Sr. Bernadette Halbur, a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis, has spent a lifetime dedicated to education and ministry in the Latino community.

Sr. Bernadette Halbur, a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis, tutors fifth graders Christian Rubalcaba, left, and Guillermo Pavon at Nativity Jesuit School in Milwaukee, on Thursday, Feb. 12. (Catholic Herald photos by Allen Fredrickson)Last October her ministry was recognized as she was honored at Nativity Jesuit Middle School’s annual scholarship dinner as Volunteer of the Year.  

Sr. Bernadette, the third youngest of eight siblings, grew up on a farm near Eden in Fond du Lac County.  

Her vocation to the religious life was sparked as a child by her experience with the School Sisters of St. Francis, who came from nearby Campbellsport  to teach a weekly catechism class.  Sr. Bernadette was drawn to the idea of a life of service.

“I was always, even as a child, quite service orientated. Even in school, I tended to be on the look-out for the little ones that were being bullied,” said Sr. Bernadette. “I think a lot of that came from my parents. My parents were very interested in being responsible people, being responsible citizens. I think that carried over into the lives of all of us in the family.”

After joining the School Sisters of St. Francis, Sr. Bernadette began her career as an educator in 1950, teaching at St. Anthony of Padua School and the Alverno College Laboratory School in Milwaukee.

In 1969, she was given an assignment in Costa Rica. After learning Spanish, she taught social studies and English and served as director of St. Clare College.

Sr. Bernadette began her next significant ministry in 1987 in El Paso, Texas, where she started a transitional shelter for homeless women and children. Her work was primarily with the Latino community, while she also taught English as a second language to recent immigrants from Latin America.

After retirement, Sr. Bernadette found a match for her experience and ministry in Nativity Jesuit Middle School. She had already been aware of the school’s unique mission to “educate Latino youth for Christian love and service,” and began volunteering in 2009.

“These young guys, they have opportunities. The school is providing an environment that should help them really become responsible people within society. Any good school should be doing that, but I think they are really working at a real well-rounded education,” said Sr. Bernadette.

Sr. Bernadette works with one specific fifth grade English and language arts class, spending Tuesday and Thursday mornings implementing small group activities, giving assessments, and working with students on reading fluency. She works closely with teacher Amy Barbiaux, who is also Nativity’s director of curriculum and instruction.

Barbiaux said she appreciates the focused, one-on-one attention Sr. Bernadette provides to students, and works closely with Sr. Bernadette to identify the needs of individual students. She described the nun’s teaching style as “very patient, and very loving,” complementing the school’s mission and educational philosophy.

“We definitely try to make sure that our scholars leave here not only intellectually competent, but religious, loving, committed to justice,” said Barbiaux. “I love that our students can see her as an example of service to others and giving back to the community … a personal connection with someone in religious life is tremendous for them.”

“We love Sr. Bernadette!” Barbiaux added.

The love is mutual as Sr. Bernadette spoke highly of Nativity’s leadership and teaching staff.

“The leadership believes they can do something to help these kids move on in their life, with the capacity to be very productive people in society,” she said. “That’s a beautiful thing to see – an effort made to help these guys move on to high school and succeed.”

Working one on one with students allows Sr. Bernadette a front row seat to observe the transformation that takes place during their time at Nativity.

“It’s amazing to see what happens to students here in the first year — just to see them mature in how to get along with one another, how to be more respectful and caring and responsible,” Sr. Bernadette said.

Fifth grader Christian Rubalcaba, in his first year at Nativity, said that Sr. Bernadette helps reinforce what he learns in class.
“She really helps … I forget sometimes, but sometimes when we go with Sr. Bernadette she teaches us more about it – we remember more,” he said.

Rubalcaba said he appreciates the high expectations and new opportunities he has at Nativity, including art classes and an extended school day with after-school activities. He said he wants to pursue a career as an artist, actor or writer.
“I like that they’re pushing me to learn new stuff, and learn new things that I haven’t learned before. I really like it, because I think when I grow up I’m going to be a good student,” said Rubalcaba.

Armando Perea, also a fifth grader, is an altar server at Nativity’s weekly student Mass and is thinking about becoming a priest.

He said he appreciates Sr. Bernadette’s patient approach to learning.

“She’s kind, and if you don’t understand it she doesn’t yell at you. If we don’t understand it, she helps us understand the terms,” said Perea. “She knows if you’re having trouble, so she tells you to practice this or that.”

Sr. Bernadette is quick to point out that she is one of many retired religious who continue to serve as volunteers, especially in the educational arena.

“Many of the sisters who are my age do this type of work, and I think it’s just a terrific thing to be able to do,” said Sr. Bernadette. “This is our field, education, for many of us … it keeps you young! Working with these kids has just been loads of fun.”