“Life goes fast, my child. It’s hard to believe how fast.”
Marilyn Tucker addressed those words to Ann Diemler in the spring of 1951.
They were playing the roles of mother and daughter, Louise and Bernadette Soubirous, in the St. Peter High School senior class production of “The Song of Bernadette” in Jefferson City.
Based on a novel and award-winning motion picture of the same name, the three-act play tells the story of St. Bernadette and of the Blessed Mother’s 18 apparitions to her in 1858 near the little town of Lourdes, France.
Members of the St. Peter senior class served as the cast, stage crew, ushers and publicists.
They prepared and exhaustively rehearsed before performing the play the evenings of Sunday and Tuesday, April 15 and 17, in the Selinger Centre next to St. Peter Church.
The reviews were excellent.
“Majestically and competently, the alert and quick-witted cast moved along in the touching and beautifully dramatic story of Bernadette and Mary’s message to an unbelieving world,” a scribe for the school yearbook attested.
It was something entirely different. Previous years’ senior plays were comedies.
“When this play was announced, I recall the fussing and disappointment by many seniors,” one cast member stated.
Accordingly, several who were previously unknown to many of their classmates landed roles.
The production turned out to be “a big hit and great success,” the cast member stated.
Well worth it
Charlie Bernskoetter, who played Louis Bouriette in the production, grew up on his parents’ dairy farm in rural Cole County. He and his siblings needed to help with milking and other chores before and after school.
“My free time was limited,” he recalled. “Being a member of the cast in the senior play was one of the few extracurricular activities I was able to participate in.”
He deems it time well spent.
“It was a very congenial group, and the many friendships that were developed while participating in this play have lasted a lifetime,” he said.
Paul Meyer played the role of Francois Soubirous, St. Bernadette’s father, while the former Frances Eggen portrayed one of the nuns.
Now they are husband and wife.
“We didn’t start dating until I had been through junior college and two years in the service,” Mr. Meyer noted.
St. Peter High School, forerunner to Helias Catholic, attracted students from St. Peter and Immaculate Conception parishes as well as surrounding communities.
De La Salle Christian Brothers taught the boys; School Sisters of Notre Dame taught the girls.
They studied on separate floors of the building and seldom crossed paths during the school day.
“Unless we’d gone through grade school with them, we wouldn’t have known most of them,” said Mr. Meyer.
The least of these
“The Song of Bernadette” highlights one of countless examples throughout history of God raising up the lowly and confounding the powerful.
Neither strong nor intelligent, young Bernadette obediently repeated to Church and secular authorities the urgent messages of repentance Our Lady had given her.
She did not back down while facing reactions ranging from belief to pity to rage.
She entered religious life and continued doing God’s work until her death at age 35.
Millions of people each year now make pilgrimages to the massive basilica that stands where the Blessed Mother appeared to her.
St. Bernadette was declared a saint in 1933, the year most members of the Class of 1951 were born. Her feastday is April 16.
Feb. 11 is the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Come to the water
“It came back to me as if it were yesterday,” said Don Knollmeyer, who played a young miller named Antoine Nicolau and also opened and closed the stage curtain between scenes.
He still has a copy of the script, pages dog-eared and marked in pencil with names and cues.
“It says when to pull the curtain, how fast or slow,” he noted.
Another cast member recalled how Jack Zimmerman, now deceased, in the role of Mayor Lacade enjoyed ad-libbing his lines.
“It made things interesting for the other actors and actresses,” the classmate stated.
Dick Groner, now deceased, played Chief of Police Jacomet.
His father was a farmer and had a large, galvanized water tank for feeding cattle.
The elder Mr. Groner set up the tank on stage with a pump. The stage crew disguised it with rocks and papier-mâché painted to look like cave stones.
“So we had a grotto with running water on the stage,” said Mr. Meyer. “It looked like the real thing!”
Joan (Huhman) Thessen served as an usher.
“I knew of St. Bernadette but was not familiar with the complete story of her life,” she recalled. “The play was certainly enlightening and I was amazed at how well our class performed in it.”
