Bill and Esther Ilnisky were Christian pastors and missionaries for nearly seven decades, working in the Caribbean and the Middle East before preaching in Florida for 40 years.
He was a bookworm, and she was outgoing and charismatic, so they were a good match. It seemed difficult to picture one without the other.
So, even though it was a devastating double loss for their only child, Sarah Milewski, when they died minutes apart of COVID-19 this month at a Palm Beach County hospice, it may have been a secret blessing, she said. Her father was 88 years old, and her mother was 92. This weekend would have been their 67th wedding anniversary.
“Knowing they went together is so precious, so wonderful, such a heartwarming feeling,” Milewski said, before adding, “I miss them.”
Bill Ilnisky grew up in Detroit and decided to dedicate his life to God at the age of 16, according to Milewski. He enrolled at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, an Assemblies of God institution. He wanted a pianist to preach at local churches. Esther Shabaz, a fellow student from Gary, Indiana, was recommended by colleagues. They were smitten.
“When my father proposed to her, he said, ‘Esther, I can’t promise you wealth, but I can promise you lots of adventure,’” Milewski explained. “She had a lot of fun in her life.”
Bill Ilnisky started churches in the Midwest after graduation and their wedding. The Ilniskys brought congregants to Jamaica for a mission in the late 1950s, fell in love with the island, and stayed for a decade to run a church in Montego Bay.
Milewski, then 2 years old, was adopted from a Miami foster home at that period. Bill Ilnisky moved the family from Jamaica to Lebanon in 1969, where he ministered to college students and taught. His wife formed a Christian rock band and started an outreach center.
“Lebanon was an amazing country at the time — gorgeous,” Milewski said.
However, in 1975, a civil war erupted between Christian and Muslim groups, with Beirut, the country’s capital, serving as a battlefield. Outside their apartment, bombs exploded twice, the first knocking Milewski out of bed and the second slamming her father to the ground.
Milewski explained, “My mother thought he was dead.” “All night, my mother and I hid in the bathroom, weeping and praying.” Bullet holes pocked the walls of every apartment on every floor except theirs the next morning.
“We put it down to prayer,” she said.
When the US Marines rescued Americans in 1976, they were the last plane back.
Bill Ilnisky became pastor at Calvary Temple in West Palm Beach, later renamed Lighthouse Christian Center International, shortly after they returned to the United States. His wife founded Esther Network International, a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching children how to pray.
When the couple arrived, Tom Belt, a former missionary from Oklahoma City, was a teenager at Calvary Temple. Bill Ilnisky’s stories of missionary work, he said, piqued his interest in traveling.
The Ilniskys, according to Belt, were “very welcoming, believed in others, and forgiving.”
Bill Ilnisky had dementia when he retired three years ago, despite being physically fit for a late octogenarian. His wife continued to run her prayer network and engage in Zoom calls.
The couple took precautions when the pandemic struck last year, according to Milewski. Bill Ilnisky went out on occasion, while her mother stayed at home and had groceries delivered.
His daughter said, “He couldn’t handle it.” “He wanted to be in the company of others.”
On Valentine’s Day, her mother’s birthday, Sarah Milewski and her husband paid a visit to her parents. Her mother became sick a few days later, and the couple was diagnosed with the virus and admitted to the hospital not long after.
The disease overtook them, despite the fact that the prognosis was initially positive. The decision to place them in hospice was taken on February 27. In her 15 years of dealing with the dying, Jacqueline Lopez-Devine, chief clinical officer at Trustbridge hospice, said she had never seen a couple arrive together. She claimed that having them in the same space for their final days was not an issue.
Milewski said her goodbyes through a window due to the flu, a microphone bearing “I love you” to her parents’ bedside. They seemed to be asleep, with her father on the right side and her mother facing him. As Milewski spoke, he would nod; her mother tried but couldn’t speak.
Milewski described the experience as “horrible.”
Esther Ilnisky died on March 1 at 10:15 a.m. Her husband arrived fifteen minutes later.
Milewski said, “They were always, always together.” “We’re on the same page.”