February 2010: SISTER AUGUSTA SPERL
She is described as “joyful, friendly, outgoing, and happy-go-lucky,” and in our humble Franciscan opinion, we don’t want to forget her great sense of humor. These qualities of our Sister Augusta Sperl are neatly packaged in the spirit of an 86-year-wise woman whose childhood story is filled with hope, amid despair, and how ultimately love prevailed in what is her legacy.
Bernadine Sperl was born on March 8, 1923, in Springfield, IL, to August and Elizabeth (Beckman) Sperl. She is the youngest of three children. Her father’s family had emigrated from Magdeburg, Germany, an area plagued with tuberculosis, and because his mother had TB, August was a life-long carrier of the disease. Chances are very likely that he infected his wife and possibly his children.
August worked as a bellhop at Saint Nicholas Hotel, Springfield, and took night courses in civil engineering. He was promoted to overseeing the ice-making and hotel air conditioning (a fan blowing over a bowl of ice in the room). Sadly, his wife was a patient at St. John’s Tuberculosis Sanitarium, Springfield, a ministry of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis and located on the sisters’ Motherhouse grounds. Elizabeth was unable to nurse her newborn daughter, Bernadine, and the three Sperl children were separated and sent to live with three different relatives. In 1925, a grandmother’s death and overcrowding at an aunt’s house forced August to enroll his children in the Catholic Children’s Home, Alton, IL, where they experienced the regimented life of chores and schooling among the more than 300 other orphans in residence. August visited his children every three weeks and brought them the comics from the Chicago, Springfield, and St. Louis newspapers. Two years later, Elizabeth was in remission and the family was reunited. However, a relapse of TB occurred, and she died the following year. The children returned to the orphanage.
In 1931, August remarried, and the Sperl children left the orphanage to live with their father and his new wife. Bernadine graduated from St. Patrick’s Grade School, Springfield, and enrolled in Feitschen High School. After working as a nanny for a family, she accepted a housekeeping job at St. John’s Hospital, Springfield. It was there that Sister Tabitha Chudalla inquired if Bernadine had considered religious life. It was a possibility for the young high school girl whose mother’s sister, Sister Agnes Beckman, was a Hospital Sister of St. Francis and later served at the sisters’ hospital in Jinan, China.
A new beginning
She took the big step and walked through the doors of St. Francis Convent and enrolled in their high school. Maybe it was a sense of peace in coming to a home after the challenges of her childhood. Or maybe it was the deeper realization of her calling to religious life. Whatever may be, the next chapter of her life began. She entered religious life on September 8, 1939, and upon completing her high school education, she professed her vows on in 1942 and graduated from St. John’s School of Nursing in 1945.
Tuberculosis was still a contagious disease, and after completing her nurses training, Sister Augusta became a victim of TB and spent eight months at the TB San where her mother was once a patient. Sister Augusta recalls that her treatment included a needle being struck through her back every few weeks to inject air pressure to collapse one lung so it could relax. After a recovery, she returned to nursing, but suffered a relapse and was again admitted to the TB San. Thankfully, new antibiotics were becoming successful in treating the disease, and Sister Augusta was told by her superiors that she would not be involved in nursing in the future. This opened new opportunities for her. She completed her studies at Milliken University, Decatur, IL, while also serving in Medical Records at St. Mary’s Hospital, Decatur.
From administration to pastoral care
Her life as a Hospital Sister has included serving as Administrator of St. Francis Hospital from 1961-68 (Washington, MO), Our Lady of the Ozarks Home Nursing Center from 1968-69 (Carthage, MO) and St. Nicholas Hospital from 1969-76 (Sheboygan, WI). In addition, she served at Sacred Heart Hospital (Eau Claire, WI) as the Director of Pastoral Care from 1977-2004 and remained there until June 2005.
Thoughts from Eau Claire
“In looking back on Sister Augusta’s dedicated ministry at Sacred Heart Hospital, I cannot help but be struck by the manner in which her presence was a living, breathing testimony to the Hospital Sisters’ core value of joy. Sister Augusta’s joyful service was reflected by her enthusiasm in meeting the many needs of our patients as well as the effervescent manner she touched the lives of those around her. Her abundant energy for life was seen in regular bicycle and walking expeditions and has left a legacy for all of us who strive to follow in her footsteps and in the footsteps of all of the Hospital Sisters,” expressed Reverend Monsignor Edmund J. Klimek, Senior Chaplain at Sacred Heart Hospital, Eau Claire, WI.
Sister Augusta summed up her story in a succinct way: “Everyone faces challenges in life, and it’s important not to lose faith in God. God is present in every moment: just close your eyes, and in that silence, you’ll feel a profound sense of peace – that peace is God embracing you with love,” she concluded.
The Hospital Sisters founded St. Francis Hospital (Washington, MO) on December 17, 1926, and transferred sponsorship on November 31, 1969, to the Sisters of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ of Wichita, Kansas.