One of Sister Bernita Wasinger’s students called her “the different-est sister I’ve ever known.”
That was nearly 70 years ago.
Some things don’t change very much.
“I just feel like I’m an instrument, maybe more like a broken pencil. But God is using it to write His message,” said Sr. Bernita, who will celebrate her 70th anniversary as a School Sister of Notre Dame (SSND) on Saturday, Sept. 17, in Loose Creek.
The Mass will be at 4 p.m. in Immaculate Conception Church.
This is Sr. Bernita’s seventh year visiting nursing home residents and taking Holy Communion to people who are homebound in the Loose Creek, Linn and Westphalia parishes.
She previously spent many years teaching and leading Catholic schools, before serving as pastoral minister and director of religious education for St. Martin Parish in St. Martins.
“My thing is: dare to choose a life,” she said. “Because you’ll never know for sure, ever — not in this life, anyway. So you dare, and every day, you work on it.”
The ninth of 11 children — seven boys, four girls — born to the late Pete and Susanna Wasinger, Sr. Bernita spent her early childhood in Victoria, Kansas.
She said her mother was a saint and her father was born to evangelize.
The family moved to a farm near Linn, where young Bernita and her siblings attended St. George School.
“Back then, it was a public school taught by nuns” — specifically, School Sisters of Notre Dame, she recalled.
“They weren’t allowed to teach religion after 9 a.m., and that’s when our bus got us there,” she said.
Most of what she learned about her faith came from her parents at home.
She had two aunts, a cousin and even some teachers in Kansas who were Sisters of St. Agnes.
When she told her dad she was thinking about being a sister, he encouraged her to find a community that allowed her to dress like the people she was being sent to serve.
There was no such religious community at the time, but things would eventually change.
After eighth grade, she asked if she could go to Notre Dame High School that was located in the SSND Motherhouse in St. Louis.
It was a girls’ Catholic high school and an aspiranture for young women who were thinking about becoming SSNDs.
“In my mind, it was just a boarding school,” Sr. Bernita recalled.
Over the summer after graduation, she decided not to enter the SSND congregation.
“The letter I wrote said I’m not coming,” she recalled. “They wrote back, ‘Who made that decision, you or God?’
“I thought to myself, ‘I did! And who am I next to God?’”
She and her parents spent the two weeks before entrance day hastily preparing for her to enter the SSND candidature.
Her mother and two of her siblings took her to St. Louis.
“When I got there, I went into a side room and I put on a postulant’s dress,” she said. “My brother saw me and said, ‘Good heavens!’ That was the strongest reaction I got.”
Know, love and serve
Sr. Bernita majored in philosophy and religion at the former Notre Dame College in St. Louis.
She was given the religious name Sister Thomas Ann — a combination of one of her brother’s and her mother’s names.
Early on, she felt called to be a hospital chaplain, but her superiors knew that she was a good educator and didn’t want to let those skills go to waste.
SSNDs, like all the other religious orders and congregations at that time, wore elaborate habits every day.
She remembers Father Thomas Fox, pastor of the former Blessed Sacrament Parish in Hannibal, visiting the sisters in their convent every Sunday while she was student teaching there.
Everyone but Sr. Bernita was shocked to hear him predict that in 20 years, the only way people would be able to tell which community a sister belonged to would be by her lapel pin.
She professed first vows on Aug. 1, 1952, and final vows exactly six years later — promising God to live a life of poverty, chastity and holy obedience to Him through her religious superiors and the SSND constitutions.
She completed a master’s degree in education at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, with a heavy emphasis in school administration.
She later completed a certificate in theology through the master’s program at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
She spent her first 10 years teaching primary-grade children in Catholic schools. She then moved up to grades 5 through 8.
She took an interactive approach to helping children learn the answers to the questions in the Baltimore Catechism, which was the universal resource for grade school religious instruction.
“I would break the questions down for my students,” she said. “What does it mean to you that God made you? What does it mean to know Him, love Him and serve Him in this life?
“We took each question so far apart that they basically had it memorized by the time we were through talking about it,” she said.
Families of faith
For 29 years, she taught and was principal at five schools in St. Louis and at Sacred Heart School in Poplar Bluff.
