S. Remberta Westkaemper's Autobiography
*Taken from S. Remberta's autobiography from 1979, located in the CSB Archives*
I was born in a small farm home in Spring Hill, Minnesota on January 2, 1890 to Conrad and Christine Timmer Westkaemper, the fourth child, the third daughter. I was baptized a few days later in the Spring Hill St. Martin's Church and named Susanne. My Godmother was my Aunt Johanna. I had a carefree, happy childhood, roaming the farm and creek area and doing little chores as I grew older. Bringing the calves from the pasture to the barn and scrubbing the kitchen chairs are the ones I best remember. I was exceptionally devoted to my mother.
During my sixth year tragedy struck. My father had an accident while mowing grass for hay. His right hand was permanently crippled and he lost two fingers on his left one. With no phone or car it took hours to get him to the doctor. Who knows what difference that made?
It was decided to leave our fine Spring Hill farm and to move to a small dairy farm near Melrose. Later my father regretted this. He found that he could do more with his crippled hands than he had deemed possible. For me, the move was a blessing. Instead of attending a country school, I attended the parish school in Melrose, taught by the Benedictine Sisters. It was under the supervision of the Superintendent of the public school and both schools took the same examinations. Only later when I entered graduate school did I realize what an excellent elementary education I had received.
I remember vividly our evenings at home. Of course we had homework to do. Each evening was like a supervised study hour, Mother helping us with composition, reading, and spelling and geography, Father with religion, history, and mathematics. He did all problems "in his head," even square and cube roots. We went to school in the morning fully prepared. I loved school. I was an avid reader even then. So we lived happily til a great tragedy occurred-my mother died when I was eleven, three weeks after her seventh child, S. Doris, was born. To me it was a tragic loss. I had loved her so dearly. My eldest sister (who was seventeen) and my father cared for us as best they could. My father was a wonderful man, deeply religious and quite a philosopher. I owe much to him.
When I was in the second grade I decided to become a Benedictine Sister and never changed my mind. When I was fifteen I asked my father's permission to go to the convent. He hesitated for some time saying that I was too young, but as I insisted he finally consented and himself brought me to St. Benedict's. I have never regretted it to this day.
At the time of my entry, 1905, St. Benedict's had only a small high school. I had taken all classes they offered, as I finished the ninth grade before my entrance. It was decided to send me as teacher's aide to Browerville. It was a very hard year. Sister Vincent, the teacher, knew I was sent as her aide, but the housekeeper thought I was sent as kitchen help. So I did double duty. The housekeeper was very demanding and often unkind. I was glad to pack my trunk in June and go back to St. Benedict's only to be sent a few weeks later as teacher's aide to Perham. That proved to be a happy year. Sister Alphonsa seemed brusque but really was very kind. She loved to cook but did not like to teach. So I observed her teaching the early morning classes. Then she cooked the dinner and I took over the classes. In the afternoon I again observed her teaching. I learned much that year. Sister Alphonsa sewed a habit for me and chose my name.
In June I went back to St. Benedict's. I was now old enough to go to the Novitiate. I passed Chapter and entered the Novitiate in 1907. Sister Secunda was Novice Mistress. But after a few weeks she became ill and was absent for two months. We were left without even a prefect. Canon law was not as strict as it is today--novices could spend time away from the Novitiate and some of our class did so, going to missions. They got more training on mission than we in the Novitiate. In November I was assigned to teach grades four to five in the Academy. I wore the black veil all day while teaching. It was a hard class--children from broken homes and problem children. But I survived; I was glad to return to the Novitiate each evening.
In spring, Sister Secunda was named Superior of St. Raphael's Hospital (now St. Raphael's Convent) and we were again on our own with no prefect. We were all quite young and did we have fun! No discipline or instructions! Father Henry came over once a week to give us a religion class. By the time Sister Emiliana arrived to be Novice Mistress (when the Melrose school closed), we were completely out of order. Sister was experienced; she was kind but firm and in a few weeks we were behaving like and were trained Novices. We all (eighteen of us) passed Chapter and made first vows in 1908.
I was sent to Wadena to teach grades seven and eight in 1908. It was a hard year, an appointed superior with a self-appointed superior functioning. I was glad to pack my trunk in spring and to return to St. Benedict's.
I was assigned to teach in Sobieski (then called Swan River) in 1909. It was a small inland Polish settlement, no public means of transportation, no running water, no electricity, no phone. But I spent eight of my happiest years there. It was a semi-graded, public school, with one of the two teachers Polish. I taught grades five to eight. One hour each day we changed classes so the Polish sister could teach in my room, mostly religion. The people loved and respected the Sisters. The children were docile and studious. Unfortunately there were many absences--when farm work demanded their help and when the weather was bad (no buses). There were four Sisters: the two teachers, the cook, and Sister Seraphica, our kind, gentle superior and organist. The work was demanding but there was peace and joy.
I had time for reading and study, especially in late summer, so I managed to prepare for the so-called Professional Examinations. If you passed one of these, you received college credit. I passed one or two each year--even higher algebra, though I did get some help in preparing for that; Sister Lamberta and I studied together.
Each spring I received a letter from Sister Olivia, who was in charge of Sisters' summer school, to come home to teach a subject. In turn I taught history, civics, grammar, agriculture as I remember. These student Sisters were working for teachers' certificates.
