welcome back. This is your
home as long as I live." He said, "Do what you feel
what you want." They never told anybody they should go or
JT: Where did you go, then, to be a nun?
SJ: Garrison. And my two sisters didn't know
about Garrison. They went to Rochester [Minnesota]. Of course,
we all work down there. Sister Florentia had relatives down there
that were Sisters, I think three or four of them, and so they
entered there [in Rochester].
JT: And then, were you able to go home on
SJ: Once a year we went home.
JT: Once a year.
SJ: Right. Oh, as a Sister? Every three years;
every three years, but now we go [home] every year.
JT: Could your family come and visit you
SJ: Well, they were dead before we ever moved
JT: Could your family visit you in Garrison
when you a young nun, could they come and see you?
SJ: No. The years were poor, they couldn't
make it; they couldn't make it that day. They only came for my
reception; it was my dad, and my brother, and my sister-in-law
and my stepbrother. They came down for my profession or reception,
it was. When I became a nun, only my mother came down and my brother.
But when I, later on, when I got the ring -
JT: How old are you when you get the ring
or how many years do you have to be in training?
SJ: Five, those years we had five, but I
think they got more now. Depends.
JT: Okay, and then you had a reception.
SJ: Right. And then I got the ring at St.
Leo's in Minot [North Dakota]. Then I celebrated my silver jubilee
over at the abbey and my golden jubilee I celebrated at the motherhouse.
It was the first time I celebrated something at home, in the convent.
JT: When you first went off to be a nun,
were you able to write letters to your family or could they write
SJ: I think once a month we were able to
write, but now you write whenever you want.
JT: But back then
it was once a month.
SJ: And they opened our letters that time,
but now they don't.
JT: Oh, they did? Was it hard for you not
to see your family?
SJ: Yah, I was attached to my mother, especially
after Dad died, you know, we had no dad.
JT: We're talking now about when Sister Joan
went to Sister school as a young girl.
SJ: We went to St.
Joseph's School in Dickinson and I was in the first grade; and
there was one Sister there, she was very hard on me. I used to
get slaps; in the second grade it was worse. I got slaps right
and left on the ears when I put the long division on the blackboard
and had the wrong name, number on the board. I had one [slap]
on the left side and one on the right. Then I had earache for
many, many years until I finally went out to Schefield School,
a public school. The teachers were fairly nice there; at least
I wasn't hit. And I really hated Sister school and I do to this
day. But I know there are a lot of good Sisters now, and they
can't hit the peoples like I was.
JT: Did your parents
do anything when they found out that you were disciplined like
SJ: No, we never told
my parents. They were up in years already, you know, they were
in their middle [40's], close to 50 by then. Why should we torture
them with that? We'd tell our sisters and brothers at home, you
know. And besides, you just got to bear it, you know. There's
another place in heaven for us.
So, then, I went to Rochester to work and then
when I want to go for Sister, I said to my dad, "I'm not
going to Sister school; I would like to go to the public school."
The other five had to drive to Sister school and they had a room
up there and I didn't want a room up there.
Then I told my mother and my mother said, "I'm
not the boss. You have to go and tell Dad."
So I told my dad and he said, "Well,"
he said, "I'll let you go up there if Frances goes with you
to walk to public school, but I will not let you walk alone."
Because there were mean animals in the pastures, you know. And
so I asked Frances, of course, she's a Sister today too, if she
would walk with me to public school and back and she said yes,
so she and I went to public school.
Then I went to join the Sisters at Garrison. I went on the Soo,
on the train [line] Soo, and I went to Garrison. I stayed at the
hospital overnight to catch the train the next morning real early.
Sister had said she would call me when it's time and she forgot.
She came in, she said, "Mary Eva," she said, "I
forgot to call you. Why don't you get up real fast and I'll have
coffee done and ready for you. You'll have to hurry to get over
to the Soo." So I went downstairs, I had my coffee, grabbed
my bag and went over to the Soo and I forgot to check my trunk.
So, the man stopped the train. I heard him say
"woooo," he was going to stop it. They left me on; I
didn't check nothing, my trunk. And I got to Garrison and I didn't
go off, I was sound asleep. It was early in the morning. Sister
Barbara Ann was down at the depot to meet me. She walked down;
the rest of the Sisters were in church already at Garrison. She
said to the conductor, "Isn't there a girl in there that's
supposed to come to the convent?"
