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Loving life in their mid-90s

While aging brings about some changes and limitations, two Franciscan sisters in Little Falls demonstrate every day that life is interesting and enjoyable. Sister Annella Biniek, age 94, and Sister Lillian Kroll, age 95, show a definite “joie de vivre” by taking hold of each day and living it to the fullest.

“I never really gave aging a thought,” said Biniek. “I just went with the years as they came. It was all very natural.”

Sister Annella Biniek has embraced the natural progression of years. At age 94, she said, “I just enjoy life – being alive – being present and enjoying people.”

She was the youngest of 11 children on a farm near Bowlus. Since her mother was born in Poland, the children learned both Polish and English. Praying the rosary and the angelus were part of daily life for the family. Biniek quit high school to take care of things at home after her mother died, when she was 14. She took some high school correspondence courses then, and later in life, she completed the requirements for her diploma.

Biniek joined the convent in 1942 and took her final vows in 1947. Her responsibilities took her to various placed that included Wahpeton, Breckinridge, Moorhead, Perham, Mille Lacs, Marshall and finally, home to stay in Little Falls. She began working in food service, later working in activities and then pastoral care.

One of the things she appreciates about being older is that she doesn’t have any specific job. “We’re kind of freelancing,” she said with a smile. “I just enjoy life – being alive – being present and enjoying people.”

She has lived 40 years of charismatic renewal. “I like doves, the symbol of the Holy Spirit,” she said. “I’m very dependent on the Holy Spirit.”

In 2017, she marked her 75th jubilee of religious life with a large celebration. She will continue to serve as long as she is able, studying scripture with a Jerusalem Bible open on her desk and surrounded by doves.

Biniek’s memory is “going to the birds” but she knows one thing for sure: “God has been good to me.”

Sister Lillian Kroll grew up in Royalton as the eldest of 13 children. She recalled, as a 7-year-old, telling her mother that she was going to be a priest when she grew up, only to be reminded that it didn’t work that way.

“I had an aunt who joined the convent around that time, and she told me I could be a sister when I grew up, so the seed was planted,” she said.

Sister Lillian Kroll, left, is supported and encouraged by her community and her family, including her sister Jean Litke. Kroll has lived each day to its very fullest, not fearing the advance of years, and always learning new things. Photos by Jennie Zeitler

Kroll attended St. Francis High School. After joining the convent, she worked first as a musician, then religious education director, then family minister, and then as vocation director. Her service took her to Fergus Falls, Waite Park, Elk River, Foley, Flensburg, St. Cloud, Wisconsin and Hawaii.

When she returned to Little Falls, at age 65, she worked with retreats, and she had a plan. “I wanted to continue to be alert, learning, and excited about life,” she said.

She was determined to learn something new every five years. At age 65, she started learning to play the flute. At age 70, she took possession of a discarded computer and “became pretty adept at that.”

“At age 75, I was asked to be the travel agent for the community,” she said, because of her experience with the computer.

Beginning at age 78 until she was 85, she planned overseas retreats. She and the sisters traveled to Assisi, Italy, many times and made a couple of trips to Israel as well. It was decided she should take it easy when she reached 85 and give that up!

However, that didn’t stop her from continuing to learn new things. She started painting at age 85 and has had three large art shows. Kroll’s sister, Jean Litke, and Jean’s daughter planned and conducted the shows.

At age 90, she learned to play the harmonica. Now, at age 95, she has decided to de-clutter and downsize.

“Now, I’m just getting old,” she said. “I’m losing my eyesight. It’s not always easy to hear everything, and my legs are giving me trouble.”

But, she continues to smile and be in high spirits. She wakes at 4:30 a.m. for prayer, followed by a walk to the cemetery “if I can.” She still plays the flute. Her 80th jubilee celebration will be in May, with family and friends gathering from all over the country.

“There is so much to get excited about,” she said. “Last night, I was looking at the moon; it was so beautiful, and I started singing.”

For the next five years, “I’m going to just celebrate creation; that’s what life is about.” Kroll tells people not to be afraid of getting older, to embrace it and to acknowledge the changes.

“We grow through it, becoming more reflective and appreciative,” she said. “I feel so much constant gratitude for everything, from the very smallest, knowing that God is looking at me all the time and filling all my needs.”

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