The life of Helena Wanda Ellis, a leading light in Auckland’s Polish community, was a story of resilience, tragedy, faith and love that is quite remarkable.
This was the consensus of those who paid tribute to her at her funeral at St Patrick’s Cathedral on October 14.
Mrs Ellis died in Auckland on October 7, aged 89.
At the cathedral, Auckland diocese vicar-general Msgr Bernard Kiely described Mrs Ellis as someone who lived life to the full and “many people claimed her” — her family, the Polish community, St Peter’s and Baradene Colleges, the wider Church and the many social groups with which she had an involvement.
Mention was made several times of her recent memoir titled My Colourful Life, written by Matt Elliott.
That book detailed how, when she was 11 years old in her native Poland, her family was taken from their farm and deported to a brutal Russian labour camp, an ordeal which would eventually claim the lives of her father, younger sister and uncle.
The young Wanda and her brother eventually came to New Zealand and they initially lived at the Polish Children’s Camp in Pahiatua. But their mother remained trapped in Russia.
After leaving Russia, Wanda never saw her mother again. But she always remembered her mother’s last words to her: “Be always Polish and Catholic.”
At her funeral, tribute was paid to her many years of service to the Polish community in this country, which culminated in her receiving the Queen’s Service Medal in the 2015 New Year’s Honours.
“The Polish community was obviously a big part of Mum’s life,” said her son Anthony Power.
“She helped to establish the Polish House, she was the first Polish Association president, Polish dances, singing the national anthem, dressing in national costume, giving talks to a variety of organisations about her early life. These were all an enjoyable part of her life,” he said.
Also speaking at the cathedral, Igor Drecki told of how Mrs Ellis reached out to “countless Poles in need — she was there, always humble, always optimistic, always ready — Polish and Catholic”.
She was eventually able to return to visit Poland, the last time being in 2008.
The long association of Mrs Ellis with St Peter’s College in Epsom was also highlighted. “For a long time she was the only office person, being secretary, accounts keeper, careers advisor, counsellor, nurse. Many of those old boys still remember her,” Mr Power said.
In 1996, Mrs Ellis was the first recipient of the Petrus Award from St Peter’s in recognition of her many years of dedicated service.
The deprivation suffered in her early life meant that she could not have children of her own. So she and her first husband Frank Power adopted four children. Mr Power would later die in sad circumstances in the aftermath of a motor accident. Two of her adopted children would pre-decease Mrs Ellis, as would her second husband Tom Ellis.
When Frank Power died, Anthony Power said at the cathedral, life was “again hard”.
“But Mum’s many friends and the Church and the Christian Brothers all helped us as a family to get through that time.”
Msgr Kiely said that Mrs Ellis had once told him she could not believe what God had put before her. But she had a remarkable ability to bounce back and her Catholic Faith played a large part in this, he said.
“Wanda, wherever she went, would always be friendly, warm, often the life of the party.”
Msgr Kiely said that Mrs Ellis’s memoirs were in many ways a tribute to the
Polish children who came to New Zealand after World War II.
“Sadly what they endured is still happening today for many communities throughout the world. But they lived heroic lives. Many of us who are second, third, fourth or sometimes fifth generation New Zealanders have really no sense of what those initial immigrants have endured.
“Certainly, Wanda has a story of resilience that is quite remarkable.”
Anthony Power said that “it is easy to see that Mum’s life was full of hard times and struggles”.
“But we remember that she bore them, overcame them, and she found laughter, love and happiness in her life.”
He said his mother was a strong woman with a vibrant faith, and a true sense of what was right. She was not afraid to give advice, sometimes with a certain vigour.
During the Requiem Mass, Msgr Kiely invited the “Polish children” who had come to New Zealand as refugees so many years ago to stand around Mrs Ellis’ casket and pray. The Polish national anthem was sung. And Msgr Kiely placed a few ounces of Polish soil on the casket.
As the casket was leaving the cathedral, students from St Peter’s College formed a guard of honour.