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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

German teacher uplifts German heritage of region in books

By Mary Stamp

To counter silence to prejudice and to challenge bigotry, Inga Jablonsky fostered cross-cultural exchanges and sharing in 20 years of teaching at Spokane Falls Community College, and now has written books about the positive contributions of German Dominican sisters in the Northwest.

Inga Jablonsky
Inga Jablonsky’s home office has posters of Germany.

“My motivation is that we are to love our neighbors,” she said.

When some hear her German accent or learn she teaches German, they mistakenly link her with Germany’s Nazi past or with being a U.S. enemy in World War II.

Inga was born in 1946, after the war, and her parents did not join the Nazi Party nor comply with Nazi expectations.  They were in the Social Democratic Party.  They told her during her teen years about the time under Nazi rule. 

Many her age did not learn about that until they were in their 20s, in the late 1960s, when there was an opening up to talking about the war and Nazism.  There were many books telling personal stories and revealing the history of oppression, concentration camps and genocide.

In presenting the history of German sisters, who came to the Inland Northwest as pioneers to serve as nurses and teachers, Inga identifies with them as a woman, a German, a pioneer and a teacher.

She was the first in her family to leave Germany.

“Just as they left everything and everyone they knew to come to the United States, I left everything and everyone I knew in Germany,” she said.

During 2013, she plans to visit Catholic schools in the communities where the sisters served—Chewelah, Colville, Kettle Falls, Omak, Tonasket, Oroville and Spokane. 

She does readings from her two books about the sisters, Pioneer German Sisters: The Real Missionaries of the Pacific “Wild” West, a history published in 2008, based on five years of archival research and interviews, and Daughters of Hope and Fear, a young adult historical novel published in 2012.

Through sharing the content of these books, Inga hopes to dispel prejudices about Germans and nuns, to let students know about the German heritage of their communities, such as knowing the fact that the German sisters built their hospitals and taught in their schools. 

She also wants them to understand—in this time with few entering religious vocations—what it meant for these women to enter a vocation as sisters, leave their homeland and come here to serve.

“While I can’t identify with the sisters as holy women who took a vow of poverty, I admire what they did for others through teaching, nursing, building hospitals and schools,” Inga said.  “I feel close to them when I drive to Chewelah and Colville to speak, and wonder if they, too, felt so foreign in the landscapes of the area.”

Sharing the sisters’ stories is a form of ministry and a way to understand her own story.

Growing up in Wuppertal, Germany, she married at 22 and lived with the family of her husband, Hans, in Emlichheim.  She worked as secretary at a Lutheran church.  When her son Heiko was four, the church encouraged her to go to college to study to become a deacon.

She earned the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in religion and German at Carl von Ossietzky University in nearby Oldenburg.  While the university meshed with views of her parents, the congregation voted not to accept her as deacon, because the university had a reputation for socialist leanings.

So Inga began teaching religion and German to 12 to 14 year olds in Oldenburg.  The curriculum was less about a relationship with God and more about how people should live and address problems.

After she taught two years, she and her husband divorced.  Three years later, Inga met an American serviceman, Tom Jablonsky, stationed at Cloppenburg near Oldenburg.  When he had to return to Tuscon, Ariz., and her job ended, she went with him.   They married in 1984.

In Tuscon, she earned a master’s degree in second language acquisition, pedagogic and German literature at the University of Arizona.  Inga then taught at an Episcopal parochial elementary school run by Episcopal sisters.  She spent her summers from 1984 to 1988 at a satellite campus on Long Island, NY. 

In 1988, Spokane Falls Community College hired her to teach German didactics, language and literature.  She organized a German club, conversation group and study abroad program.  From 1994 to 2004, Inga took 200 students for four-week stays in Lübeck, Germany, which was then Spokane’s Sister City.  During the academic year, she also had student teachers come from Germany to assist with her classes.

“Study abroad programs help students see their own country with different eyes,” Inga said. 

In 2001, she started the Interlingua Language School in a classroom in her home.  She teaches individually-paced German classes to four or five people, does private tutoring and consults on translations.

On the school’s Facebook page, Inga expresses her vision about cultural exchanges: “Through learning language, we learn about culture.  Through learning about culture, we learn respect for others.  Through learning respect for others, we can hope for peace.”

As a teacher, she believes she is equal to—not above—students. Rather than just conveying information to them, she also learns from them, believing, “I know something.  They know something else.”

