Sister Bernadette Stang, Assistant Prioress
On November 11, 2011 at 11:11 a.m. Sister Bernadette picked up the Monastery intercom and suggested that everyone take a moment to acknowledge this very unique place in time. It's this spirit of fun and constant amazement that Sister Bernadette brings to her work at Spirit Center and to her new role as assistant prioress. With all the ways she invokes laughter and celebration, you’d never guess that she’s had as many near-death experiences as most adventure novel heroines.
Religious vocations were nothing strange to Sister Bernadette’s family. Over 100 of the men and women in her generation entered religious life from her tiny hometown of St. Martin, Minnesota. Three of her aunts – Sister Petronilla, Sister Mary Bernard, and Sister Josephine – were already part of the community at the Monastery of St. Gertrude when the 21 year-old Bernadette came to visit with her cousin Margaret. Margaret was considering religious life, but not her. Bernadette had already been teaching for two years and was having far too much fun with boyfriends and dances to consider leaving for the Monastery. God, however, had other ideas. “Four or five days after I came back [home from St. Gertrude], I just knew God was calling me back.” After saying goodbye to those boyfriends and a few last farewell dances, Sister Bernadette returned to the Monastery as a postulant in 1956. She entered the novitiate with Sister Ida Mae and Sister Clarissa nine months later, and the three made First Profession in 1958.
Her first ministry was teaching at Sacred Heart in Boise, concurrently completing her bachelor’s degree over six summers’ study at Cardinal Stritch University in Millwaukee, WI. “We called it the 30 year plan; in 30 years, you’d get your degree.” After ten years of teaching, she was reassigned to direct the religious education program for the state of Idaho, literally building the foundations of the very first programs in the state. These years after the second Vatican council, when she and Sister Corinne Forsmann travelled the state helping to implement changes, were among the happiest of Sister Bernadette’s life both personally and professionally. She describes a great joy in being “the recipients of Vatican II…which gave a freedom…to have friends, to be friends with people we worked with…” whereas Sisters had previously been discouraged from forming personal friendships.
She continued her studies at Mundelein College and Loyola University over summers as she segued from religious education to pastoral ministry work all over Idaho. One day while working in Blackfoot, Idaho, she received an unexpected call from one of the community’s Sisters working in Columbia. Would she consider coming? Sister Bernadette spent three years in the South American country. As much as she saw beauty in the Sisters’ ministry there, the intensity and violence was too much for her to endure for long. “At 3:30 I’d leave [a building], and at 4:00 it would be bombed.” She was given the opportunity to return to the Monastery where she served as vocation director for seven years, then took a sabbatical year outside New Orleans. Coming home one day with a local priest friend, their car was hit by an 18-wheeler. Her friend was killed, and Sister Bernadette spent months in hospitals and rehabilitation. She knew “I didn’t die because there was some work that God wanted me to do.” Soon thereafter she had a dream “that I had to work with the oppressed,” and found fulfillment of that calling in establishing an after-school outreach program for children and women at a migrant workers’ camp in Caldwell. She served there for ten years, making such a dramatic impact on the community that she was given numerous awards and the mayor of Caldwell dedicated a day in her honor.
Sister Bernadette (second from right) and the Spirit Center staff.
Sister Bernadette was called home in 2006 to work with the Monastery’s growing retreat ministry. Now a certified Spiritual Director, she divides her time between spiritual direction at the Monastery and in Lewiston, outreach retreat ministry away from home – “whatever people request” – and a variety of retreats hosted at the Spirit Center.
Many would add “humor ministry” to the list of Sister Bernadette’s jobs. Whether she is giving talks around Idaho, tutoring children, helping someone discern their calling through spiritual direction, telling a joke about people born in Minnesota, or singing silly songs in German, Sister Bernadette seems to bring a little bit of God’s laughter wherever she goes.