Treasured Memories: The Gift of El Pomar
By S. Georgia Kitt
The gift of her El Pomar estate in 1944 by Julie Penrose provided the Sisters of Charity with a new ministry and opportunities to nurture the spirituality of women in the West. The El Pomar Retreat Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado was the first women’s retreat center west of the Mississippi River, and through the years was home to many Sisters of Charity dedicating their service to the ministry.
One of those women was S. Antoinette Grahek. S. Antoinette was born in Yugoslavia in 1913, and in 1930 came with her family to Pueblo, Colorado, leaving her beautiful country and a boyfriend, fleeing Slovenia because of the war. It took her a long time to adapt to her new home with the language as a major problem. While working at St. Mary-Corwin Hospital in Pueblo, Colorado, she met the Sisters of Charity; in 1933 S. Antoinette arrived at the Motherhouse in Cincinnati with little command of English, new shoes that hurt her feet and an infected jaw from new false teeth. She didn’t understand the instructions at all, but God understood and cared for her in a special way. She said, “I did not want to be sent home because I did not even know my address or which way was home.” Twenty-four of her 52 years were spent at El Pomar Retreat Center. First she was to be in charge of the kitchen. She didn’t know how to cook, but learned by trial and error. Over the next half century many enjoyed the delicious baked goods and tasty meals S. Antoinette prepared. She never had a day off because weekends were so busy. She often worked in the garden and even helped milk the cows at times.
S. Sally Duffy celebrated her final vows in Colorado Springs in June 1983. She recalls, “We had a picnic celebration outside in the back of the Provincial House. My brothers grilled chicken for the Sisters at St. Elizabeth Residence. S. Antoinette brought trays of her homemade pies for dessert. She also made sure my brothers and the rest of the family had some of her fresh baked bread every day while staying at El Pomar and St. Elizabeth Residence. S. Antoinette prepared her baked goods from scratch and by feel. You could smell her bread baking and she always joyfully smiled as she shared bread with others. She truly fed and nourished others and always gave credit to God. S. Antoinette truly lived humility, simplicity and charity daily.”
S. Barbara Counts remembers how much S. Antoinette loved people and the kitchen. “She was the backbone of El Pomar, very generous and very humble,” said S. Barb. “Employees as well as visitors appreciated her many contributions.”
For S. Pat Malarkey, she was assigned to be a summer helper to S. Antoinette in the El Pomar kitchen. She shares, “Wow! Could she ever put the meals together – all done on a shoestring budget! A bowl of fruit was put out at breakfast, then non-eaten fruit was cut up for lunch and any leftovers were put in jello and covered with whipped cream for a choice of dessert at supper. The amazing experience was to take her shopping at the outdoor markets, she could really find the best prices (some of the vendors helped with that) and she inspected every item carefully. We did a lot of walking around and I did a lot of washing and cutting up of vegetables and fruit that summer! Her weekly meatloaf included all of the meat and veggie leftovers from the week. I cringed just looking at the big bowl of ‘stuff’ that she mixed together. When the retreatants would come to the kitchen afterwards asking for her delicious recipe, she would easily act as though she misunderstood their questions!”
S. Barbara Hagedorn remembered Sisters Antoinette and Raphael Garcia were good friends and two of the sweetest, kindest people you would ever want to meet. “I was with them in the late 1980s and early 1990s,” she recalls. “[Antoinette] was a fabulous cook at the retreat house, making wonderful baked goods, but she also joined several of us when we volunteered to cook Sunday brunch at the soup kitchen every month. She could have handled the task singlehandedly but she worked with everyone doing whatever job was needed to be done. One particular Sunday, one of the regular volunteers was taking special care to explain to Antoinette how to fix scrambled eggs. Those of us who were watching and listening witnessed her kindness and humility. She paid careful attention to the young man and respected him as he did his job.
“Sisters Raphael and Antoinette’s friendship lasted many years. Even in their retirement after they moved to the Motherhouse, they could be seen taking walks together and caring for one another. It was my privilege to have known them.”