She recently perused her 1951 school yearbook and turned to the pages from the senior production.
“The play itself had a depth of feeling and a sense of spirituality that the actors conveyed to over-flowing audiences in a magnificent way,” it stated.
“All who attended were captivated by the gentle, unassuming Bernadette, her schoolgirl friends, her worried parents, the woman with the sick child, the blind man, the rich widow, Bernadette’s managing aunt, the young miller eager to help Bernadette, strict Sister Vazous, Dean Peyramale, his talkative housekeeper and even the police,” the yearbook continued.
The real thing
Several who held parts or helped with the production wound up making their own pilgrimages to Lourdes.
“I was in England visiting on vacation, and we flew over to France to visit some people we knew,” recalled Nora Lee (Mueller) Conrad, who had played one of Bernadette’s schoolmates.
She and her husband visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. They saw the incorrupt earthly remains of St. Bernadette, which are at rest in a glass casket.
“It was a beautiful trip,” Mrs. Conrad recalled.
Having never left central Missouri throughout his childhood, Mr. Bernskoetter couldn’t imagine going to France when he was in high school.
Thirty years later, he and his wife Millie went to spend time with their daughter, who was attending school there.
“We were able to visit the shrine at Lourdes and saw a number of people on crutches, in wheelchairs or on gurneys with various ailments being escorted up to the grotto,” he recalled.
They were all seeking the Blessed Mother’s intercession for miraculous healing through God’s grace. Crutches and braces left behind by previous pilgrims testify to the efficacy of those prayers.
“It was great to see the faith they had in the curative powers of Our Lady of Lourdes,” said Mr. Bernskoetter.
Remembering what he had learned from acting in the play made the pilgrimage all the more meaningful to him, he said.
Such devoted sisters
The Class of 1951 was St. Peter High School’s largest graduating class, with at least 102 members.
Classmates remain proud of the four religious sisters and one religious brother who emerged from their ranks.
They include Sister Josetta Eveler and Sister Rose Mary Forck of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word; Sister Rose Ann Kaiser of Victory Knoll; Sister Eleanor Nentwig of the School Sisters of Notre Dame; and the late Brother David Schell of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
Sr. Rose Mary, who now lives in San Antonio, portrayed the Blessed Mother in “The Song of Bernadette.”
She was also active in a high school group known as Mary’s Messengers. Members would visit blocks throughout the city and invite people to join them in invoking Our Lady’s powerful intercession.
“Jefferson City was very Catholic,” Sr. Rose Mary recalled. “I enjoyed going to various homes and praying the Rosary with people.”
She believes that experience, along with portraying Our Lady of Lourdes in her senior play, helped steer her toward religious life.
“We salute the seniors for their masterful presentation of a very difficult play,” the late Monsignor Joseph A. Vogelweid PA, pastor of St. Peter Parish, wrote in his bulletin the weekend after the production. “They deserve to be congratulated for making such a splendid choice of a genuinely Catholic play.”
Sister Mary Alene of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who directed the play, wrote a personal note to the cast and crew the morning after the last performance.
“My prayer for you today is one of gratitude and affection,” she wrote. “My prayer for you in the days that are to come will be that everywhere and always, you may prove to be the ‘wonderful staff’ and the ‘can’t-be-beat individuals’ you were on April 15, 16 and 17 in the Year of Our Lord 1951.”
Mr. Meyer pointed out that although some of the cast members have now gone to be with God, the memories and friendships have endured for a solid 70 years.
Up to the COVID pandemic, the St. Peter High School Class of 1951 consistently held five-year reunions and quarterly dinners in Jefferson City for those who could attend.
“We’re looking forward to getting those started again,” said Mr. Bernskoetter.
Just like the visionary’s mother in “The Song of Bernadette,” Sr. Rose Mary is amazed at how quickly time goes by.
“It sure does catch up with you,” she said. “That’s a great thing for young people to remember.”