Sister Martha Bertke

I have many, many memories of the Maria Stein Shrine, from my childhood, teenage years, vocational call, adult life and religious life.

Since I grew up on a farm just across the fields from the Shrine, a sight of the building and property were etched into my mind from early childhood days. Our family could see the Shrine from our kitchen window and whenever we were outside. Many times when I helped my mother hang clothes on the line in our backyard, we looked to the Shrine to see how many cars and buses were there, so we would know if it was an ordinary day or if something special was going on that day.

For many years the Sisters prayed hours of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament in the “Sisters Chapel” (today known as the Adoration Chapel). At least two Sisters were in chapel at all times. Outside on the property, they had an “hour bell,” which rang 10 minutes before each hour, letting Sisters know that two more had to go to chapel to pray for an hour. At our farm, we could hear the hour bell ring. As children, oftentimes when we heard the bell ring we would say, “Oh, two more Sisters have to pray.” But it also served as a reminder to us to pray too. Each time I walk into the Adoration Chapel, in my head I can still hear the voices of a group of Sisters praying, who over the years spent many hours in prayer in that chapel.

Many times my four brothers were asked to serve Mass at the Convent. The Sisters would call our home and when speaking with my mother, they would say, “Mrs. Bertke, can one of your boys come and serve Mass?” Recently my one brother told me they served during grade school and high school years and every other Sunday morning.

I attended St. Johns Grade School in Maria Stein, which at that time was across the street from the parish church, and I was taught by Sisters. Each year for our annual school picnic, we walked to the Shrine. There we watched Sisters make hosts (altar breads), we tasted the hosts bread, saw the many statues made by Sisters, and learned about Christmas cribs made from coal clinkers. A visit to the Relic Chapel along with receiving a holy card that was pierced by a relic of the True Cross was included in the day. I still hold on dearly to some precious medals, holy cards, pamphlets and rosaries from those years.

During my high school years, there were two Sisters on the high school faculty. Changes were being made at the Shrine, and Sisters started to provide retreats in 1953. I made my first retreat at the Shrine when I was a freshman in high school. During retreats, I prayed in the former small building called the “retreat chapel” and I stayed in the former apartment building, the former gatehouse and also on third floor. Eating in the “Coffee Shop” and in the dining room was special. At the time of high school graduation, our class was invited to come to the Shrine, dressed in our caps and gowns, for a breakfast and some time at the place. Still have pictures of that.

When discerning my vocational call, I felt nudges to become a Sister, yet I was so uncertain about pursuing religious life, because I thought the Sisters wore funny-looking clothes, prayed a lot and never went anyplace. Who wants to live like that? Finally, one Sunday afternoon I went to the Shrine to talk with a Sister about my confusion. She invited me to go with her on another day to Salem Heights for a visit. Well, the rest is history.

It seems to me my immediate and extended families have always been involved in various ways at the Shrine. Many of my relatives, aunts and uncles, cousins and neighbors have and continue to support the Shrine through generous monetary donations and numerous hours of volunteer work. To name just some: bailing hay with the farm workers, baking goodies in the basement for the gift shop, assisting with the annual pilgrimage, helping to park cars, mowing lawn, praying hours of adoration, purchasing items in the gift shop, leading the rosary, making preparations for and participating in the pilgrimage and other devotions. When my one sister-in-law died, in lieu of flowers, donations were made to the Shrine. The list can go on and on.

A very dear memory is the annual Pilgrimage, which has been in existence for 87 years. Each year many people gather at St. John Church in Maria Stein and then while walking to the Shrine, they pray the rosary. At the Shrine they have prayers and benediction. I participated in this each year as I was growing up and in the recent years too.

One humorous memory is this. Each year, for nearly 40 years, on November 15, the first day of rabbit hunting season, my dad, my uncle, and their good friend, plus their sons would go rabbit hunting in the Convent woods. They called ahead to get permission to do that. Then came home with good stories to tell, as well as the rabbits they caught. It was always a good day.

In 1961 the Sisters built a Retreat House, which today is called the Spiritual Center of Maria Stein. I have made many retreats there, as well as many visits for various occasions. It is definitely a place where I meet my God and am spiritually nourished. This year when a dear friend died, I went to the Spiritual Center to shed my tears and communicate with God. Through dealing with a health issue, I went there for trust, comfort, healing and peace. In the chapel the beautiful mosaic of a fountain, located behind the Blessed Tabernacle, always reminds me of the words from Eucharistic Prayer II, “You are indeed Holy, O Lord, the fount of all holiness.” I really appreciate this.

As a Sister of the Precious Blood, I often visit the Shrine and especially the Spiritual Center. I recall our Sisters, who over the years spent many hours in prayer and sacrifice there. Their devotion to the Precious Blood of Jesus and their dedication and service will never be forgotten. Now, I am privileged to be a member of the Sisters. The Lord is my shepherd; He is mine and I am his.

Glory to the Blood of Jesus, now and forever.

ms-reflections_dsc_0040_mlsSister Martha at the 2011 Assembly; Sister Mary Lou Schmersal photo

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