The education of Sister Bridget Bearss, R.S.C.J.

By Pamela Schaeffer When she was young, Bridget Bearss wanted to change the world through education. As a sister, she’s found a way to do it.

Image: Sister Bridget Bearss congratulates Erica Ervin, eighth grader, on her award for high academic achievement during Prize Day ceremonies last spring.

On the day of the annual
senior luncheon at Academy of the Sacred Heart in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Sister Bridget Bearss knows exactly what she wants the girls to hear. Her theme is reconciliation.

First, she urges graduating seniors to forgive anyone who might have brought them pain during their years at Sacred Heart—to erase any lingering bitterness over careless words, thoughtless actions, seeming injustices. Next, she urges them to forgive themselves if they have knowingly caused another’s pain.

“Whatever it is, leave it here,” she says. “Take with you what has been good; leave the garbage behind to fertilize the shrubs and flowers.” Go freely. Look to the future. Be at peace.

“And remember,” she says, as she stands to indicate the luncheon is coming to a close, “if ever you are inclined to want to spend your life in Sacred Heart mission, the doors are open to you.”

Whole new world
Bearss considers it important to plant the seeds of vocation in her high school seniors because from personal experience she knows that some, perhaps most, have yet to choose their paths. Although today many of her colleagues regard her as a master educator with a gift for articulating the gospel message, her own interest in religious life and education emerged well after her high school years.

Today, though, she acknowledges that both interests are practically in her genes. All four of her grandparents were educators, and her father’s sisters, Rosemary and Eileen Bearss, also belong to her community, the Religious of the Sacred Heart. “The Society [of the Sacred Heart] was just part of the family to me,” she says, recalling her frequent trips with her parents and four older siblings to visit her aunts. “It never occurred to me that to belong to the society you had to join.”

As an adolescent and young adult, Bridget Bearss dismissed education and religious life—if she thought about them much at all—as incompatible with her dreams. She longed to be an activist, an agent of social and political change. Days spent in a classroom, life as a nun—both seemed wearily conservative.

“Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency on my 16th birthday. I grew up with NOW,” the National Organization for Women, “and the ERA,” the movement advocating an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, she says. “I expected to be involved in a life of political action—politics, law. I even considered a career with the FBI.”

Then, at Maryville College in St. Louis, a computer error put her in the wrong class. There she met her match: Dr. Mary Ellen Finch, longtime dean of the School of Education. Finch talked about “literacy as empowerment,” the “subversive power of education,” and “transformation of the world through knowledge.”

Despite a poor academic showing in high school, Bearss prospered as a student at Maryville and went on to earn a graduate degree in educational administration from Washington University in St. Louis. Her plan then was to change the world by changing schools.

Discouraging start
Despite her solid preparation, Bridget Bearss’ educational career began in discouragement. Jobs in education were scarce in the early 1980s. She was compelled to accept a position teaching first grade in a Catholic parish school—not the alternative classroom she’d imagined, but one that put her on the road that led her into the Society of the Sacred Heart.

“That’s absolutely the way God works,” she says, looking back. To her surprise, she found herself enjoying her work in the parish, discovering her own “Catholicity” in the experience of passing on the faith. But during the four years she taught there she clashed with the pastor over low pay (while teaching full time, she held a part-time job at K-Mart to make ends meet) and, more generally, over the role of women in the church.

The Sacred Heart nuns in St. Louis helped her through those times. She was a frequent visitor to the sisters’ house where her aunt also lived. Overcoming Bearss’ initial objections, the nuns persuaded her to seek a teaching post in a Sacred Heart school. That led her to Duchesne Academy in Houston, where she began to see that her views of sisters and Catholic schools as conservative forces in education were wrong.

“In Houston, I worked with some incredible educators, and I realized that I shared with them a sense of education as mission,” she says. “I had to confront every judgment I’d ever made about religious life”—particularly the perception that it wasn’t a place for young women with a vision of transforming the world, or that “religious life was a great thing to do when women had no choices,” she says. “Those are sentences I now regret.”

By now in her late 20s, Bearss was beginning to think, too, that her passion for education would be a poor mix with marriage. “I realized I could not be married and raise a family and commit myself to education in the way I wanted to be committed,” she says. “Education is a way of life for me.” So at 27, she ended a serious relationship with a potential marriage partner and entered the Society of the Sacred Heart.

Bearss’ journey between then and now has led through some of her darkest days. If today many see her as the embodiment of educational commitment, what stands out for Bearss herself is that it takes many hands to run a school. If she once thought she had to appear strong and perfect, her journey several years ago from the “darkness of alcoholism to the light of recovery” has made her deeply aware, she says, of her need for God and for the support of friends. Today, she says, she is willing to acknowledge what she doesn’t know and to share her vulnerability with the people with whom she works and prays.

“As a result of my illness, I’m in much deeper touch with life and with the suffering in this world and my own powerlessness. I’ve learned about vulnerability and the strength that honesty brings. I know that I’m a better person and a better head of school when I’m taking the 12-step program seriously and when I know that all I really have to worry about is making the next right choice.”

