By Joe Barkovich, For The Tribune
Sister Beatrice Brunner
You don’t say no to the opportunity to write a good story about a great teacher after she has passed.
So here is a story about Sister Beatrice Brunner, who died one week ago today.
I will call her Sister B, the same as she was called by so many colleagues, so many students during a noteworthy career at Notre Dame College School from 1967 to 1992.
She wasn’t from these parts, as the saying goes, but from Pennsylvania. Sister B was assigned here by her religious community, the Vincentian Sisters of Charity. She had a bachelor of science degree from Mt. Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a master of education degree from Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University.
Stern and poker-faced, according to some descriptions, Sister B the science teacher could cause knees of nervous Grade 9ers to tremble with fear. But that was in the early part of their high schooling; by its end, they held Sister B in respect for her teaching ability and style, and in admiration for a quick wit and sense of humour.
Tina Turner, a science teacher at Notre Dame, had Sister B as her Grade 9 science teacher in 1976 and her biology teacher in Grade 13.
Turner acknowledged falling victim to the fear factor herself as a high school freshman but tempered that with what could be the classic description of the determined disciplinarian: “You could say she was like a roasted marshmallow — crusty on the outside, warm and tender on the inside.”
Sister B made it known “loud and clear” that she expected a lot from her students, Turner recalled.
“We were all gifts from God, she told us. She never, ever belittled us. She never put you down. She respected her students but she demanded respect back from us.”
Turner said Sister B was inspirational to her as she followed her own career path. “I always wanted to be a teacher like her.”
Tough but fair in the classroom, Sister B was comparable to a military drill sergeant, said Turner.
“She drilled her lesson into you. She drilled and drilled and drilled until we got it.”
Said Rev. Jim Mulligan, a former faculty member at Notre Dame now pastor of St. Kevin parish: “She was unique in the sense that she was the ‘classic’ American nun … habit / no-nonsense / massive dedication to her ministry. She is the type that Catholic baby boomers remember and tell stories about.
“She was poker-faced. Her humour came in the unexpected … her responses to situations — her easiness to dress in leathers as a motorcyclist at a school assembly. Generations ago Grade 9 students entered her classroom in fear and trembling … and a few years later had only a deep love and respect for B.”
Notre Dame principal Ralph DeFazio said Sister B was his Grade 13 biology teacher in 1975.
“What made Sister B so memorable and so popular? Students loved her for being extremely witty and very stern, yet having that twinkle in her eye. She had a Mona Lisa-like smile, a heart of gold and a soft spot for the disadvantaged.”
Cracking that gruff exterior became the goal of class after class of ND students over the years, DeFazio said:
“In the classroom, students would make it their daily challenge to have her crack a smile and when they were successful, they would cheer.”
A passage in her death notice in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said: “Sister had a zest for life and a quick wit. She enjoyed a good joke, and others would delight in her humour.”
After retiring from Notre Dame, Sister B worked as pastoral assistant at St. Alexander parish, Fonthill; St. Andrew-the-Apostle, Welland, and Star of the Sea, St. Catharines. She was also evening receptionist at St. Kevin, from 2001 to 2005.
That was where our paths crossed, and I found out early how serious she was about her post, which seemed more like sentry duty, a St. Peter-at-the-Gates solemn responsibility.
“Who are you and why are you here?” she asked in our initial encounter and for a moment, my knees quivered with fear.
Sister Beatrice Brunner was 86. Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated Wednesday, Jan. 9 at St. Louise Convent Chapel, Pittsburgh with burial following in the Sisters’ cemetery on the convent grounds.
Memorial Mass for Sister Beatrice Brunner was held Jan. 14 at Parish Community of St. Kevin.
Verbatim: “We pray in thanksgiving for Sister B and for her great and good ministry … we pray that she may enjoy eternal life. There will be time to remember and recollect.” – Fr. Jim Mulligan.