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home : features : people of faith

4/19/2012 9:00:00 AM
Great-grandmother still at keyboard
Mrs. Nikolski (Angela Cave photo)
Mrs. Nikolski (Angela Cave photo)
Mrs. Nikolski with her 10 children (Submitted photo)
Mrs. Nikolski with her 10 children (Submitted photo)
The large Nikolski brood was intended. Mrs. Nikolski was one of four children, but her mother had a dozen siblings and her grandmother had 16. Many relatives lived with the family.

Becoming a mother of 10 was often a "comedy," Mrs. Nikolski said. The family traveled in a Volkswagen bus and a station wagon, the back of which they called the "holding area." They were sometimes mistaken for a Scout troop or school group. They took up a whole pew at church.

The children generally enjoyed having so many playmates. But son Bernie said with a laugh, "My bedroom was in the hallway for a while."

Strangers asked how Mrs. Nikolski handled it. "They all come one at a time," she would answer. Also, her husband was strict: "From the time they were little, they were expected to help."

Still, her children marvel at her. They remember their parents taking one vacation alone, only to turn around and scoop up a few of the kids when they got lonely. (In recent years, the children have accompanied their mother on vacations.)

"Many times she got few hours of sleep, and I don't know how she functioned," Mrs. Dobski said. "I think with Mom being at the church, God was watching over her."

Mrs. Nikolski agreed. "How can people raise a family and not believe in God?" she asked. "There's got to be someone to turn to when you're not there. I totally rely on my faith."

That was evident when money was tight: The Nikolskis owned a struggling restaurant for a stretch and still managed to keep the children fed and educated in Catholic schools.

"She just kept moving forward," Mrs. Dobski said. "I think a lot of people would just throw up their hands and say, 'Forget it.'"

Her faith was also evident when Mrs. Nikolski lost her father, sister and husband in a six-month period.

"My mom is just a rock," Bernie said. "Her faith just got her through all that." (AC)


In Joan Nikolski's world, 13 houseguests make for an intimate Easter Sunday, a dozen phone calls from family members is a slow day - and quiet time gets boring.

Mrs. Nikolski, 78, the organist at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Schenectady, has always managed to be in "20 different places helping 30 different people," according to one of her 10 children.

She remembers the birthdays and whereabouts of all her children, her 18 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren (with one more on the way).

"Her father used to call her 'Split-Second,'" recalled Michele Dobski, Mrs. Nikolski's fourth child.

Indeed, in addition to being perpetually on-call to play the organ, Mrs. Nikolski hosts family gatherings, attends all of her grandchildren's concerts and sporting events and fills in as chauffeur and confidant. In her down time, she enjoys crossword puzzles, knitting, walking and playing the piano.

"I don't sit down until about 8:00 at night," the busy senior told The Evangelist. "I'm always wiry and doing things. I don't like to sit."

When she hurt her back two years ago, she needed extra convincing to stop riding her tractor mower and climbing stairs to do laundry. She refused to give up gardening, cooking or traveling across the country to visit relatives.

"My life has quieted down a lot," she said. Family "is what I live for. Sometimes people my age, all they talk about is their health."

As a child, Mrs. Nikolski dreamed of being a concert pianist. Her husband, Donald, achieved fame with his clarinet and Polish American band, the Don Nikolski Orchestra. He died in 1993.

"I always say, he was on stage," Mrs. Nikolski said, "and I was at the back of the church."

Mrs. Nikolski learned the piano at age nine and started playing the organ at St. Paul's at age 12 for a dollar a Mass. She worked for General Electric Co. after high school graduation and continued playing for every Catholic church in the city while raising children.

Two decades ago, she retired from 20 years at the Northeast Parent and Child Society. But she still plays at St. Paul's full-time, where she's been for 32 years, and accompanies soloists and a choral group.

Mrs. Nikolski remembers the days before Mass in English, but said "the most frustrating change is not to be able to have people sing in the choir. People are not committed to choirs anymore.

"A choir enhances the liturgy," she continued. "I feel [Mass-goers] like to sing along with a choir."

She's considered retiring, but something always stops her.

"I feel it's my other home," she said. "I am part of the Mass and I want to bring the music and the Mass together."

Janice Stewart, Mrs. Nikolski's fifth daughter and a singer, always chooses her mother to accompany her.

"There's something about my mom's ability to minister through music," Mrs. Stewart mused.

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