Sister Bernadette Kalscheur or Sister Herman or Bernie, as she was lovingly called by family and friends, was an extraordinary woman. When asked to describe Bernadette these words were quickly given:
Dynamic, energetic, spiritual, relational, committed, family-centered, faith-filled, a go-getter, a passionate educator, a social activist…
Certainly we could continue adding more and more descriptors but Bernadette is already embarrassed by this.
Yes, she was a humble and holy woman who fittingly entered the world on a Holy Day -- January 1, 1921. Bernadette was the second youngest of the 17 children of Herman and Helen Kalscheur in Pine Bluff, Wisconsin. Her family was extremely important to her and we are blessed to have so many of the Kalscheur family with us tonight -- especially her dear sister, Florence.
The St. Mary’s family was also central to her life. Bernadette and her brothers and sisters attended St. Mary’s School, about one mile from their farm, where she met the School Sisters of St. Francis. Now, many of us would say that our vocation came from our contact with the sisters; but that wasn’t quite the story Bernadette told.
When Bernie was 13 years old she took a trip to Milwaukee with Sister Mark to see the convent. She was in awe of everything and reported that she was quite impressed with the little golden fence around the altar in the Adoration Chapel. Bernie was very excited about her trip, but when she returned home she did not say anything to her parents about her thoughts of religious life. It was not until she and her mom went out to feed the chickens and her mom asked, “Bernadette, do you want to go to the convent?” “Yes,” she told her mom, who immediately lit up with joy. This was the deciding moment, she was happy and she saw that “ma” was happy. So Bernadette always told people that she got her vocation on the way to the chicken coop!
Having a faith-centered family prepared Bernadette for convent life; but that was not the only thing that prepared her. The favorite family card game of euchre also proved to be good training, especially when all the families joined in playing “traveling euchre.” Although this might be a stretch, Bernadette would probably agree that traveling around the euchre card tables at family events certainly provided good practice for her future of traveling to missions in India, Latin America and Europe; a jubilee trip to the Holy Land; and an incredible educational journey that she had in 1971 behind the Iron Curtain in Russia, Hungry, Romania, Siberia and Poland.
Whether traveling or in the classroom, we know that Bernadette was teaching (and learning) wherever she went and in whatever job she held. Without a doubt, Bernadette was an educator “Par Excellence.” In 1941 she began her teaching ministry in Nebraska, later she went to New York and Milwaukee; and then in 1954, Bernadette began 20 plus years at Alverno College. After a break to receive her PhD from St. Louis University, Bernadette returned to Alverno to serve as Head of the Education Department.
Stories are many of how she trained teachers, not only for the classroom, but for life. Integrated into everything she taught, and rooted in everything she did, Bernadette was a woman of justice. In the turbulent 1960’s she developed programs at Alverno that took students into the inner city of Milwaukee to walk side-by-side with the poor; for four summers in Milwaukee and Chicago she directed the Institute for Teachers of Disadvantaged Youth; with her students she lobbied the Milwaukee Public School Board for equal resources for all children, and she had the incredible opportunity to meet with
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. No wonder this dedicated woman won the Teacher of the Year Award at Alverno in 1968 and received the prestigious B’nai B’rith Human Rights Interfaith Award in 1969.
In 1976 Bernadette was elected to the Generalate Team as the Vice President of Personnel. In keeping with our commitment to follow the Gospel, this team called the sisters to have “a preferential option for the poor.” And, as we well know, Bernadette not only spoke these words but she lived them and spread the message within the community and beyond by serving on the Board for the Benedict Center and the Board for Project Equality; leading Encounter Teams on Justice and Social Change for the Lutheran Church of America; and for 20 years being a very active member of the Milwaukee Archdiocesan Sisters’ Council.
After her term of office was over, Bernadette looked forward to a new job which would bring her back to educational administration. She was going to be the Director of the LaFarge Lifelong Learning Program; however, the community had other plans. Bernadette was asked to temporarily take over as the Director of the Development Office.
As always, Bernadette responded with gusto. She organized her staff, initiated Friends Groups all around the country and began the annual Mass in honor of deceased loved ones now known as “Candles of Love.” Bernadette’s “temporary job” lasted for 13 years but the seeds she sowed with all the relationships she began are still being harvested today.
After over 50 years in community and at age of 72, Bernadette said she was able to make the first career decision she had ever made. She went to St. Patrick’s Church in Hudson, WI as a Pastoral Minister. At her farewell from Milwaukee, Attorney Dennis Purtell, the President of the Development Office Advisory Board, said, “When she gets involved in
parish work, the people will not know what hit them!”
I venture to say that the people of St. Patrick’s were very happy with what hit them. Yes, the spirit of Bernadette flew in and found a home in Hudson. Working with many parishioners, Bernadette initiated program after program: RCIA; the Jail Ministry; a group for the divorced and separated; workdays with the homeless at Sharing and Caring Hands in Minneapolis; and of course the sister parish relationship with the returned refugees at our School Sister mission in Yalpemech, Guatemala.
Of course, in her “free time” Bernadette also took communion to the homebound, welcomed new parishioners, did bible study groups at retirement homes, met with ecumenical groups and, she because she recruited so many men to join, she was named as an Honorary Member of the Knights of Columbus!
The parishioners from St. Patrick’s can tell us many more things that Bernadette did for them; but after 15 years and at the age of 87, it was time for Bernadette to bid farewell to St. Pat’s and move into retirement at St. Joseph Convent in Campbellsport – finally a time to relax!
With all that has just been said, we can hear Bernadette saying, “It’s not me – it’s God! God is the source of my energy; God is the source of my life.” Yes, God was the source of her life which is probably why Bernadette Kalscheur came into the world on January 1, the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God and left us on August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration.
Now, we’re not sure if Bernadette was standing on the top of Mount Tabor on August 6th – I think she was probably at the chicken coop with her “ma and pa.” And we’re not sure she was wearing clothes of dazzling white on August 6th – I think she was probably wearing her treasured Kalscheur family t-shirt that she had specially made for a family reunion.
But we all do know that God was saying, “Come, I have called you by name -- Bernie, Herman, Bernadette – come, I will hold you in the palm of my hand.”
Commentary by Sister Toni Gradisnik, SSSF