OLEAN — As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing fighting continues in Europe, a local family is taking pride in their roots and showing solidarity with the Ukrainian people.
Olean resident Gloria Artlip’s grandmother, Mary Kolkowski, emigrated from Ukraine in 1913 with two of her cousins when she was 18 years old. She met her future husband, Peter Kolkowski, in Ukraine before he emigrated to the United States about two months before her.
They’re even listed on the Ellis Island Wall of Honor.
“I’m assuming they met because they attended the same Greek Catholic Church together,” said Melanie Giamanco, Gloria’s daughter, who has spent dozens of hours compiling her family history and genealogy. “And then they came here and got married in 1915.”
After moving to America, Mary continued to stay in touch with her Ukraine relatives, Giamanco said, sending them pictures, clothes and goods — helping from the new world anyway they could. Their letters back and forth often used a combination of Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and English all wrapped into one, she said.
“I’ve been trying to find her family who stayed there since I was probably 18 years old because I would have liked to locate them,” Giamanco said. “I think part of it is the language and spelling changes. When I look back through the records just here in Olean, she signed her name differently everywhere you look.”
While her father’s side of the family was Ukrainian, Artlip said her mother’s side was Polish and often spoke their native tongue. However, she could also occasionally understand her grandmother Kolkowski speaking Ukrainian with some linguistic Polish similarities.
“When my grandmother came here, she always believed in working very hard,” Artlip said. “She did ironing and laundry and also cleaned the rooms at the Olean House.” Mary also cleaned for Thomas Merton during his time in the Olean area and was mentioned in his book, “The Man in the Sycamore Tree.”
Giamanco said she’s saved a number of family photographs over the years with aunts, uncles, cousins and more, including several from Mary and Peter’s wedding, and some memorabilia, such as part of Mary’s wedding veil.
“Her hair was down to here,” Artlip said, pointing to her waist, “but she always wore it up in a bun. When I went to see her I would always make her take it down and she would have such a fit, but she did it for me and then would put it back up. It was so much fun.”
When they came to America, Mary didn’t know any English but taught herself the language. Artlip said she spoke English well but would switch to Ukrainian to discuss things they didn’t want the kids to know about.
“I just loved her to pieces,” she said. “She was a great lady.”
“It was very important to her that she was Ukrainian,” Giamanco said of her great-grandmother. “If they would call her Polish or call her Russian, she would get very upset about that.”
Although Mary and Peter remained married their entire lives, Giamanco said Peter had some trauma and difficulties that eventually led to him moving into another house across the street on Grossman Avenue in East Olean.
“She walked everywhere because she never drove, and one time she was crossing the street in front of Bradner Stadium and somebody hit her,” Giamanco said. “The driver wanted to take her to the hospital, but she got up and said, ‘I’m fine,’ and walked the rest of the way home.”
Mary was also an animal lover who wouldn’t go to bed until the cats came inside for the night and would let the paperboys’ dogs stay in the house while they did their routes if it was raining or snowing.
Giamanco said she’s always had a special connection to her great-grandmother as her grandfather did with Mary. She was born two years to the day after Mary died, and Giamanco said her grandfather told her, “God sent you because He knew how much I missed my mother.”
A teacher with CA BOCES, Giamanco has brought some of her passion for genealogy and family research into the classroom as some of her students have begun restoring some of the century-old photographs.
“As the kids work on different pictures, they start asking me questions, and then they go home and ask questions as well,” she said. “They’ve been phenomenal about the work they’ve done on my pieces.”
With recent events in Ukraine and neighboring nations, Giamanco said she would do anything she could to help her cousins if she could find them because that’s what Mary would have wanted.
“Not being able to know how to find them and how to help them is really hard,” she said. “The Ukrainian people are peaceful people. They’re farmers and manufacturers.”
Artlip thanked all who donated to a recent drive in Salamanca that collected dozens of boxes of items to send to Ukrainian refugees.
“I wanted to do something but I had no clue how to start it,” she added. “If I could take somebody, I would. It’s just really heartbreaking.”
“Especially knowing how important Mary’s country and her family were to her and feeling helpless,” Giamanco added.