Teaching Faith, Not Fear, to Generations of Students

Bloomfield Hills — Sr. Bridget Bearss, RSCJ, prepares for every commencement speech with prayer, silence and reflection.

Every speech is unique, for every class at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, is unique.

But every message boils down to a simple truth: Faith, not fear.

This year will be no exception, only this year’s commencement address will be her last, after 18 years as head of school at Sacred Heart. But even then, she’ll insist it’s all about the students.

“Without question, the thing I will remember the most are the students,” Sr. Bearss told The Michigan Catholic. “The way the students have defined themselves and made huge accomplishments from the inside and out. They are young women, and now young men who through compassion and courage are ready to change the world.”

Sr. Bearss spoke in her office, filled with small mementos of the graduates of the past 18 years, plus her time teaching from 1988-94 and from 1997 until she became head of school a year later.

“If you look through my writing, or hear me speak, the sentence you might here the most is, ‘Faith, not fear,’” Sr. Bearss said. “Those were the words given to me by God on Sept. 11, 2001.”

The Sept. 11 attacks had a particular effect on the Sacred Heart community, with the passing of alumna Suzanne Kondratenko. Sacred Heart named the school’s infant classroom and day care room after her.

“We refuse to do fear; we instead choose to do faith,” Sr. Bearss said. “I think about that day, calling the students to the chapel to explain what happened. The second mantra we have is, ‘courage and confidence.’”

Sr. Bearss words have been delivered to Sacred Heart students and faculty for 18 years, but are applicable to her own life when she departs Oct. 1 to become the new executive director of the Stuart Center in Washington, D.C., a ministry of Sr. Bearss’ Society of the Sacred Heart that focuses on collaboration between different religious and social justice nonprofits.

“I’m entrusting the deepest thing that I love in the community of the Academy of the Sacred Heart into the heart of God,” Sr. Bearss said. “My community said I was needed in Washington, D.C., and I’m trusting it’s the right and best thing that will happen for the entire community.”

Talking with faculty and staff at Sacred Heart, one feels the impact Sr. Bearss has on the school will linger well after her departure.

“Sr. Bearss is always very present with the students; she was a teacher in the lower school when I was a student here and your day would just light up when you saw Sr. Bearss,” said Maggie Martin, physical education teacher at the primary school, lower school and middle school for girls.

Martin, a 2009 Sacred Heart graduate, is in her second year teaching and said Sr. Bearss’ presence among the students and faculty instill the values of the Religious of the Sacred Heart.

“She would always stop to listen to you and really cared about all of us like family,” Martin said. “It’s those same values we instill in our students. I was a student here during Sept. 11, 2001, and she took us in the chapel. She told us what’s going on. I was in the fifth grade at the time, so I didn’t completely understand what was happening, but by taking us to the chapel she was teaching us right away that faith is the first thing you turn to.”

Upper school history teacher Korin Visocchi attests to Sr. Bearss’ connection with the students, noting some students have been known to text Sr. Bearss about praying for a snow day or asking for a special prayer before exam season.

“Some students really have a fiercely casual relationship with her,” Visocchi said. “She is a friend and a leader. She has the office, she has the title, but if a student gets in trouble, they know they are going to her office, and everything she does is focused on love.”

It’s that focus on interpersonal relationships and love that instilled confidence when Visocchi applied to Sacred Heart.

“My first experience with Sister was in the parlor for my first interview,” Visocchi recalled. “We communicated by email because I was overseas when I applied for this job. When I arrived to this space, she was just sitting here and said, ‘Welcome home.’ I never met this person before, but I felt it was real.”

For the countless Sacred Heart alums, as well as parents, faculty and staff, Sr. Bearss’ genuine love for the school and its members was what made the institution go.

Sr. Bearss herself points to the creation of Kensington Hall, a middle school for boys, and the expansion of the early childhood program as watershed moments in her tenure.

But above all, she said waking up every day and teaching at Sacred Heart focused on two principles: living the Eucharist and glorifying the Heart of Jesus.

“I believe we’re all called to live the Eucharist,” Sr. Bearss said. “Not just attend a eucharistic liturgy, but become that eucharistic presence in one another’s lives. Also the desire to continue to build the Body of Christ; to glorify the Heart of Jesus. That means being willing to share in the joy and suffering of all of those we encounter."

Through Sr. Bearss’ tenure at Sacred Heart, there have been many joys and sufferings. And undoubtedly the students who learned from Sr. Bearss will experience their fair share of both.

Sr. Bearss’ final commencement speech will be special. But it will still ring with this everlasting lesson:

Faith, not fear.

Article by Daniel Meloy for The Michigan CatholicPhoto courtesy of Academy of the Sacred Heart