The Sting of Death: My Godmother Olga

In the name of the Creator and the Redeemer and the Sanctifier, Amen.

Mama Olga BilasPlease allow me to share with you a personal sadness and to humbly ask for your prayers. Yesterday I learned that my dear Godmother Olga reposed in the Lord.  Since receiving notification of her transition, my mind has wandered and continuously reminisced about countless memories of being a recipient of her kindness, generosity, hospitality, compassion, and love. She was truly an angel in the flesh.

I was a high school senior when I first met “Mama Olga”. As a Byzantine-Ruthenian Catholic, I observed the Gregorian Paschalion. In the Sunday Youngstown Vindicator, I read a feature article about Nativity of Christ Russian Orthodox Church celebrating Easter according to the Julian Calendar and decided to attend Holy Week services.  Mama Olga made an extra effort to greet and take an interest in me. Now with a smile through tears, I remember her response when I told her that I was Ruthenian Catholic. Without a moment’s hesitation, she quipped: “So, you are krivo-slavny (a bent Slav) and we are pravo-slavny (true Slavs). With laughter, gentle sarcasm, and love, she taught me.

Now, how do we handle ourselves in a pluralistic world? How do we handle ourselves in a world where other people differ from us? We look at television and we realize that people are killing each other because they believe that they have the right faith. Mama Olga had this formula for how to get along. She knew she had the right faith. She was absolutely confident about her Orthodox Faith. It was the truth. And yet, she was always accepting of others. She could always see the good in others. She could learn from others, too. And she never lost her sense of humor. What a better world this would be if we could just accept our differences and have our sense of humor intact. She used to tell our story and laugh and laugh. That was Mama Olga. Oh, by the way… I converted to Orthodoxy after six months of catechetical study with Mama Olga mentoring me. She got me to do things I never thought possible. She seemed to be able to see my strengths in spite of my weaknesses and she’d reinforce the positive and lead me on to do things. I owe that to her. And if you would have known her, you’d know exactly what I mean. Accepting, encouraging, there she was!  That wonderful positive outlook. I wish the world could learn it. We can learn, can’t we? I wish the whole world could learn that attitude.

During my undergraduate studies at Youngstown State University, her home was my refuge from dormitory life and food. What a lucky kid to be adopted by her!  After spending a few weeks during the summer at the Romanian Convent in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, I reappeared at our church for Sunday Liturgy.  Mama Olga wanted to catch up with me, so we were chattering in the choir loft during the pastor’s homily. Unbeknownst to us, Father Kovalchuck had chastised us for talking; however, Mama Olga was so engrossed in knowing about me and my life, we missed the cue and continued to chat until we finally realized that Father had stopped speaking and the whole church was silent awaiting the end of our conversation.  Such embarrassment! But Mama Olga was fearless in what she believed to be true, and she protected me from scorn. My life was forever changed by Mama Olga’s presence and her sustenance.  She demonstrated that “Orthodoxy is life. You can’t just talk about it. You have to live it.” In other words, if you don’t live Orthodoxy, you can’t teach it. You can’t inspire people about it. But no one doubted that Mama Olga lived the Orthodox faith.  She tirelessly gave of her time, talents, and treasures for our Faith.  Today, her body is no longer at work, but her mind and her heart are with God. Every one of us who were lucky enough to know her have the memory of an icon within us.  Even now, in some mysterious way, I believe that her memory will instill in me faithfulness more and more beautifully with every passing day.

The Orthodox Catholic Church is no stranger to death.  At virtually every service we pray that God would grant us:

...[to] complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance…


…for a Christian ending to our life: painless, blameless, and peaceful; and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ…

The end of our life is clearly a matter of prayer. And we pray for a good end. What constitutes a good end, a good death? Like most people, Mama Olga would have preferred a death that was painless and peaceful. “Blameless” for her would have meant a death in which she was clearly professing Christ as Savior within the Ancient Orthodox Faith.

The death of Mama Olga feels to me like a tragedy. The story of Christ is a tragedy. But it is a tragedy that ends in triumph. Is not the story of Christ’s destruction the tragic character of each of our lives? Indeed, we are told that the Cross is the lot of all who follow Him. The Christian life is a voluntary following of His tragic path. What makes it Christian is the faith and hope, as shown in Christ’s resurrection, that such a path is, in fact, triumphant, healing, redemptive, sanctifying, justifying, illumining, etc. The tragic path is the path to union with God. The task of the Orthodox Christian Church in the midst of our modern culture continues to be the proclamation of this tragic path and its triumphant result.

To experience the loss of such a beautiful soul is devastating, but the tragedy has has been gathered into the Cross, the Great Tragedy, and by that gathering the death of the righteous becomes a locus of triumph, healing, redemption, sanctification, justification, illumination. If this is not true of all tragedy, then the Cross would be empty and of no effect.

Olga Kiddon Bilas, 87, entered into eternal rest on Sept. 22, 2014, in Youngstown. She was the beloved wife of John Bilas. They were married on Aug. 10, 1947. Olga was born in Elwood City, Pa., on March 20, 1927, the daughter of Gabriel (Harry) and Antonina (Repella) Kiddon.

Olga moved to Struthers in 1941, and graduated from Struthers High School in 1945. She was very active in school and community activities, especially Struthers alumni events, and often held leadership roles. Olga was a member of St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church in Campbell. The Orthodox Christian faith was central to her life and she supported it through working with the Sisterhoods of St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church in Campbell and the Nativity of Christ Orthodox Church in Youngstown. Olga also was a member of the Eastern Orthodox Woman’s Society and was named Woman of the Year in 1977.

Mama Olga will always be remembered for keeping her extended family connected, and opening her home to many family and friends. Throughout her life, she was an example of the “good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21), wisely using the gifts that God gave her. She will be greatly missed by the many people whose lives she touched in so many ways. “May God number her among the sheep on His right hand, and may her memory be eternal.”

Vechnaja Pamjat – Memory Eternal!


2 thoughts on “The Sting of Death: My Godmother Olga

  1. I am so sorry to hear of your loss . You’re eulogy to her was absolutely beautiful and well worded ( as usual with you ). It’s sounds like she truly had a shameless and blameless life here on Earth.

  2. “Set me as a seal upon your heart; for love is as strong as death” (The Song of Songs 8:6).

    Thank you, Dr. Terry, for your deeply kind and considerate words. “Mama Olga” truly enriched my life beyond measure. Her life was a gift to all those who were blessed to know her.

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