That attitude, she says, is the result of her experiences at a treatment center for alcoholics and drug abusers. During treatment she developed the rules she tries to live by today: “Show up, pay attention, tell the truth, and don’t be attached to the results.”

Holding on to God
Bearss thought long and hard about applying to become head of Sacred Heart Academy. She was head of the Academy’s high school at the time the top post became available. The hiring committee was concerned initially about her lack of experience in fundraising and other aspects of the job but eventually saw her as the right person for the challenge. Indeed, since taking the top job, Bearss says the learning curve “has been a straight upward line.”

Often her first course of action is to consult and pray. Among the experts she’s turned to at times are a “leadership coach” and a social worker who specializes in administrative supervision. When big decisions are on the horizon, she is wont to call a meeting and tell her staff, “I don’t know the answer, and you don’t know the answer, but together let’s figure it out.”

“This job has nurtured my prayer life more than I could have ever imagined,” Bearss says. “I hold on to God in a way I never had to before.” Bearss gets together regularly with other Religious of the Sacred Heart in Detroit for meetings and prayer, but she also shares prayer and spirituality with laity engaged in the mission of her religious order: to discover and reveal God’s love through the service of education. She worships at school liturgies with administrators and faculty, and she meets with some in a meditation group.

That sharing of mission between sisters and their lay colleagues, and coming together to pray and talk about how it is lived out, is increasingly a familiar part of the challenge and exhilaration in religious life today, she says. “It’s not what I expected when I joined. Religious life is changing faster than I expected. But, as in any committed relationship, you have to be prepared to adjust to new realities,” to move with the Spirit, she says.

Talking it out
As Bearss builds bridges with laypeople in her schools and prayer life, students in particular have gravitated toward her. “She’s like an aunt to me,” says Andrea Halverson, one of the graduating seniors. “I had a view of a nun as a very stern person. She has changed my view of what a nun is.”

“Everyone has so much respect for her,” says Alexis Lobodocky, another senior. “If something were going wrong in my life, I’d feel comfortable talking to Sister Bearss,” she says. “She really understands.”

An out-loud thinker, Bearss belongs to a variety of groups outside of school. “I need to talk things out regularly,” she says. Among those groups with whom she talks and prays is one composed of men and women from a variety of religious orders in Detroit. Today she lives with another member of her own order, but Religious of the Sacred Heart are few in Detroit, and Sister Bearss envisions a time when members of different congregations might choose to live together. “I think we are going to see new forms of religious life emerge,” she says.

Give faith a chance
In combination with her shared prayer, Bearss relies on the contemplative dimension of her life in a religious community to keep her focused on the essential public dimension of her role. Abilities others may see as natural talent—including her skill at blending dignity in formal settings with light humor—are, in fact, the result of prayer, she says. She sets aside blocks of time to prepare for her talks, thinking and praying about each group she will be addressing and the message she wants to convey. And she looks for stories and lyrics that will give life and depth to her words.

For instance, as middle school girls celebrated their successes during a Prize Day in early June, Bearss knew that summer days with peers and family were bound to be difficult at times. To help them deal with the criticisms and disappointments that often color teen friendships, she gave the girls a story of two women who shared the task of carrying water from a community well to their village some distance away.

One woman, she says, carried a clay pot that had been perfectly fired in an oven. She was able to reach her destination without spilling a drop. The other woman made the same effort, but her vessel was unfired and developed a crack, allowing water to drip from the jar as she walked. When the second woman arrived back at the village with no water, she was distraught and others were angered at her apparent failure. But in ensuing days, people discovered that flowers had begun to spring up along the watered path. The villagers welcomed the flowers and proclaimed them beautiful.

“So you see,” she told the girls in summary, “the flaws we discover in ourselves, or in one another, are often the cracks that enable the flowers to grow.”

To parents, she counseled, “Conversation is the way we send the message to our children that the world is full of possibilities and love. The art of listening and talking builds up the heart of God in the world.” She considers bolstering parents to be part of her mission. “I think it’s important that we help parents live their vocation,” she says. “It’s hard to be a good parent.”

As further advice to the students, she recited lyrics from her favorite song, “I Hope You Dance,” by Lee Ann Womack:

“I hope you never lose your sense of wonder, You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger . . . Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens, Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance, And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance . . . I hope you dance.”

“This summer,” she says to the students, emphasizing the lyric’s last three lines, “I hope you’ll give faith a chance. And when you have the chance to sit it out or to dance, I hope you’ll decide to dance.”

It’s an approach to life, a model for living, that one suspects Sister Bearss strives for herself. The same might be said of her parting wish to graduating seniors on the day of the luncheon, where she was speaking of reconciliation. In dismissal, she offers a challenge rooted in what she’s learned: “May you be women of laughter, of deep friendship and great love.”
Pamela Schaeffer is the editor of Health Progress, the official journal of the Catholic Health Association of the United States. She is responsible for setting editorial philosophy and standards, working with authors, coordinating the journal's Editorial Advisory Committee, and supervising the editorial staff.




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