Remembrance of the Life of Sister Mary Denis Bruck SL
Hedwig Isabelle Catherine Bruck arrived as Frank and Mary Bruck’s first child exactly nine months after their marriage, “an embarrassment” her parents joked. She was born in Quincy, Ill., although both sides of her family were settled in St. Louis. Mary Denis, as she would be known for 78 years in Loretto, gave an extensive interview with PJ Manion in 1998. The following words of hers are from that interview and from articles quoting her at the time of her 50th, 60th and 75th jubilees.
“My mother and dad were immigrants and came over in 1894 or ’96, settling in St. Louis. My dad, Frank Philip Bruck, was born in Vinga, Austria-Hungary, and my mother, Mary Schuetz Bruck, was born in Velma, Austria-Hungary. They met at the German Friends, one of the insurance societies that used to have dances. Mother and her sisters would go to them in South St. Louis. My dad said he looked across the dance floor and he said ‘I am going to marry that girl.’ My dad was a carpenter and in the beginning he was the only one in his family who had a job. I don’t know if it was before they were married or afterward, but he took courses through the International Correspondence School and taught himself mathematics and drafting. Eventually he was a master draftsman and was superintendent for the whole factory of Hussman Ligonier.
“So they were married in 1917 (during the First World War) and. of course, they were enemy aliens. They never talked about it, but I think they suffered prejudice because of the war. They were very adamant about our speaking good English. We moved around North and South Saint Louis and finally moved out to Jennings in 1926 where two of my sisters still live in the family house. I am the oldest, then Margie and Dorothy, Betty and Rose Mary and finally Helen, all girls no boys. I was the boy. In 1998 they are all still living; my mother lived to be 96 and my dad to 93; and my dad’s parents lived into their 90s, too.
“They were great parents, very religious; giving to the church was the biggest thing. My dad was a big man in the Holy Name Society and in the choir with his family growing up. Singing was a big thing with my dad’s whole family. My mother played the piano, he played the violin, so we had a lot of music.
“I got to the Sisters of Loretto through Peggy Dooling, who became Sister Julia. We both worked at the Queens Work. I had been working there about five years in the shipping department; I was in charge of the Queens Work mailings, about three hundred thousand (pieces). Peggy worked in the front office. When she came back to work from the Summer School of Catholic Action in Chicago, people said, ‘Peggy Dooling is going to the convent.’ I said, ‘Oh come on, she is too gorgeous to go to the convent.’ And she went! I’d been thinking about it for a long time. I think I subconsciously thought about joining the School Sisters of Notre Dame (who taught me at Rock High School). Out of my class of 31 I think there were 11 vocations. Anyway, Julia left and then it began to bother me. She was received in April and in the summer her sister, Mary, said, ‘Would you like to go down and see Julia?’, and I said, “Sure.’
“I thought (the Motherhouse) was the most God forsaken place! The bell would ring, and she would have to go, and we would sit and walk around. She would come out for a half hour, and then she would have to go, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is awful!’ Then I went home (and I went to) Father Lord (of the Queen’s Work) and said ‘I have a problem. I think I ought to be a nun, but I am not sure.’ So he said, ‘If you don’t go and anything happens in your life, you’ll say it was because I should have been a nun…’ So that was it. I went home and finally decided I would go. I told my mother, and she said, ‘Oh, Hedwig, what would you do? You won’t have any sports, you won’t have any movies.’ I was captain of the basketball team and that kind of stuff and very interested in sports. I said, ‘I don’t know Mom, but I have to try.’
“(In the novitiate) I got involved, and I think the saving point was working — working in the laundry was a big release because you could get yourself going and get all your energy out. When I was a senior novice we were in a class telling what we’d done wrong and getting down on our knees. I was standing in the back and I said, ‘Oh, pooh!’ Sister Dafrosa asked who said that, and I said ‘I did.’ She said to go to her room and there she asked, ‘Why did you say that?’ I said, ‘I couldn’t stand it anymore; that is stupid.’ She said, ‘I think it’s stupid, too.’ I was 26 when that happened, and I thought some of this stuff is asinine, grown women going through this. But I thought if that is what you have to do, you have to do it. I never regretted it really; some places were hard, but not as hard as I heard some people had.”
Hedwig was received as a novice on April 25, 1943, as Sister Mary Denis, and two years later she made her first vows. While many of her companions went on to classrooms, Mary Denis found herself at Webster College taking classes, assisting in the finance office and doing correspondence for Sister Albert, who managed the train passes. Her years at the Queens Work prepared her for the office work at Webster. But during the year she met with Reverend Mother Edwarda and said, “I thought maybe someday I would be a teacher.” The next year she was assigned to St. Ann’s in Normandy and in seven years taught first through seventh grades.