Some regretted when the SSNDs changed over from habits to regular clothes and simple veils, but Sr. Bernita did not.
“I was happy to let the habit go,” she said. “After that, people could see that I was a person like them.”
She was also pleased to be able to go back to using her baptismal name.
Sr. Bernita served as associate superintendent of Catholic schools for the Jefferson City diocese from 1985-88.
After taking a one-year sabbatical to study theology at Gonzaga, she started branching out into parish work, first in St. Louis, then in St. Martins, where she spent the next 28 years.
There, as pastoral minister, she directed the parish religious education program for children and teens; prepared high school youth for Confirmation; coordinated the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults; instructed altar servers; visited the sick in nursing homes; and took Holy Communion to nursing home residents and people who were too sick to go to church.
With help and support from Father Edwin Schmidt, now deceased, and St. Martin parishioners, she helped start a 50+ Club for people age 50 and over; started an annual Vacation Bible School and saw it triple in size; and helped organize the parish’s popular Lenten soup suppers.
She developed a highly interactive series of “learning Centers” for students and their families preparing for Confession and First Holy Communion.
She organized a vocation day for fifth-graders at St. Martin School, a combination of “a lot of crazy games” and some quiet prayer time.
“It takes a lot of energy to teach religion,” she noted. “It takes prayers and contemplation. Like art and music, it comes from inside you. If you don’t have it, you can’t teach it.”
She built an intergenerational program for Confirmation preparation, with parents and sponsors attending about seven meetings with those preparing to be confirmed.
“You had families participating together and the parents learning with the kids,” she said. “It was wonderful seeing the parents, sponsors and candidates take hold of questions and Scriptures and discuss them.”
Adults would stop her in church or after class to day, “Thank you! I didn’t know my child is so spiritual. I love being where my kid is.”
Change of plans
Sr. Bernita was preparing to move to St. Charles and take up less-strenuous ministry seven years ago when she got a call from Father Mark Smith, who was pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Westphalia and St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Folk.
He had been conferring with Father Louis Nelen, who was pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Loose Creek and St. Louis of France Parish in Bonnots Mill, and Father Daniel Merz, who was pastor of St. George Parish in Linn and Our Lady Help of Christians Parish in Frankenstein.
They wondered if she would consider living in the convent in Loose Creek and ministering to elderly parishioners.
“They told me what they had in mind, that I would be ministering in the nursing homes and visiting the homebound and bringing Communion to them,” she said.
That had been one of her favorite activities during her time in St. Martins.
“I said I would do that unless you already have a Eucharistic minister who was taking people Communion,” she recalled. “I don’t want to preempt someone who offered to do that.”
All three priests, almost all at once, said, “But you would still go visit them, won’t you?”
“I said I’d love that,” she recalled.
Sr. Bernita said the people of the parishes have been welcoming and very supportive of her ministry.
“I always have the whole Notre Dame community that I can rely on for my needs,” she stated. “But the community where I live, even if not with any other sisters — I really depend on their support and their encouragement.”
She lived in community with her classmate, Sister Irene Marie Schmitz SSND, now deceased, until Sr. Irene moved to St. Louis in 2017.
St. Bernita believes what she’s doing is an ideal “retirement” ministry for someone who’s been blessed with such good health at her age.
“I minister in the morning and ‘retire’ in the afternoon!” she said.
“They keep telling me to come back, so it must be working,” she added.
She’s convinced that God is still calling women to lives of prayer and service in the Church as religious sisters.
“The only way you can find out is by prayer and letting God take the lead and discover it for yourself,” she said.
Sr. Bernita begins each day with a visit to the chapel in her convent, where she prays and listens with her heart.
When asked for what prayers would be appropriate for her jubilee, she answered, “There’s a lot.”
“I think the bottom line would be: Pray for a deeper trust and belief in God so that we can let go of the less-valuable things,” she said.
She reiterated Church teaching that the home is the domestic Church.
“If there’s prayer in the home, if worship is truly being given to God, it is Church,” she said. “So, I pray that all homes are Church, where worship is the priority — worship of God.”