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Longtime Teacher Told her Incredible Story in Book

Mullen, Mike. "Longtime Teacher Told her Incredible Story in Book." Telegraph Journal, 26 September 2008.


SAINT JOHN - As first chronicled in her 1987 book Tragedy, Travel and Triumph, the incredible story of Russian-born educator Sister Christina Schell (Sister Mary Annunciata) was one of pain, loss, separation, humiliation - and, above all else, the miraculous.

No fewer than five daughters of merchant and farmer Jacob Schell, and his wife, Elizabeth (Uebell) of Marienberg - a German Catholic town on the Volga River in southeastern Russia - were destined to become members of the Saint John-based Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception. But that would not be before they, and two brothers, endured devastating hardships, and the loss of their beloved priest, home, parents and all possessions in the killing and turmoil that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Christina, the youngest of the five daughters, died Wednesday at the Ruth Ross Residence, She was 97.

Funeral mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. today at St. Vincent's Chapel on Cliff Street.

The last surviving member of her immediate family, the grandmotherly nun is survived by nephew Gerry Schell of Calgary and niece Angelika Bauer of Russia.

Having entered the novitiate here on July 18, 1930, Schell spent 41 of her 78 years of her religious life as a respected, hard-working teacher who was constantly upgrading her own education.

In Holdfast, Sask, where she taught Grades 1 to 8 from 1933 to 1968, the local high school still bears her name.

She then taught in Edmonton until 1974 and, after retiring to St. Vincent's Convent here, served the diocese as director of religious education in local high schools. She was also a director of the Catholic Bookstore, where she enjoyed volunteering her time.

Bookstore manager Margaret Rose Murphy was among those paying tribute to her Thursday.

"Sister Schell was a woman who had the heart of a servant," she said. "She was a woman of strong moral fibre who was completely devoted to her faith and vocation. Her life was a testimony to what she believed in her being. She was a wonderful, wonderful woman."

Sister Pat Wallace, a teacher who resided with Schell during her years in Edmonton, said she "could put her hand to most anything. She was very prayerful person, very responsible and a hard worker."
"She was a strong educator and a very stable and staunch person in her beliefs," said Sister Marion Murray, a former Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate conception archivist.

Schell retold her family's harrowing story to this newspaper in 1994.

She said the Bolsheviks' brutal execution of local men, including the priest, and hunger from the crop failure of 1920-21 that contributed to her mother's early demise, caused Jacob Schell and seven of his children (married daughter Mary Bauer stayed behind) - to join 19 others families in fleeing Marienberg for Germany.

On Aug. 2, 1921, a caravan of horse-drawn wagons pulled out of town, crossed the Volga, and began plodding the 2,400 kilometres northeast to Poland. "We travelled until the middle of November, when Russian snows were so deep we couldn't go any further," Schell said. "We prayed all the way across Russia."

After spending two months in a tenement building, the Schells travelled to Minsk by freight train amid a flu epidemic. "I remember seeing great trucks picking up the bodies," she recalled.

The family lived in an old barracks building and her father, by then ailing, worked on a collective farm while she and her youngest brother, John, would beg food from Russian peasants to get enough to eat. Growing more sickly, her father died.

That fall, she said, the Schell children experienced "God's miracle power" first-hand when an agreement was signed between the German Red Cross and Polish authorities allowing German refugees from Minsk direct access across Poland to Germany.

After bring split up for a time, baker/grain speculator Vincent Uebell of Young, Sask., used the money from a $7,000 grain sale to bring the ragtag Schell sisters Anna, Barbara, Margaret, Paula and Christina (all future nuns) and brothers Jacob and John, who became successful businessmen, to his Saskatchewan home in 1923.

Reprinted with permission of the Telegraph Journal.

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