Not many people love their profession so much that they stay in it for more than 50 years, but Bernadine Szopinski ’54 has done just that.
"I wanted to be a nurse forever,” says the 85-year-old nurse who has spent the majority of her career caring for the School Sisters — many of them former teachers, nurses and classmates — at the Sacred Heart Convent. “I love nursing. I never thought of doing anything else.”
She began working as an aide at St. Joseph’s Hospital while still in high school, but her career choice took some convincing. Her father, who raised her and her brother after her mother died when she was 9, was adamantly against the idea.
“He wanted me to be a secretary, and I told him I’d rather stay working as an aide because that’s what I loved doing,” Szopinski says.
The making of an Alverno nurse
She kept arguing with him and in the meantime visited three-year diploma schools with a high school friend. She was accepted at the Sacred Heart School of Nursing, established by the School Sisters in 1930.
One month before Szopinski was to enter the three-year nursing program, Sister Ottonella Raup asked her and nine other lay students and two nuns to instead become part of a vision she had for a four-year college degree through what would become known as Alverno College. (In 1951, Sacred Heart, the St. Joseph Convent College of Music and Alverno Teachers College officially came together under the banner of Alverno College.)
Before she could enroll, Szopinski once again had the huge task of persuading her father. The fact that she could live at home the first year and was paying for all of her tuition — $50 a semester plus $2 per book — finally won him over.
“The day I graduated from college, my dad was so proud,” Szopinski says. “I was the first college graduate in the family.”
Szopinski was also among the first graduating class to walk across the newly built Pitman Theatre stage and one of the first 12 women to receive a four-year nursing degree from Alverno College. To this day, she takes great pride in being an Alverno nurse.
“Alverno showed you that you could do whatever you wanted to do because you were strong and confident. I was proud to graduate, and I was confident working with patients,” she says.
After graduation, Szopinski became a charge nurse at Children’s Hospital. She also immediately got married and had her first of eight children a year later. She returned to nursing, but when her fourth child came along, it was time for a hiatus.
After 10 years as a stay-at-home mom, Szopinski became a night supervisor at a nursing facility near her home because nights were the only time when she could work around child care and her husband’s career. She stayed for nearly 14 years and then went to the Alexian Village of Milwaukee assisted living facility for 2½ years.
In 1985, she received a desperate call from her former classmate, Sister Rosemary Hagen, who had an opening she needed to fill at what was then St. Mary’s Hill Hospital. From the moment she walked in, Szopinski felt at home. Despite a long commute from her home in Brown Deer to the south side of Milwaukee, she finally accepted the position caring for aging and ill School Sisters.
She has been there since.
“The sisters have kept me there. It’s the love and support and thankfulness they show. It’s a wonderful group to work for,” she says.
'It must be an Alverno thing'
That support showed through when Szopinski’s husband passed away last spring. Daughter Deb Schultz ’91 says the sisters showed up at the funeral in full force. They also expressed to Schultz how worried they were that Szopinski would retire, but that isn’t likely to happen any time soon. In fact, Schultz’s father was adamant that his wife not have to leave her job to care for him when he became ill.
“He was very proud of my mom. He was the first one to say that his wife had a four-year degree,” she says. “He asked me to stay with him because he didn’t want to be the one to make my mom quit her job to care for him. He knew how much she loved her job.”
Schultz says she wanted to be like her mom, but in high school realized nursing wasn’t for her. Instead, she was the only one of six daughters to follow in her mom’s footsteps by attending Alverno, where she earned a Communications degree and later her teaching license. Szopinski was Schultz’s graduation marshal and handed Schultz her diploma.
“I always thought my mom was the strongest person I knew. Alverno played a huge part in that,” she says. “I think we have a special bond. There’s something between us that no one else understands. My husband will sometimes say ‘it must be an Alverno thing.’”
If you ask Schultz why she chose Alverno, she shares the story of her mother taking her to campus on an errand after Schultz had dropped out of another university and was recuperating from foot surgery. They ran into Sister Armella Weibel ’46, ’85. Before the “errand” was over, Schultz found herself signed up for pre-testing and ready to become an Alverno student.
“I was always convincing. I got that from Alverno,” Szopinski says with a laugh.