Wall of Service
Sister Florence Kelly
Sisters of Service Volunteer
Pier 21 Immigration Facility
Inscription on the Cross worn by the Sisters of Service – “I have come to serve”
Born in Windsor, Ontario, Florence Kelly moved with her parents at the age of 7 to a farm in Greenock, Township, Bruce County, Ontario, where she spent her formative years. She learned a lot in that time, self-reliance, independence, and what hard work really meant. She was a go-er, full of spunk, quick with a joke, and utterly fearless when she chose to make a stand. What you noticed about her right away was her quick laugh and the warmth she brought to every encounter. With no children of her own, she became the loving aunt to children everywhere.
She was not your “typical nun.” The day she entered the convent, her youngest brother bet her that she would never last, based, perhaps on the fact that she had been out on a date the night before. Sometime over the next 55 years of her religious life, she pocketed the quarter that he had bet.
She arrived at Pier 21 in 1950, and Halifax was to be her home for the next five years. Ships were arriving almost daily, sometimes 3 in a day, a flood of immigrants from the displaced persons camps of post-war Europe, some still wearing dog tags. There were women who were joining husbands who had come on before, shepherding 2 or 3 small children and all their worldly possessions, braving 10 or 12 days on the North Atlantic, coming to – they didn’t know what or where. The newcomers were sorely in need of an “expediter,” and Florence Kelly certainly fit the bill. She saw them through the processing, kept the children occupied, helped direct them through the paper work, translating for staff, seeing them on the right train to that new life – somewhere. A typical work day could stretch to 3 in the morning and Sister Kelly would often find herself wending her way home to the Tobin Street convent in the wee hours, only to rise early the next day and do it all over again.
She often accompanied groups of immigrants on the journey to Montreal, honing her high school German to the point where she acquired the specific accent that sounded like home. In the process she became part of the running joke at the Pier. People directed to the “German Sister” would comment that it was comforting to hear someone from their particular region. What was her name? Kelly. Not a very common name back home in Germany.
An immigrant, Inge Vermeulen tells of her experience with the Sister of Service, and we would like to believe she was speaking of “the German Sister.” “It was kindness in her voice that made me notice her above the noise in the station.” “You look so tired” she said. “Would you like some help?” Who was this woman? Was she a Canadian nun? “Let me take the little ones to the nursery while you go to the waiting room and have something to eat.” She was moving along with the luggage while I followed with the bags still wondering what to do.
Much as I appreciated her help I had to be honest and tell the truth about us. “We are Protestants,” I whispered. She laughed. “You are people who need a hand, aren’t you?” A Catholic nun looking after the children of Protestant immigrants, it was beyond anything ever encountered in my native Germany. Was this CANADIAN?
She could be tough when the situation required. On the Montreal bound trains she was known to track a Red Cap the length of the train, fire in her eyes and force him to return the money he had short changed some immigrant woman unfamiliar with the “new money.” Working at Gander years later she was approached by a young Czech girl, Veronika Martenovo who wanted to defect. This was at the height of the Cold War and tensions were high. Veronika’s escorts were extremely forceful in demanding her return, attempting to browbeat this exasperating nun who barred their way. Florence held her ground. Veronika Martenovo stayed. In gratitude Veronika gave Sister Kelly a cross that day, which Florence kept with her the rest of her life. Over the years they kept in touch. Just weeks before her death, Florence returned it to Veronika, a remembrance of trial and courage that the two of them shared.
Above it all was her love of life that made her so remarkable. A co-worker in Regina, Bill Blanch remembered “she lived life as a dance and had this little shuffle she used to do. She once took part in the town parade dressed as a clown, riding a bicycle. She livened up the parade.”
On her 50th anniversary of religious life Florence’s family collected some money to commemorate the occasion. What did she want to do? “Go to Vegas” was her reply and her sister and cousin piled on the plane for 3 days of fun, playing the slots, and laughing the whole time. “We only slept 2 or 3 hours a night” she reported on her return. Not bad for a 74 year old nun. But then again very typical Sister Florence Kelly.
The volunteer story of Sister Florence Kelly, as told by Patrick Kelly.