In 1917 I received the usual letter but no subject was mentioned. When I arrived at St. Benedict's I was informed that the college faculty had elected me to join the college faculty to teach Botany in both college and high school. I had little to begin with in the way of space and equipment and I had little formal preparation for my new assignment. (I attended the University of Minnesota that summer but the course offered was in Economic Botany, of little help to me.) But I had always been a nature lover and I was a good reader so I settled down to study. I did not concentrate on any single text but read all General Botany texts available. I also indexed a valuable herbarium just obtained by purchase from the estate of Father Chavdonnet. This widened my botanical knowledge.
In September I met my classes with the assurance that I knew more botany than they did. The next summer I attended the University of Minnesota and took the General Botany course they offered, only to discover it was identical to what I had taught the past year.
In 1922, when St. Walburg's was erected, room 217 in the college was vacated by the vestment department. I asked St. Joseph to get that space for us, promising him to open each class with the invocation "St. Joseph, pray for us!" and to give his picture a place of honor in the room. We got the room and I kept my promise. I spent the next fifty years teaching in that room. With the growth of the college, the number of students increased and assistants joined me: Sister Magloire for a few years and then Sister Mary who remained in the department until 1979. I obtained my bachelor's degree at St. Benedict's in 1919 and my Master of Science degree at the University of Minnesota in 1922. I had leave of absence 1926-1927 and obtained my Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1929. Other than at St. Benedict's, I taught the following:
- two summer sessions at Mount St. Scholastica, Atchison, Kansas, in the midthirties;
- a summer session at Fordham University in 1945;
- Anatomy at St. Cloud Hospital School of Nursing from 1961 to 1971.
Mother Richarda decided to make a basic change in college administration. Up to that date the Community Prioress had been College President ex-officio. In 1958 I was named the first full-time President of the college. I was relieved when in 1961 the new Prioress, Sister Henrita, appointed Sister Linnea President and I could return to the biology department.
During all these years of teaching I regularly took classes on field trips and learned to know our woods very well as well as parts of St. John's woods and the countryside. Later we went further afield when cars were available. I sought facts which I knew would soon be forgotten. My main objective in teaching was to teach the students to observe closely, to learn to love nature, to take time to stand and stare, to really see and to develop the sense of wonder and the sense to wonder. No true nature lover ever becomes a delinquent.
I began a herbarium of Stearns Country plants and continued it even after retirement. Based on the herbarium I developed four slide/tape programs in kit form: woodlands, prairie, roadsides, fields, and waste areas, and water and wet areas. The herbarium numbers some 600 specimens. The University of Minnesota asked me to send them a duplicate of each specimen collected, which I gladly did. I also exchanged with St. Martin's College, Olympia, Washington. Later, some of the specimens were found in the International Herbarium in Texas.
I broadened my knowledge and views by travel. I spent the summer of 1931 at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, the second Sister to do so. I also spent several summers studying sea life in the Puget Sound area, alone or with a group.
When I was visiting relatives in Texas, they took me "field-tripping" so I became somewhat acquainted with semi-tropical flora. The same holds for northern Manitoba and the Calgary area.
In the early 1970's I spent two weeks in Bimini, one of the Bahama Islands, to observe for myself what I had read about the effects of the warm Gulf Stream on vegetation on that island.
Sister Mariella and I spent the summer of 1961 travelling in Europe, ending up at Oxford where we attended the summer session. Copies of the letters we wrote are in the archives so I will not repeat. Sister and I had been close friends for years. Nothing can be compared to a faithful friend (Ecclus. 6-16), and such a friend I found in Sister Mariella. We have been friends ever since she joined the faculty, giving each other mutual support, sharing each other's joys and sorrows, and interests. Both of us are nature lovers and both are interested in literature. She taught in the English Department for many years and is nationally known as a critic and writer.
In the beginning, our friendship was frowned upon as that bane of community life, particular friendship. Also, some of the elite among the faculty strongly discouraged this friendship: I was not one of the elite and if Sister Mariella became my very close friend, she would lose her status among the elite. But Sister Mariella, with a will of her own, disregarded this plea, and we became fast friends. Our friendship was gradually accepted by the community.
We ourselves knew by experience that "a faithful friend is a sturdy shelter, a treasure" as the Blessed Abbot Aelred says in a Treatise on Spiritual Friendship, which appears as a reading in the Book of Prayer, a short breviary, edited by Monks of St. John's Abbey and published by St. John's Abbey Press. Abbot Aelred takes the friendship of David and Jonathan as an example of true, perfect, lasting friendship. "Envy does not corrupt it, suspicion lessen it, or ambition break it up. A faithful friend is a sturdy treasure. He who finds one, finds a treasure."
I may safely say that Sister Mariella and I have helped each other to grow intellectually, morally, and spiritually. The community now sees our friendship in that light and fully approves of it and considers it an example for others.
I taught continuously in the biology department from 1917 to 1972, the year of my retirement. A number of awards came to me during these years:
- Citation by Minnesota Academy of Science for Distinguished Service to Science, 1959;
- President's Medal, College of St. Benedict, 1969;
- Grant from American Association of Science to support research on Stearns County flora;
- Member of Sigma Xi, an Honor Society;
- Charter member of Minnesota Academy of Science;
- Outstanding Educator of America, 1972.
Along with these awards, I am listed in the following publications:
- Who's Who in American Education;
- American Men of Science;
- American Catholic Who's Who;
- Who's Who of American Women;
- Outstanding Educators of America.
I am now Professor Emeritus. Though still putting community exercises first, as I always did, I enjoy various hobbies. Nature study is still my first interest. I take short walks to see, to examine, to wonder. Kind friends take me for rides so I can see my favorite spots in the countryside. I enjoy nature crafts, which are time-consuming but rewarding. I love to tat and to play cards. And then there is need for periods of rest, to relive in memory the events of the past, to thank God for His gifts.