“Then they sent me to Louisville, and Sister Suzanne Marie said, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t unpack your trunk. Go down to the Motherhouse and make your retreat; you can unpack your trunk when you come back.’ Well they knew that I couldn’t stay there because I didn’t have credits for teaching business in Kentucky. So they sent me back to Normandy (where) I taught sixth and seventh and (tried to learn) typing and shorthand from Sister Michaela. (At the end of the year) I went to the Gregg School in Chicago and learned to (take dictation) and handle the Gregg textbooks. Then I went to Louisville. I taught shorthand and typing and religion. Those girls learned in spite of me. I taught there two years and then I went to Sterling, Ill., from 1955 to 1964.
“The faculty at Newman High School in Sterling was marvelous, and very dedicated students. Then in ’64 they sent me to Denver to be Holy Family principal, and that was a very strenuous learning experience; (during the first year) Sister Florence came and said, ‘Father would like to have another principal.’ So, I went to Machebeuf and taught shorthand and typing there. In 1966 they sent me to Taos to be superior and principal; they sent me down to see if they should close the school. I loved those people and loved that town. There were very good teachers, very good. But I didn’t think the two Sisters there would be able to last much longer. Then I found out that the reason the parish board had kept the school open that long was that the public school was building a new high school and couldn’t handle the parish children yet. They said, ‘When the new school opens then you can close the school.’ We ended up going out in a flame of glory; we won the State Championship in our division in basketball. Then I was sent to Colorado Springs and stayed there five years, and that was a very happy experience. Sister Patrick Marie Sharpe was principal, and I was vice principal. We started the new school.
“(Newman in Sterling) was the first place Patrick Marie and I lived together. Then Colorado Springs. Then we went out to California, retired from teaching. We thought we would take up counseling, but were told ‘everybody is taking counseling.’ So, Sister Pat took woodwork, and I took guitar and painting. My teacher at San Diego Community College was a Japanese art professor. For the next four years I studied a 15th century Chinese-Japanese form of ink drawing. You’re supposed to contemplate the spiritual aspect of the object you’re looking at and paint only one item, that one form. It’s a deeply spiritual process.
“(After we were in California about four years) the notice came out they were looking for somebody at the Center in Denver. I said to Sister Pat, ‘Well, I will apply; they’ll probably not need me, but I should do something for the congregation itself.’ I wrote a letter and got a reply that they thought that it would be great for me to come. I went to Denver and stayed there from June ’74 till June of ‘89. To live with those wonderful women, deeply religious and concerned about their congregation, they were marvelous, plus the dedication of the people in the school downstairs and the people who taught in the tutoring school, too. Then the experiences with the gardens which Sister Celine Marie started, and I started grapes and currants and gooseberries. Sister Anselm started raspberries, and we went on like that. It was a marvelous experience.
“Then in 1987 I fell out of the tree. Sister Maureen had a lot of apples in their yard, and we went, and I climbed up a ladder. I reached, and I didn’t make it, and the ladder flew away, and I flew down on the ground. I don’t remember screaming, but Sister Margaret Ann said she would never forget the scream. I suffered a compression fracture. I thought, ‘There goes (my trip with Sister Patrick) to see the Pope.’ But the doctor said why not. So I went out to San Francisco and we saw the Pope. Sister Jeannette Marie and Patrick Marie and I were on the end of a pew, and when the Holy Father came in, we shook his hand.
“My dad had died in 1985, and when I went home at Christmas in ‘88, I thought it was time for me to help out. So I resigned at the Center and went home and lived with my mother and sisters Betty and Helen for a year. My mother died May 1st of 1990. It was a wonderful experience to be with her. It was a real gift; one of the biggest gifts God could have given me, that the congregation let me do something like that. I also got to make two trips to Ireland with Patrick Marie, in 1972 and again in 1990. In ’90 we came back, and I went to live with Patrick and taught religious education at junior high school. It was good, but my hearing began to go. In ‘93 Sister Pat had two heart attacks and had to stop the religious ed she had been doing since the ‘70s; so I resigned, too. You know, you have to slow down, but it is hard to slow down. We (continued to be) active, visiting people and calling on the phone and that type of thing. And I was on the Church Finance Council, to get the finances going and repair the things that need repairing.”
This interview with Mary Denis was in 1998. In it she doesn’t even mention her many years of service as a Loretto Assembly delegate or her master’s degree in business education. Mary Denis continued her round of volunteer activities in San Diego until 2011, for a total of 17 years after her 1994 retirement. She remained in San Diego three years beyond Sister Patrick Marie’s death in 2007. Finally, she moved to Loretto Motherhouse, to the assisted-living quarters of the Infirmary. She kept active with visiting residents, attending the many activities at the Motherhouse, and tuning in to every major sports event on TV. And Mary Denis continued her art work. Her ambition in painting gives an apt summary of the way she lived her whole life: “I want to find what’s hidden within. That is where the reality is.”