After 20 years teaching at SFCC, she retired in 2008.   She continues to advise students and continues to run the Interlingua Language School.

Her son, Heiko, who joined her in 1991 to study at SFCC and Eastern Washington University—going on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in linguistics —encouraged her to write.  So did colleagues at SFCC and her husband, Bill Curtiss, a member of the Spokane Tribe and construction contractor, whom she met in 2001 and married in 2007.

The seed for her book was planted on Feb. 25, 1995. Inga saw an article on the German roots of the Dominican order in Spokane.  Dominicans, known as the Poor School Sisters in Speyer, Germany, began coming to the United States in 1925 to build hospitals and schools.

In response to an invitation by Bishop Carroll, 11 sisters came to Helena, Mont., in 1925 to take charge of the domestic needs and affairs of Carroll College.  In 1929, on the invitation by doctors in Conrad, Mont., the sisters expanded their ministry to manage a small hospital there.

In 1930, they built St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chewelah.  In 1934, the sisters purchased a closed boarding school, previously run by Jesuit priests for Indian girls.  For 12 years, they assisted Jesuit priests to staff a boarding school for Indian children in Omak—now the Paschal Sherman School. 

From 1925 to 1937, 71 young sisters came from Germany, many to escape Nazism.  They continued to come until 1957.

On Feb. 26, after reading the article, Inga visited the Dominican Convent next door to Spokane Falls Community College to talk with sisters. 

“I went to Mass, had a meal and made friends,” she said. 

She began going on weekends to talk with older German women, even though many no longer spoke much German.

When they celebrated their 75th year in the United States in 2000, they had an exhibition that told of their coming to the region. 

Our Lady of the Valley Convent in Kettle Falls was sold by the sisters in 1969. At that time they moved into the new motherhouse in West Spokane on Fort Wright Dr. The Dominican convent included 75 American women. 

They built Holy Family Nursing home in 1960 and Holy Family Hospital in 1964.

In 1965, they moved the convent to land beside the Spokane River near Fort Wright. 

In 1995, they merged with the Sinsinawa Dominicans.  In 2010, when the Dominican Center closed, some of the sisters moved to Sinsinawa, their motherhouse in Wisconsin. Some stayed in Spokane and Chewelah, where they continue to minister.

Over the years, Inga learned the archives held English-language audiotapes from their 50th anniversary and materials from before 1942 in German.

She asked to put the information in chronological order and write about them.  The prioress was hesitant to give her access to the archives, because no one knew what was in the German papers. 

That prioress left.  Another came and left.  The third let her photograph information—letters and journals.  She also transcribed the audiotapes and translated many documents.

Inga visited the convent for five years to compile Pioneer German Sisters. 

Quoting diaries, letters and the tapes, the book tells of the women leaving their families from 1925 to 1937 as Germany began its downward spiral into “disaster and the Holocaust.” It records their work in the Northwest, especially with Native Americans.

When the archives and some sisters moved to Sinsinawa, Wis., Inga went there for four days to interview Sister Consuelo, who had taught at St. Mary’s Mission. 

Often over a year, Inga also interviewed Sr. Antonia Stare, the third America woman to join the Dominicans.  They became good friends.  She has since died. 

In 2005, Inga wrote the book. 

Since 2009, she has done book tours to places the sisters worked and taught.

Daughters of Hope and Fear, a historical novel, shares the life of a 16-year-old German girl, Nilla, who enters the Dominican order. 

Her story is based on information from the hand-written German diaries of Sister Bonaventura, who came to the United States in 1925 and died in 1942. 

Nilla escapes Nazi Germany in the 1930s by becoming a missionary and going to the Colville Indian Mission in Kettle Falls.  There, she befriends a young Indian woman, Tanik, and learns about a new culture.

Inga knows that when people hear her speak they hear her German accent. 

She assumes that when the sisters spoke, their accent identified them as German, when Germany was an enemy.  Even though they were fleeing Nazism, the sisters were fingerprinted upon arriving in the United States.

Some still are unable to set aside that connection.  So Inga teaches about German culture and history along with language.

She knows there is reason for concern about Nazism.  When the Berlin Wall fell, she hesitated to rejoice, knowing some who wanted to reunite Germany had Nazi aspirations.  Similarly, she was disturbed in the 1990s by the Nazis in North Idaho.

Inga wants people to know about Germany so they can distinguish between the Nazi years and the overall culture.

For information, call 624-0717 or email

Copyright © February 2013 - The Fig Tree