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Sitting in the conference room in Francis Hall, it dawns on Berger that she has been there before, a long time ago. It was in December 1951, her first day at St. Francis Orphanage, and — along with older sister Rita and older brothers Frank and Leonard — she was saying goodbye to her father. “He gave each of us a silver dollar,” Berger recalls. Her whole family — there were nine children in all — had been living together the previous two years at a house on Plum Street in Reading that two of her older sisters bought. Her brother Joseph — some 10 years older, who lived in the orphanage off and on from the time he was 27 months through the eighth grade — wrote a detailed account of his recollections, some of which were published in the 2008 book “Designed to Serve: The Place and Persons of Francis Hall” by Sister Mary Pacelli Staskiel, OSF. His account of the Plum Street home, which was not included in the book, is about as far from the 1950s Norman Rockwell ideal of domestic tranquility as you can imagine: “Our house was a former house of prostitution, and up a block from ours was an active house, also called a cat house in those days. Ours was a small house, three small bedrooms,

“I told Mother Superior that I wanted to be a nurse. I wound up in the infirmary with Sister Conrad. She was very bright.”

no closets, a living room, dining room and a kitchen. No bath or hot water, an outhouse in the backyard, but this was all my sisters could afford. My Mom and Dad moved in shortly after the house was bought, but my Dad continued his drinking, and since he worked as a junk man, he made very little money, and what he made went largely to support his drinking. In one of the bedrooms upstairs was what I thought was a closet, but it was really an exit door that led into the house next door, in case the house was raided.” “My father was an alcoholic,” Berger says, her voice soft. “My mother was a very good woman, but she was not a very good disciplinarian. She let us run free.” That is until the court intervened, taking the younger

18 Alvernia University Magazine

children away from their parents and placing them in St. Francis Orphanage, run by the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters. “I remember being in court. It was hard. I was 6 years old,” she says, then pauses, “but it was for the best.” Francis Hall was her home until 1958, when the Bernardine Sisters decided to convert the site to a college that has grown into today’s Alvernia University. It has undergone extensive renovations since Berger lived there, and the Alvernia campus bears little resemblance to the grounds she roamed as a child. But modernization is no match for memories. Berger had an inquisitive spirit, and as she walks the halls of the building where she grew up, she recalls all the places she snuck into during times when she wasn’t supposed to be there. The theater, which is still there, in which she performed in numerous plays. The art classroom, which hasn’t been used in many years, up in the tower. A “snake path” outside, long gone, that wound through a wooded area between the sisters’ infirmary and the grotto, where she ventured a few times after dinner — until she was caught and got in trouble. “I was always a person to ask a lot of questions,” she says. And then there was the time she snuck into the bathroom when the nuns were inside — something specifically verboten. “I had to see if the nuns had legs,” she says impishly. “They always wore those long black robes.” Berger had her favorite nuns, as well as her favorite places. As she walks past Room 214, Berger exclaims, “That was the infirmary!” She spent considerable time there helping Sister Conrad, who cared for generations of children in the orphanage. Sister Conrad was easy to remember. She stood about 4 feet tall, and was smaller than many of the older children. But the lasting impression she made on Berger stemmed from her compassion and intelligence, not her diminutive size. “I told Mother Superior that I wanted to be a nurse. I wound up in the infirmary with Sister Conrad,” she recalls. “She was very bright.” There, Berger learned how to take children’s temperatures and care for the sick. She cherished her time helping in the infirmary so much that years later, when she was 16, she brought her future husband to meet Sister Conrad and show him where she had grown up. Twelve years later, she returned once again to introduce Sister Conrad, who was retired by then, to her four children. “She was so happy to see us,” Berger recalls. “She told me she missed the children. Everything was so different and too quiet.” Her other favorite nun was Sister Anita, her fourth-grade art teacher. The classroom was up in the tower and had a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside. Not that the view was the main attraction for Berger. Sister Anita was a talented and creative artist, and instilled in her young pupil a love for art that has lasted a lifetime. “I was actually afraid of heights,” Berger says. “But for that, it was worth it.”

For children accustomed to almost no structure or discipline, St. Francis Orphanage strictly imposed both. Up early to make the bed. Breakfast. Chores. Class. Lunch. Class. Playtime. Dinner. Wash the dishes. (The girls did the dishes after breakfast and dinner, the boys did the dishes after lunch.) Homework. Bedtime. And the next day, do it all again. “It was ritual,” Berger says. Asked if she grew to welcome the structure and discipline,

Alvernia Magazine Summer 2013  

Alvernia Magazine Summer 2013

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