It’s been said that true leadership is not about exalting ourselves but about lifting others up. That’s how School Sister of St. Francis Bernardin Deutsch, pictured above at left, viewed the sisters who taught her at Alvernia High School in Chicago.
“The sisters were hearty, prayerful women, very aware of the needs of the world and of their city,” Sister Bernardin said. “Though there was no one moment when I made the decision to become a sister, I knew these sisters had something special – and I wanted to be part of it.”
In 1949, Sister Bernardin entered St. Joseph Convent in Milwaukee. Her formation challenged her to grow in ways she never would have imagined.
“Social life in the convent was different,” she said. “The 90 postulants in my class came from very different backgrounds. Some came from the farms, others came from large or small cities. Some had worked on their own before entering; others had not completed high school. We all worked and played together, whether in the laundry or kitchen, playing basketball or volleyball. There were not exclusive groups.”
The professional careers of the sisters were determined by the mission needs of the community. “I was given a choice of education, nursing or music,” she recalled. The education that needed to follow that path was set in motion when she began studies for a bachelor of arts degree at Alverno College in Milwaukee with preparation for secondary education.
“Early in my career, I learned that there is almost nothing a group of women religious cannot accomplish if they set out to do it together.”sister Bernardin Deutsch
“Early in my career, I learned that there is almost nothing a group of women religious cannot accomplish if they set out to do it together,” she said. “I learned that, with prayer and personal effort, we could make a significant difference in the lives of others. This kind of thinking was highly reinforced in my early mission life at Pius XI Catholic High School.”
After completing her doctorate in education, Sister Bernardin began a long and distinguished teaching career at Alverno College. She taught in the education department and eventually became Director of Secondary Education, assigning and supervising student teachers. When the psychology department was established in 1968, Sister joined that department and began teaching courses in educational psychology.
The 1970s saw the start of a series of wide-ranging changes at Alverno. In 1971, Alverno established an internship program for all students, referred to as “Off-Campus Experiential Learning.” Two years later, in its quest for more effective teaching, the college redefined the undergraduate degree as a matrix of achievement for graduates. Students were assessed not only on content knowledge in academic areas, but also on demonstration of eight core abilities. Then, in 1977, Alverno launched Weekend College for the convenience of adult women who wanted to pursue studies leading to degrees in business or professional communication.
When Alverno opened Weekend College, Sister Bernardin was one of five instructors who taught a six-semester-hour course in which the students were introduced to Alverno’s learning framework. “After a few years, I became coordinator of this introductory course, taking on the responsibility of hiring teachers who created and maintained the curriculum for the course,” she said.
“Alverno’s student population has been very diverse in religious, economic and cultural backgrounds, so there was every opportunity to serve,” she said. “Teaching and getting to know the students were the highlights of my ministry.
“As I reflect on it now, assisting students to grow to be the best that they can become through the formal and informal learning at Alverno has been at the center of my ministry,” Sister continued. “I would see them as freshmen or sophomores and again as they prepared for graduation – and the growth was immense.”
Another rewarding aspect of her years at Alverno was her ongoing interaction with faculty and staff.
“Working through common goals with heart and enthusiasm helped us learn from each other,” she said. “By our collaboration with one another, we accomplished what could never be achieved alone. And, of course, one accomplishes nothing without the help of God. While we put forth our best effort, only God can give the increase.”
From 1961 onward, Sister Bernardin taught at Alverno in some capacity until her retirement from teaching in 2006. It was then that she was invited to join the student affairs department, where she continues to serve even as she approaches her 90th birthday. Sister’s main responsibility is to issue emergency loans to students who need help with basic needs such as books, transportation costs and rental assistance.
“Giving up teaching and other major activities at Alverno has provided an opportunity for me to move on to different ways of serving,” she said.
Sister Bernardin also is finding ways to be of service to the sisters with whom she resides at Sacred Heart, her community’s continuum of care facility in Milwaukee.
“Though professional assistance is readily available at Sacred Heart, friendship availability is also very important,” she said. “Because my ministry has been spent largely in one place, I didn’t know many of the sisters at Sacred Heart. Getting to know these sisters, with whom I have shared a common history and common religious life values, has been a highlight of living here.”
She finds that what is especially rewarding is the time that retirement allows for a quiet heart, “open to listening more attentively to God’s Word,” she said. “I treasure the time I have for more reflection and a freeing of the heart to attend to God’s presence and the needs of others.”
— by Sister Ruth Hoerig, SSSF