BRUNO — They came for the music, the education and the camaraderie. On Sunday they returned for the memories.
About 800 people attended the July 11 come and go tea held at the Ursuline convent in Bruno to say good-bye to almost 100 years of history. The last Ursuline nuns are leaving the convent next month to live in houses in Humboldt, Bruno and Cudworth.
Many of those who attended the farewell function were alumnae of the convent's St. Ursula Academy, which provided top-quality education to high school girls from 1922 to 1982.
“It taught us a lot of discipline in life and how to put up with things when they don't go the way you want them to,” said Norma Weber of Watson (Grad ’67).
Like many, she attended the Academy for the music training and ended up becoming a piano teacher herself. She credits the school for preparing her to direct congregational choirs, a duty that the girls took turns at. She also remembers the extra training girls could get in the German language and needlework, neither of which were offered at other high schools.
Donna Nienaber of Rocanville (Grad ’66) said the convent looks much the same as when she attended school, except that the dorm area has changed.
“It still has that special feeling about it,” she said.
Maureen Kelly of Cudworth (Grad ’76) remem-bers the music, especially the Christmas Cantata, which was performed almost every year in the gymnasium.
“We probably spent more time on the stage than we did on the [gym] floor,” Kelly said.
Eighty-two-year-old Mary Kolla attended the school in its early days, from 1929 to 1930, before the additions were built. In those days, the school consisted of just two classrooms.
“My parents sent me here to get a better foundation in high school,” said Kolla, who was raised near Bruno and now lives in Cudworth. “And of course they were the best of teachers.”
She had to leave school during the Depression years, but came back in 1941 to finish her Grade 12.
“Everything had gotten bigger. There was more music, more singing and the curriculum had expanded,” Kolla said.
Years later, her three daughters attended the Academy and they had good experiences as well, she said. Estelle Coppens (Grad ’75) has fond memories of creating mischief during her student years under the watchful eyes of the nuns. She instigated an infamous incident that involved female undergar-ments and the statue of Mary.
Coppens also remembers when a cactus ended up in Sr. Juliana Weber's bed and she laughs when recalling food fights in the dining hall.
Then there were the late night grilled cheese sand-wiches made under a dorm bed with an electric frying pan, which left the nuns wandering the halls wondering what was causing the smell.
But for Coppens, the Academy's biggest influence was on her musical life. Once the soloist in the Academy's music program, Coppens became a pop singer, performing in New York for 10 years, traveling through Europe and now based in San Francisco.
“It had a wonderful impact on my life,” said Coppens, who grew up in the Watson/Quill Lake area.
She still remembers her first singing lesson with Sr. Grace Michel. She stood her up against the wall and punched her stomach to see how strong her diaphragm muscles were. “It made
a big impression on me.”
Mary Ann (Novecosky) Gerwing is another former student whose Academy years formed a pivotal experience in her life. Gerwing (Grad ’55) joined the Ursuline community as a novice after graduating and was a nun for 13 years. She taught briefly at the Academy and then in Humboldt and Muenster. One of the greatest thrills of her life was teaching in Germany at the school that the original Bruno convent nuns had taught in before coming to Canada.
As an Academy student she recalls having “a happy, happy life” with fellow students who she calls “powerful women.” She's still in touch with many of them.
The Academy is known for the camaraderie that developed among students, leading to life-long friendships and many class reunions.
“I've come to each reunion and this was the last so we had to make it,” said Kelly. Joyce deGooijer came to teach phys ed and coach sports in 1980 when there weren't enough nuns to staff the school.
“I have never talked to anyone who came here who doesn't have an amazing bond and tie to the place,” deGooijer said.
One of her dearest memories is of the time she started a soccer team. The girls were highly motivated and surprised their coach with their enthusiasm and commitment.
“We went from being absolutely nothing to coming second at the provincial championship,” deGooijer recalled. As a Roman Catholic who wasn't a nun, she had a different perspective on the Academy sisters.
“I was amazed at how human they were,” she said, explaining that as a child she held nuns in awe, seeing them in their long habits at church. As their colleague at the Academy, deGooijer took part in friendly joking and banter with the nuns and recalls her surprise when she heard the younger ones talk about going out for a beer.
“That was a major revelation for me, seeing them as someone on the same level,” she said. There are plenty of other stories – the irreverent school song called, We are the Convent Girls, the annual hike to Mount Carmel, the late-night escapes from the dorm to have fun in town.
There's plenty of sadness as well.
“It's very nice to come back, but I feel sad that it's closing,” said Kolla. “The sad part is when this building closes, there probably won't be any alumni reunions,” said Nienaber.
Kelly regrets that she won’t be able to send her two young girls to the Academy.
Gerwing sees a positive side to the convent’s closure. She said it shuts the door to the Ursulines' traditional way of life, which no longer fulfilled the needs of young women. She hopes the change will open the door to something new.
“Nostalgia can be painful because it's a reverting or going back, but the dream of the future is always powerful because it bears new life,” Gerwing said.
“The memories that are here are past. So now I hope the district of Humboldt and environs helps these brave women who are leaving this building and entering into the communities to reestablish what St. Angela would do could she be here at this time.
After the event Sr. Marian Noll, Ursuline superior, said it was “a real celebration of joy and support.”
“The nicest thing that happened to me was that I got an apple from a former student,” Noll said.
Editor's note: In 2007, the convent would again become a place of education. In July, the St. Therese Institute of Faith and Mission opened.