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‘An American missionary’ : Prepared for Africa, Oblate sister instead landed in Childs


Dialog reporter


CHILDS, Md. – The Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales have been educating children in some form in Childs, Md., since 1954. One sister arrived in Cecil County before the first kindergarten class arrived, and she is still there today as a beloved volunteer.

Sister Mary Bertha Hennessy stopped teaching two years ago, but she remains active at the school, since, as she says, “We don’t retire. Religious don’t retire. There’s always something to do in the house.”

Still, her congregation, the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales, benefit from the Retirement Fund for Religious. The sisters do receive Social Security and funds from benefactors, but they also benefit from the collection. The costs to sustain religious in retirement keep rising.

 Sister Mary Bertha Hennessy stays active during her retirement by helping at Mount Aviat Academy. (The Dialog/Mike Lang)

Sister Mary Bertha, 89, taught at Mount Aviat, St. Paul’s in Delaware City and other schools for 52 years. She has been back in Childs since 1999, stopped teaching full-time around 2002 and part-time three years later. Now, she helps another sister in seventh and eighth grade, correcting papers, putting up bulletin boards and taking care of deficiencies and demerits.

“That’s when you do something bad. They report it to me and I send those out. A bit of clerical work,” she said.

A native of Rugby, England, where she was raised by Irish parents, Sister Mary Bertha’s accent is still detectable. As a youngster attending Catholic schools, she recalled one event that influenced her decision to enter the convent.

“I wanted to be a missionary. When I was 11, a white father from Africa visited our parish for a week. He was talking about Africa, and I thought I’m going to be an African missionary. And that’s why I entered the Oblates, but I became an American missionary,” she said with a laugh.

“Many of our sisters who wanted to go to Africa went to Africa. I was training to go to Africa until the American provincial came along and said, ‘Mother, we need sisters in the United States. We need Oblates.’ She said OK. And here I am.”

So in 1951, she left her order’s motherhouse in France and boarded a ship, eventually ending up in Childs, but initially not as a teacher. She worked in the kitchen of the seminary run by the Oblate (Fathers) of St. Francis de Sales.

Eleven Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales live at Villa Aviat, the convent attached to Mount Aviat Academy. Nine of them work at the school, Sister Mary Bertha said, and none are really retired. Everyone contributes to the school and the convent. When she’s not at the school, Sister Mary Bertha washes dishes and helps fix meals.

“I do some other things to help keep things moving,” she said.

She plans on staying active at the school as long as her health allows it. She likes to spend time around the students, who, she said, help her stay young.

“With the cane, you’ve got to be careful. They come and grab you, so you’ve got to be careful. They might knock you over.”

Sister Mary Bertha is confident people will contribute to the Retirement Fund for Religious. Many were able to attend Catholic schools because various orders staffed them for next to nothing. She recalls being paid $50 a month for her services.

The goodness of people is something Sister Mary Bertha never doubts. “People are very good to us. They’ve always been very good to us. And we appreciate it.”