When I entered the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross in 1937, Texans were still an oddity to the sisters at Saint Mary’s in Indiana. Our accents, expressions and mannerisms seemed to amuse the sisters. At times, when we felt at home and it was appropriate, we played up our Texas twang.
|I was the third oldest of 10 children. My parents had a general store — you name it, we had it! I learned to add the cash receipts for my dad at age 6. By the time I was 13, I knew how to keep house, take care of babies, clerk, stock shelves, assist customers, file invoices, write checks and drive. For 12 years, I attended St. Mary’s Academy in Marshall, Texas, a school staffed by the Sisters of the Holy Cross. My father insisted that I take “college-prep” subjects plus bookkeeping, shorthand and typing so that I would be prepared for either college or office work.
1921 — (l to r) Rose Cecile Maranto (Sister Bernarda) with sisters Mary Lou and Grace
My mother was a talented musician. We were exposed to every kind of music — from ragtime to classical — and had music lessons when my parents could afford it. We were in the midst of the Great Depression, so lessons were a luxury. I began singing when I was 14 months old (so I am told). I would imitate Sophie Tucker, different comics, opera singers and later, Kate Smith and Pearl Bailey. My mother could accompany me in any key. We entertained our friends and relatives with my clowning and singing. I sang for the Lion’s Club and Knights of Columbus events, and I was a member of the glee club and adult choir.
I was not one of those who “wanted to be a sister since the third grade.” I never gave religious life a thought. I avoided daily Mass, and would drive around the block a number of times rather than go into church during the 8 a.m. Mass before school.
I became best friends with Sara Bales when I was in second grade and she was a first grader. She always talked about getting married and having six children; she said she would name her first daughter after me. When Sara was a senior in high school, she called me at work and asked me to meet her for lunch. She confided that she had decided to become a sister. I told her that I should consider a religious life some day (even though I didn’t think it was for me).
Sara lived a few miles outside of Marshall and did not attend the parties, dances and youth group activities in the parish. My protective father would not allow my older sister, Grace, and me to date, but we could attend parish activities and parties. Many times we left the events with one of the boys.
For five years I was always with one particular boy who worked in our store during the summers and on weekends during the school year while he was in high school. We knew each other quite well and had great times together, but I always had an uncomfortable feeling in my heart. I couldn’t understand the unrest that began when I was a junior in high school. The turmoil would not go away, and I was unable to tell anyone about it. I had forgotten about my conversation with Sara until I was called and told that I had an appointment with Mother Bettina. Mother Bettina said she had heard that I wanted to be a sister. I confessed to her that I hadn’t thought about it, but said I did tell a friend that it was something I might want to try some day.
Things began to move quickly after my meeting with Mother Bettina. I expressed my doubts of a vocation to my mother. She encouraged me to go to the novitiate and try it. I think she must have been aware of my restlessness. She did, however, make me promise to stay three months before I made a decision to leave.
1939 — First profession of vows
Sara and I entered the novitiate together in September. The sisters felt that we would make a better adjustment to the northern Indiana climate if we came in the fall when we would be able to start college classes. Sara fit in beautifully. She didn’t know that I was miserable. There was nothing I liked about religious life. The schedule, the prayer times, the silence at meals, and having to ask for so many permissions were almost too much for me. I could not keep the silence. I felt I was a misfit, but I had to keep my promise to my mother.
One morning, three of us were returning downstairs after completing a chore on the third floor. As we came down, the mistress of novices was at the foot of the stairs and beckoned us to come over to her. I immediately feared that she had noticed that I was not wearing my gingham petticoat. She told us to go to the chapel, kneel at the foot of the altar, and pray for 15 minutes. As I walked into the chapel — and for the first 10 minutes on my knees — I ranted at God for leading me to this place where I was miserable following the rules, trying to keep silent, and praying so many times during the day. I ranted and raved on and on.
When I settled down, I experienced a great peace. I felt the restlessness leaving my body. I can never forget that moment. I knew then, whether I liked it or not, that I was where God wanted me to be. This was the first of many fantastic experiences of God in my life. It has not been easy for me to “live by the rules” and anytime I found it difficult, I turned to God to work it out for me.
|Sara and I became “those Texans.” She made the mistake of telling one of the other young women who also was in the process of becoming a sister that I could sing. The next thing I knew, I was contacted by the sister who was in charge of a Sunday night radio show that was produced by a few sisters for the rest of the women in the novitiate. Regardless of my many excuses, I was unable to talk her out of my singing on the show. I gave in and sang “I’m an Old Cowhand,” which was number one on the Hit Parade when I entered. I did all the “yippees”! It was such a hit that after that night I was always expected to perform at programs, most of which were impromptu.
1982 — Donning boots and Stetson, this ol’ cowhand (Sister Bernarda) takes to the stage for a sisters’ musical review.
My ministry began in 1939 at Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Austin, Texas. I was assigned to teach a class of more than 50 first graders, most of whom did not speak English — and I did not speak Spanish. I learned how to teach in those three years at that very poor school. Since then, I have taught all grades, but I did not love teaching until I taught junior high. My junior high students were bright, fun, nutty and all mixed up. I found that I was able to reach them. I could understand their moods, anticipate their actions, and enjoy their antics while we all learned.
The most wonderful gift I received during my years of teaching was given to me at Saint Mary’s Cathedral School in Austin when I was principal and seventh and eighth grade teacher. My mother was diagnosed with cancer and I went home one weekend to see her. Because of the weather, I was unable to get back to Austin on Sunday evening. When I arrived at school at 9:30 a.m. Monday, I found an eighth grader, Kay George, teaching religion. I always left my plan book in my desk and wrote the daily assignment for each grade on the chalkboard, but I had no idea the students would take the initiative to begin the lesson on their own. When the students saw me in the doorway, they all gave a tremendous, spontaneous cheer. That show of love was so heartwarming; it was worth more than a million dollars to me.
The same type of incident happened to me again a few years later at Saint Paul’s School in Richardson, Texas. I cherish the memories and the love I received from my students.
Another highlight in my life was a letter I received from one of my former students at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Austin, where I had been principal and seventh and eighth grade teacher in the 1960s. Most of the students were Hispanic and it was a challenge to teach them grammar. Five years after leaving Austin, I received a letter from one of the most interesting “clowns” in my class who was now serving in the military. On the back of the picture of this handsome soldier, he wrote, “To the teacher who teached me the most that I know.” I loved it!
My journey in religious life has been long and difficult at times, but it has been filled with love for students, family, friends, and a great love for the life God chose for me. I have had many different and unbelievable experiences, a lot of excitement and fun, and numerous moments of God leading me and keeping me where he wants me to be. I have confidence that he will call other reluctant young women who are longing for the love of their lives. I believe that they will find him.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Sisters of the Holy Cross Ministry With the Poor Fund, Saint Mary's, Notre Dame, IN 46556.
Friends in Austin, Texas, help Sister Bernarda celebrate her 62 years of ministry as she retires to Saint Mary's at Notre Dame in September 2001.