He said, "No! There's just one little one
in there sleeping." I was 17 years old, you know. I was small
for my age, you know, I was about 105 pounds. And so he said,
"I'll check with her and see if it's her."
So, he went in and tapped me on the shoulder. He
said, "Are you going for a Sister?" I said, "Yes,
but not until I get to Garrison."
He said, "This is Garrison. There's a lady
waiting out there." (That was Sister Barbara Ann.) So when
I went off the train she said, "Are you going for a Sister?"
She wanted to be sure it was me.
I said, "Yes."
"Well," she said, "come and follow
me." Then I got scared. I thought I was going to follow the
Lord but not her!
JT: So you were 17 when you went to be a
nun? I thought you were 23?
SJ: Gosh, I forgot. That was when I entered,
that was when I went -
JT: You entered at 17?
SJ: No, I went to work at St. Mary's Hospital
at Rochester. That's what I did at 17. I stayed there until I
was 23, then I entered the convent. I went home and entered the
convent at Garrison. I got a mistake there.
JT: That's okay. Do you remember that anti-garb
SJ: Yes, I remember that well.
JT: What do you remember about it?
SJ: Well, all I remember is, I was in Bismarck
at the time and I was not a sister yet. Yes, I was already - and
we had a man there, he was not a Catholic. And they had that thing
so twisted in the [news] paper, how you were supposed to vote.
Instead of for the Sisters to take the garbs off, he voted for
the good thing, but he didn't want to [vote for it], he wanted
to vote opposite. But he didn't know it until after the answers
came out, until after the doings!
But I felt kind of bad. I really liked the long
garb, those beaded cords, I really liked those yet. In those years
you never heard anybody leaving [the convent] either like nowadays.
JT: So were you teaching in the public school
at that time?
SJ: Oh, no! I'm not a teacher. I didn't have
no schooling, just [to] eighth grade.
JT: Oh, okay. So you never had to give up
SJ: No, I never had to give up mine, but
some of our Sisters did, and they were some older Sisters that
did. They took it real nice; I was surprised.
JT: Sister Joan, I'm going to ask you about
some Christmas customs. Can you tell me what Belzenickel is?
SJ: Yes, and Christkindl, too, we had -
JT: Belzenickel was a man?
SJ: He was dressed in a - like a fur coat
and long hair, you know, and tied down around with a strap down.
And they came to your house and if they say you weren't good,
you got licked, you know.
JT: You got [licked] with what?
SJ: They got licked. He had a strap, a Riemen,
you know, it hung down on his side. And he would lick them. Oh,
in the old country they had one, which my mother told us about
the Belzenickel when we first learned. It's in my mind all the
time, when I hear that word, I think of that story.
JT: What is it?
SJ: Well, there was a couple there and they
had a boy and a girl, 14 and 15. They didn't obey their parents
too much, you know. They were always running ahead of them, and
so one time the Belzenickel came there and he asked, "How
are your children?" They said, "Well, they don't obey
us anymore. We don't know what to do with them, we cannot handle
The dad said, "Take them out; take them away.
We are fed up with them." So the Belzenickel took this boy
and girl out and never brought them back. Then the parents, after
midnight, went out searching. Nobody could find them - no clues.
He had murdered both of them over by the barn, cut their heads
off. Since that time I don't like the Belzenickel.
And the Christ Child was good. She was dressed
in white. She had a veil on and a wreath, and she would bring
us - we'd get a little package from her for Christmas, you know.
JT: So the Christ Child was a girl, a female
SJ: A female, um hum, but this [Belzenickel] was a male.
JT: And that story your mother told you was
a story she got from Russia?
SJ: Russia - that's a true story. That's
a true story.
JT: And the Christkindl was a female figure
SJ: Dressed in white, in a veil and she had
JT: So when Christmas came and these people
came to your door, were you afraid?
SJ: Not when the Christ Child came, but we
never had him [the real Belzenickel]. But we had a neighbor man
who dressed up as a Belzenickel. He came to our house on the farm.
