Our Lady of Wisdom lauds its resident jubilarians
When Sister of the Immaculate Conception Angela Bergeron was finishing up her senior year at a public high school near Mamou, La., her teacher went around the class to inquire about students’ post-graduation plans.
The teasing commenced when 18-year-old Sister Angela announced she was entering the convent as an Immaculate Conception novice.
“One of the girls said, ‘A nun? You want to be an N-O-N-E?'” chuckled Sister Angela, remembering the teenage taunt 80 years later. “Well, when we had our 50th class reunion, I saw that girl and I showed her the ‘N-O-N-E’ that I had become!
“I can tell you I have been happy every day – not one day did I regret it,” Sister Angela added. “I’d see some girls (enter the convent) and they’d stay a few weeks, a few months, a couple of years, and they’d leave. I didn’t know what made them leave, because I was very happy.”
Sister Angela, who at age 98 counts Woodrow Wilson among her lifetime presidents, was the senior honoree at an Aug. 15 Jubilee Mass for ordained and religious residents of Our Lady of Wisdom Healthcare Center in Algiers. Three women religious and one priest marked a combined 270 years of ministry and renewed their vows at the special Mass, celebrated at Our Lady of Wisdom’s chapel on the Feast of the Assumption.
Jesuit Father Leo Nicoll, the Mass’ principal celebrant, said it was fitting that the jubilarians were being honored on a Marian feast day, as Mary of Nazareth also had made a momentous decision at a young age to heed the call of God.
“Even though it was quite difficult for her to understand (her calling), she herself made the statement, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord,’” Father Nicoll said. “The humility, the acceptance, the willingness to make a leap into the dark characterized the life of this marvelous young woman. We see elements of her life in the lives of all Christians, and I think noteworthily so in the lives of our jubilarians today.”
In addition to 80-year jubilarian Sister Angela, the other honorees and their respective anniversaries were:
• Marianite Sister Flavia Reed, 70 years.
• Jesuit Father Ernest Jacques and Sister of the Immaculate Conception Jerome Blank, 60 years.
• A fifth jubilarian – Jesuit Father Thomas “Dutch” Jenniskens, who died at Our Lady of Wisdom in May at age 86 – was honored posthumously for 60 years of priesthood.
An eager novice
As the guests of honor headed to separate post-liturgical receptions to enjoy a steak lunch and an anniversary cake with their family and friends, they reflected on their vocational callings.
Sister Angela, a native of Church Point, La., said she chose the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception because “that was the only order I knew.”
“I made a retreat in Grand Coteau, and on my way back I stopped to see my aunt in Church Point and I told her I had decided to be a nun,” Sister Angela recalled. “I wanted to enter when I was 17, but my mother said, ‘You’re too young. Wait another year.’ So I did.”
Sister Angela said the highlight of her eight decades in ministry was the 44 years she spent teaching all subjects to children in grades one through eight.
“I loved my students – they wanted to learn; they were so eager to learn,” said Sister Angela, who taught at elementary schools staffed by the Immaculate Conception Sisters, including St. Vincent de Paul in New Orleans; St. Charles Borromeo in Destrehan; Our Lady of Prompt Succor in White Castle; Holy Savior in Lockport; Holy Rosary in Larose; and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Church Point.
After retiring from teaching, Sister Angela worked in daycare for 10 years and at her community’s former convent on Avron Street in Metairie. She and her fellow jubilarian, Sister Jerome, were the convent’s unofficial “meeters and greeters,” manning the front desk and assisting at Masses, retreats and days of reflection.
Looking ahead to her 100th birthday in January 2015, Sister Angela, who until recently was known for walking two circuits around Our Lady of Wisdom without the assistance of a walker and who still gets around at a fast clip, said the secret to her longevity is simple: “I always enjoyed the people I was with.”
Exudes joy, expresses love
Sister Flavia, 86, a native of Ville Platte, was a teacher, assistant principal and principal at numerous Marianite of Holy Cross elementary schools for nearly 65 years, animated throughout by the spirit of her congregation’s founder, Blessed Basil Moreau, who believed in “educating the mind and the heart” of all students.
Sister Flavia’s posts included Holy Family in Port Allen; St. Agnes in Jefferson; Resurrection of Our Lord in New Orleans; Holy Family in Arnaudville; Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Lake Charles; and Sacred Heart (now Holy Cross) in Morgan City.
Her final assignment was as vice principal of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Kenner, where she mentored her fellow administrators, worked in collaboration with Auxiliary Bishop Dominic Carmon and was beloved of faculty, parents and students alike.
Her friend, Marianite Sister Kateri Battaglia, said the ever-smiling Sister Flavia is a bright light in Our Lady of Wisdom’s special care unit, which provides services to residents with dementia and Alzheimer’s.
“She’s a very happy person,” Sister Kateri said. “The staff love her in the special care unit because she’s always saying to them, ‘I love you. I love you. I love you.’ She just has a beautiful spirit.”
Teaching was a privilege
Father Jacques, 78, discerned a calling to the ordained life at St. James Major Elementary School in New Orleans, where he was taught by the Sisters of Mount Carmel. The scholarly Father Jacques went on to attend St. Aloysius High and Loyola University.
“I really wanted to be a Trappist monk, but my mother wouldn’t hear of it,” he recalled. “So one day I was talking to a priest at Loyola, and he said, ‘Well, if not a Trappist, why not a Jesuit?’ I said, OK, what do I have to do? That’s how it happened. Very simple.”
Father Jacques called teaching Latin, English, math and religion at Jesuit High the pinnacle of his educational ministry, quipping that high school teachers have the great privilege of transforming “savages into civilized human beings.”
The day’s other 60-year jubilarian, Sister Jerome, recalled falling in love with religious life while helping the Immaculate Conception Sisters after school as a pupil at Our Lady of Prompt Succor in White Castle.
“In those days the students had to clean the classrooms themselves,” noted Sister Jerome, 78. “The sisters were teachers, but they were just so Cajun. They were down-to-earth nuns. That meant a lot.”
A self-described people person, Sister Jerome said she is adjusting to being on the receiving end of care after a long life of serving others.
“I’m over here at Our Lady of Wisdom Nursing Home now, and they minister to me as much as I minister to them,” she said. “Being a sister is such a happy life. People don’t realize that – how happy it is. It’s just so uplifting to be a religious and I’ve never regretted one day of it.”
Sister Jerome, who has a reputation for being one of Our Lady of Wisdom’s chief comediennes, said a good sense of humor is essential in any vocation.
“It’s hard being married to the same man that long,” Sister Jerome winked, looking back on her 60 years as a consecrated servant of Christ. “But he’s taken good care of me, that’s for sure.”