Franciscan Sister Remembered as Tough, Amazing, Kind
Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity Community Director, Sister Louise Hembrecht, reflects on the life of Sister Hilda Hersant who rose to sometimes difficult situations with honesty, directness and strength. Respected by the Gila River Community, Bapchule, AZ as an elder, Sister Hilda also served among the Menomonees in Neopit, WI totally 23 years among Native peoples. Her adaptability and creative resourcefulness were also used by God in other places of need. Sister Hilda died on September 13, 2011 at the age of 90. Click here to read Sister Hilda’s own comments on the Sisterhood.
It was in the spring of 1975 that I first met or spent any significant time with Sister Hilda. I was missioned in Menominee and Sister Carmen was going to spend a weekend with her sister in Antigo. I tagged along to spend the weekend in Neopit with Sister Martha Mary. Sister Hilda was the principal at St. Anthony’s school in Neopit at the time.
When I arrived in Neopit, I discovered that the Sisters were cleaning the school so that it would be in tip-top shape for the new pastor. While many have prepared for a new pastor, the situation in Neopit at the time was anything but ordinary. They were getting a new pastor because their previous one, Father Marcellus, had been killed in November of 1974. To put it mildly, it was a tumultuous and violent time on the reservation. Father Marcellus had been stabbed to death during a robbery in the rectory, the Alexian Brothers Novitiate in Gresham had been taken over and the Sisters had been told that members of the American Indian Movement were planning a march from Milwaukee to Neopit to take over the school.
The Sisters discussed the situation with Sister Henrielda. They were given the option to leave, but were told that they probably would not return. Bishop Wyscislo had said that if they stayed they could become martyrs. The Menominee people begged them to stay. The Sisters stayed but didn’t think martyrdom was what God planned for them. The Menominee’s surrounded and guarded the convent and as Sister Hilda said, “The Sisters were armed and dangerous.” They each had a gun under their beds in those days and had been taken to the dump to practice shooting. Besides protecting themselves, Sister Hilda was determined that the children would be protected.
Things were not as they should be when I arrived for the weekend in Spring but the worst of the violence and threats of violence were over. The school had not had a janitor for years and the students and adult volunteers had cleaned but not well. Sister Martha Mary and I were given the job of cleaning the boys’ bathroom. It was gross but when I whined about it, Sister Hilda just looked at me, smiled and said “Get over it.” Then she handed me more cleaning supplies.
I think all of her life, Sister Hilda was kind, honest, direct, and strong. When she wrote asking to come to the convent, she wrote: “I have been planning on entering the convent for many years, and through the many prayers and novenas of mine and my friends I have finally decided it was my vocation. My parents are not very well off, in fact their means are very limited. My father is out of work at time and there are six children in the family. I have given up the idea of going many times, but mother says we probably can make it, if it does not cost so much. … Will you kindly send me a list of things that I may need, as I have a few friends who offered to help me out. As for ready cash we will be able to pay a little each month but not all at once…I wish to become a Sister very bad.” Sister Hilda, Catherine Hersant was 15 years old.
Sister Hilda was a life-long learner. She graduated from high school in 1941which was after her first profession and then in 1946 graduated as a registered nurse from Holy Family School of Nursing. She graduated from Holy Family College in 1961 with a history major and a French minor. She had an advanced Religion Certificate. Throughout the years she took many courses and workshops including a workshop in 2006 which gave her a certificate that said she had completed the SMART Master program for SMART Board interactive whiteboards.
Sister Hilda began her ministry in nursing and during her last years in Bapchule served as the school nurse. In the in between years she taught and served as a principal. She was a very capable person. She served the Native Americans for twenty-three years. After being at Neopit, she went to Topawa and then spent two years in Yuma before coming back to Wisconsin to serve as principal in a local catholic school where enrollment was on the decline.
Sister Hilda was tough. She demanded that her teachers put students first and that they treat the students with respect. She expected her teachers to teach as Jesus did and emphasized Catholic values. Not all her teachers were willing to carry this out in their classrooms. There were struggles but Sister Hilda held firm and the school became strong again. She had high expectations of the students and they responded.
Sister Hilda went back west to Bapchule where she spent the next 18 years. Evaluations of her teaching of Native American children over the years included comments such as: “Sister is to be highly commended for the excellent organization, ingenuity and creativity in teaching and patient understanding of how children learn.” “Sister Hilda is a very dedicated teacher who understands children and knows how to get the best out of them.” “Sister Hilda has a positive and caring relationship with all her students, even those who try the patience of most people.”
And finally a comment directed to Sister Hilda: “You are amazing. You are a role model to me in dedication, in compassion, in teaching. You have once again touched the hearts and minds of many children especially our children in grades 7 and 8. Your healing touch and listening heart has helped to heal many hurts.”
Sister Hilda came home to the Motherhouse in 2007 and moved to St. Rita’s in 2008. She was positive and pleasant, a good listener, as interested in others here as she had been throughout her life. Even though her health continued to fail in recent months, Sister Hilda had a strong desire to live; despite her suffering she enjoyed life, this life. In the last weeks, Sister Hilda indicated that she was ready for eternal life, for death. Not only was she at peace, she was filled with joy.
We will certainly miss her presence among us. As we mourn her death because our loss and celebrate her joy as she enters into heaven, we know that those she served especially her dear children and adults at St. Peters Indian Mission in Bapchule and the Sister there share our sentiments. Thank you, Hildy. God bless you.