Bill and Esther Ilnisky spent nearly seven decades together as Christian ministers and missionaries, including stints in the Caribbean and the Middle East before preaching for 40 years in Florida.
They complimented each other – he the bookworm, she outgoing and charismatic. One without the other seemed unthinkable. So when they died minutes apart of COVID-19 this month at a Palm Beach County hospice, it may have been a hidden blessing, their only child, Sarah Milewski, said – even if it was a devastating double loss for her. Her father was 88, her mom 92. Their 67th wedding anniversary would have been this weekend. "It is so precious, so wonderful, such a heartwarming feeling to know they went together,” Milewski said, then adding, "I miss them.”
Bill Ilnisky grew up in Detroit, deciding at 16 to devote his life to God, Milewski said. He headed to Central Bible College, an Assemblies of God school in Springfield, Missouri. He preached at nearby churches and needed a piano player. Friends suggested Esther Shabaz, a fellow student from Gary, Indiana. They fell in love.
"When my dad proposed, he told her, ‘Esther, I can’t promise you wealth, but I can promise you lots of adventure,'” Milewski said. "She had a lot, a lot of adventure.” After graduation and their wedding, Bill Ilnisky opened churches in the Midwest. In the late-1950s, the Ilniskys took congregants to Jamaica for a mission, fell in love with the island, and stayed on to run a church in Montego Bay for a decade. It was during that time they adopted Milewski, then 2, from a Miami foster home. In 1969, the family moved from Jamaica to Lebanon, where Bill Ilnisky ministered to college students and taught. His wife started an outreach center and had a Christian rock band. "At that time, Lebanon was an amazing country - gorgeous,” Milewski said. But in 1975, civil war broke out and Beirut, the nation's capital, became a battleground.
Twice, bombs exploded outside their apartment – the first knocking Milewski out of bed, the second slamming her father to the ground. "My mom thought he was dead,” Milewski said. "My mom and I went and hid in the bathroom all night, crying and praying." The next morning, bullet holes pocked the walls of apartments on every floor except theirs. "We attributed that to prayer,” she said.
They fled in 1976 when U.S. Marines evacuated Americans, catching the last plane out. Shortly after their return to the States, Bill Ilnisky became pastor at Calvary Temple in West Palm Beach, later renamed Lighthouse Christian Center International. His wife started Esther Network International, aimed at teaching children to pray. Tom Belt, a retired missionary in Oklahoma City, was a teenager at Calvary Temple when the couple arrived. He said Bill Ilnisky's tales of missionary work whetted his desire to travel. Belt said the Ilniskys "were very accommodating, believed in others and very forgiving.” Bill Ilnisky retired three years ago and while physically healthy for a late octogenarian, had some dementia. His wife still ran her prayer network and did Zoom calls. When the pandemic hit last year, the couple took precautions, Milewski said. Her mother stayed home and had groceries delivered, but Bill Ilnisky occasionally went out.
"He couldn't take it,” his daughter said. "He needed to be around people.” Sarah Milewski and her husband visited her parents on Valentine's Day, her mother's birthday. A few days later, her mom became ill, and not long after the couple was diagnosed with the virus and hospitalized. While the prognosis was initially good, the disease overtook them.
The decision was made on Feb. 27 to put them in hospice. Jacqueline Lopez-Devine, chief clinical officer at Trustbridge hospice, said in her 15 years working with the dying, no couple had arrived together. She said there was no hesitation about putting them in the same room for their final days. Because of the virus, Milewski said her goodbyes through a window, a microphone carrying "I love you” to her parents' bedside. They looked like they did when sleeping, her father lying on the right side, her mother facing him. He would nod as Milewski spoke; her mom tried to speak but couldn't. "It was horrible,” Milewski said. At 10:15 a.m. on March 1, Esther Ilnisky died. Fifteen minutes later, her husband followed. "They were always, always together,” Milewski said. "So in sync.”