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A Friendship More Precious Than Diamonds

Sister Damian O’Brien, PBVM (l.) and Sister Bertha Fox, BVM, enjoy reconnecting with deep gratitude for their friendship of over 70 years.

by Beth Kress, PBVM with Bertha Fox, BVM and Damian O’Brien, PBVM

When a teacher-student friendship endures through the years, it defies time. Across town from Mount Carmel Bluffs, Sister Bertha “Berdie” Fox, BVM, visited her former piano teacher, Sister Damian O’Brien, at Mount Loretto.

While not in constant contact over the last 70 years, Sisters Damian and Bertha affirmed their thoughts and prayers for each other across time and miles. Their story and friendship travels from music lessons to the inspiration of a religious vocation, from their higher education and ministry and to their eventual retirement. In their meeting, the two sisters celebrated their friendship, rejoiced and came full circle to
retrace the graces through the years.

As a young professed sister on her fourth teaching assignment, Sister Damian, with two other Presentation Sisters, served in religious education at Sacred Heart Parish in Osage, Iowa. Sister Damian was responsible for parish music and music pupils. Having begun her postgraduate studies at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, Illinois, she was well qualified to enrich her music students.

In nearby New Haven, Iowa, Berdie’s parents were looking for a piano teacher for their sophomore daughter who had studied piano at St. Mary School, the parochial school for St. Peter Church in New Haven. Her piano teacher had been reassigned and not replaced. Berdie’s mother heard about the good music teacher in Osage who was a Presentation Sister. And so, their friendship began. Teenage Berdie drove the family car every week to Osage for piano lessons.

“Berdie was a very good pupil,” remarks Sister Damian. “She liked music and she practiced. She was quite advanced for her age.” Before meeting Sister Damian, Berdie had learned harmony and transposition with her first piano teacher.

After Berdie graduated from high school, she enrolled at Clarke College (University) in Dubuque. “I wanted to study chemistry because I enjoyed it with my high school friends. I also loved writing and music. My final choice was a double major in music and English.” Sister Damian had invited Berdie to attend a reception of Presentation novices during her two years of piano studies in Osage. “When Berdie shared that she was going to Clarke College, I realized she had a vocation to religious life, but not necessarily to our community,” shares Sister Damian.

Sister Damian applied her advanced studies to parishes and their grade schools, including giving students instrumental band lessons in Mason City, Iowa, the Midwestern town known worldwide for Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. She also served in leadership for her Presentation community, coordinated the center for retired priests of the Archdiocese of Dubuque and was on the initial team for the education and formation of permanent deacons. She served as pastoral associate in several parishes and as assistant to the archdiocesan archivist, retiring at age 98.

Sister Bertha taught music, chant and liturgy in Sisters of Charity, BVM schools in South Dakota and Illinois, at Clarke College and in BVM novitiates in Los Gatos, California, and Dubuque. She continued musical research in Eastern Europe before 1990 and the Fall of the Wall.

“As well as inspiring me to make music part of my life, Sister Damian supported my religious vocation from the beginning. When I made my first vows, she gave me a gift that I took with me for years in my travels, so I thought of her often,” reflects Sister Bertha. “She is just special!”

Seeing teaching as a work of the heart, Sister Damian expresses gratitude for her friendship with Sister Bertha, “I am pleased that we can now visit here at Mount Loretto!”

These two outstanding women religious influenced each other, as they touched many lives through their music.

Presentation Doorways, Volume 68 (Issue 1), p. 6. Copyright [2024] by the Sisters of the Presentation. Reprinted with permission.

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