It was during the depression too. He had called, I guess my parents
or my brother, whoever it was, if he could come over on that night
to see us, you know. The man who dressed up - when we heard about
it, we didn't like him, so we all ran and hid. Some went in the
clothes closet, way up on top. Some went down to the root cellar,
and some went in those beds that we had folding, you know, folding
beds. They opened the beds, two lay in there, and they rolled
them, you know. We all hid; he didn't find a one. Were we glad!
JT: You were so frightened of him.
SJ: I think that's why we hid too.
JT: Do you remember any special Easter activities?
SJ: Yes, at Easter time we always got new
hats and shoes. We didn't have nothing else. We took our shoebox
and made the little Easter basket and nest right by our bed. And
we had some sticks and candy in there. We didn't have much, but
there was always something, you know.
JT: Do you remember anything called Eierlesen,
egg roll[ing], Eierlaufen?
SJ: No, hm um.
JT: No? Okay. Were there special religious
activities at Christmas or Easter? Like you went to church, you
SJ: Yes, we did.
JT: And the Mass was in German?
SJ: I think it was Latin, wasn't it? I don't
think they had it in German. Latin.
JT: Oh, it was in Latin.
SJ: It was Latin, I think.
JT: Which member of your family do you remember
SJ: Which one? I remember them all because
I pray for them every day. I have them in my mind all the time.
SJ: My mother.
JT: Who do you look up to or admire for portraying
life's best qualities?
SJ: I don't get that.
JT: When you think of your family values,
who do you think instilled in you your family values or who do
you think portrayed what's best in life?
SJ: I think my sister Pauline.
JT: Okay, why?
SJ: Because we are very close together and
we always write to each other, real often.
JT: Do you write in German?
SJ: No, I forgot my German. I took two years
of German, and after I went to the convent, I didn't read German
anymore. My dad would always write us three sisters a German letter
for Christmas every year. But I couldn't read them anymore so
I asked Father Stan Sticka. He always read them for me because
I couldn't read the script. I could read some of the print but
I couldn't read the written [cursive] you know.
JT: So growing up, did you speak German or
SJ: We spoke German most of the time until
I entered the convent, because our parents did not understand
English; they understood very little, but they could not talk
English. I think Dad maybe did a little, very little.
JT: So, in closing, is there any important
observation you want to share with us about growing up as a member
of the Germans from Russia ethnic group?
SJ: Well, the older ones, they'd come to
our house and they would always play cards. On Sundays, a certain
Feast Day or Holy Day, they'd always come to our house and play
cards. And certain times my parents would go up to their place.
Of course, then the older ones were in one room; the young ones
went to another room. We were never together because they played
cards and had their fun and we played cards and had our fun.
JT: What kind of cards did you play?
SJ: Well, they played Whist and then they
played Zolle. And I forgot how it goes and I cannot play it. I
asked my brothers; we just don't know.
JT: Is it an old game? A game you played
when you were growing up?
SJ: Well, yes, but we didn't get it to know
well enough to remember it when my folks died. By the time they
[died], we didn't know.
JT: And what is it called?
SJ: Zolle. Zolle, Frau or Bisste. They bid
on those three always. And I don't know how to play it.
JT: Well, thank you. Oh, yes, I know, do
you recall any experiences with midwives? Do you remember your
mother having to go to a midwife to have her babies or any stories
SJ: My mother did.
JT: She was a midwife?
SJ: Well, she wasn't one but she went to
some [births]; she was called.
JT: Do you remember if they paid the midwives?
SJ: That I wouldn't know. They were neighbors,
friends; I doubt if she got any pay for it.
Or if the little baby was born [and] it was sick, they always
called my mother up and asked what to do. Not always, but a lot
of times they called her up [and asked] what to do.
JT: What would your mother advise? Like what
kinds of things to do? Was it like a folk medicine or -
SJ: One time the neighbors called us up.
They had a little boy and he couldn't pass his water so they called
my mother [about] what to do. So my mother said, "You take
a raw egg, break it open, and take the skin from one end of the
egg and put it over his little penis." And later on he passed
his water; he had no further problem. That was the medicine they
used those days.
JT: Can you think of any other advice your
mother might have given?
SJ: That's the only thing I remember, because
I was over at my brother's place for over three years. And when
I heard they were going to adopt me, then I went home. I missed
out of a lot at home.
JT: Oh, sure! Okay.
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