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A passion for people keeps Sister Bernadette going

Sister Bernadette likes to say that she got her vocation on the way to the chicken coop.

It was on a Sunday afternoon 70 years ago that her mother asked her if she wanted to be a nun as they walked to the henhouse to collect eggs.

"And I said, oh yes," Sister Bernadette recalls. "That finalized it and we started moving ahead."

She was 13 years old. The country was in the depths of the Great Depression.

Bernadette Kalscheur's mother, a devout woman, had long hoped that one of her 16 children would choose to become a priest or nun. Bernadette, the second youngest, was one of her last chances of that happening.

It didn't take any persuading to get Bernadette to enter the convent, however.

The teachers at the two-room St. Mary's School in Pine Bluff, Wis., where Bernadette got her first eight years of education, were School Sisters of St. Francis - and she idolized them.

"They were really a great inspiration to me," she says.

As an eighth-grader, Bernadette accepted her teacher's invitation to visit St. Joseph Convent in Milwaukee. She came away with her future decided.

"I loved it. I thought it was great," she says.

Seventy years later, Sister Bernadette is as enthusiastic about her ministry as when it began.

"Oh, definitely. No question. I never regret a day of it," she replies with conviction when asked if she would make the same choice again.

People sometimes ask the 83-year-old why she doesn't retire. She tells them that God has given her strength and good health, "So why should I retire?"

"I like what I'm doing. I love what I'm doing, in fact. So I want to keep doing that," she says.

Ministry brings recognition

Sister Bernadette's current job is that of pastoral ministry in Hudson's St. Patrick Parish.

Last week, she was recognized as Volunteer of the Year at the St. Croix County Jail for her work with prisoners there.

Besides coordinating the Catholic Bible study at the jail, Sister Bernadette started a program that has provided 151 children of prisoners with Christmas gifts over the past six Christmases.

"It's a very huge success around here," Mary Lischewski, the jail's program director, says of the gift giving. "Christmas is a very hard time (for prisoners) normally. This gives them at least a little connection with the family."

Lischewski says that when she talked to people about naming Sister Bernadette Volunteer of the Year, she discovered that her work at the jail is just a small part of her ministry.

Sister Bernadette's main duty at St. Patrick's Church is leading the program for bringing converts into the church, called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.

She also visits people in the hospital three or four days a week, welcomes new families to the parish, leads a support group for divorced and separated Catholics, serves food to homeless people at Mary Jo Copeland's Sharing and Caring Hands Shelter in Minneapolis and coordinates relief efforts for St. Patrick's sister parish in Yalpemech, Guatemala.

"The impact that she has on the whole community is great," says Lischewski. "She gives everybody that personal touch, no matter if they're from her congregation or not."

Former college instructor

What people may not realize about the grandmotherly nun is that she's a highly educated former college instructor.

After completing high school with the School Sisters of St. Francis, she received a bachelor's degree in teaching from the School Sisters' Alverno College, then housed at the convent.

From there, she went to New York City for eight years, teaching at St. Monica's School and completing work for a master's degree at Fordham University in the Bronx.

She recalls having up to 60 students in her second-grade classroom. The sisters called them the dead-end kids because the school was near the East River in one of the rougher neighborhoods of the city.

"But you managed them," she says. "(It was a) very different atmosphere though. I mean, parents wouldn't come in and say my kid would never do that. They knew they would do that. (It was a) very different relationship with parents. They accepted it."

Sister Bernadette's work with student teachers at St. Monica's impressed the School Sisters so much that they called her back to Alverno College in the early 1950s to work preparing new teachers.

"I wasn't real thrilled about going, because I liked teaching kids. I wasn't real keen on teaching adults," she says. "But once I got there I liked it. The grace of God, I guess, was there. It worked."

In the early 1960s, she was sent to St. Louis University to earn a doctorate in education. She jokes about studying "under Jesuit domination" there, and laughs merrily, adding that she had wonderful teachers.

She was appointed head of the education department when she returned to Alverno College three years later. The college now had its own campus.

In 1976, Sister Bernadette was elected vice president of personnel for the School Sisters, and in 1980, was appointed development director for the community, a position she held until coming to Hudson in 1993.

When she was ready to leave her administrative position with the School Sisters, she told the powers that be that she wanted to do pastoral work in a parish. That led her to Hudson.

Efforts to bring peace and social justice are a major emphasis of the School Sisters, and a cause that Sister Bernadette embraces.

She says the passage from Chapter 25 of St. Matthew's Gospel regarding the last judgment has had an impact on her life. In it, Christ separates the sheep from the goats according to whether they have assisted the poor, the hungry and thirty, the ill, strangers and the imprisoned.

"I don't think the pietistic thing is the thing that works," she says. "You know, the kind of holier than thou (attitude). Sure prayer is important. I'm not underestimating the prayer part. But Jesus said you're going to be judged more by your actions. That's what's going to judge you - your actions. What did you do for other people?"

And what is she trying to accomplish through her ministry?

"Well, I hope I can make the world a better place because I've been in it," she says.

School Sisters of St. Francis is an international community of more than 1,200 women in the United States, Europe, Latin America and India. School Sisters serve in educational, healing and pastoral ministries in 21 states and 10 countries.

Their mission is "to witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ and the presence of the reign of God as we enter into the lives and needs of people, especially the poor."

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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