by Laura Schreiner
Anyone who knows Sister Romana Hertel, OSF, Ph.D., surely would agree that it’s nearly impossible to think of her without thinking of music. Her name alone brings to mind soulful and uplifting violin and piano melodies. So it comes as no surprise that Sister Romana may, in fact, even be a distant relative of famed composer Johann Wilhelm Hertel.
But Sister Romana has her own legacy, one that is foundational to the development of Stritch’s music department.
Born Gertrude Hertel to a large and loving family, Sister Romana credits her childhood with cultivating her early interest in music and the Franciscan lifestyle.
“A Catholic education was always important to my father,” Sister Romana said. “Even with 10 children, he made sure that each of us received a Catholic education."
Her early instruction began under the care of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi at a parish school in Stockbridge, Wis., as well as in high school at St. Mary’s Academy in Milwaukee. Sister Romana is certain that her early exposure to the Sisters and their work influenced her decision ultimately to choose religious life.
She entered the community of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in 1933 and received the name Sister Romana. During her one year in the postulancy and two years in the novitiate at the convent, she took music courses at St. Clare College, the forerunner of Cardinal Stritch University.
Sister Romana advanced her education by earning three degrees (bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral) in music, which she lovingly describes as her “life’s work.” Instrumental in building the music department at Stritch, Sister Romana served as department chair from 1954-60 and 1964-77. She continued to teach at Stritch until 1992, touching the lives of hundreds of students, both musicians and non-musicians.
She remembers Introduction to the Symphony as one of her favorite courses to teach because she was able to connect with fellow musicians. This connection continues to this day as many Stritch alumni still keep in touch with their beloved teacher decades later.
Former student and close friend Sister Joanne Nicgorski, ’65, a Stritch trustee, described Sister Romana’s teaching style as an inspiring combination of enthusiasm and scholarship.
“She was so good to her students, both inside and outside of the classroom,” said Sister Joanne, recalling several trips to Chicago with her classmates and Sister Romana.
“But, she certainly didn’t accept any nonsense,” she added with a smile.
Since leaving Stritch in 1992, Sister Romana has often returned to visit and attend concerts. Due in no small part to her dedicated leadership, the music department continues to develop and enrich students’ lives.
Although Sister Romana no longer stands at the front of a classroom, she continues to teach and inspire those around her.
“The most valuable lesson I’ve learned from Sister Romana actually has nothing to do with music,” Sister Joanne said. “She has taught me how to live gracefully. Sister Romana is always patient and accepting of her situation. She has an inner strength and peace.
In December, Sister Romana celebrated her 98th birthday at the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, where she lives. To wish her well, contact her at: 3221 S. Lake Drive, St. Francis, WI, 53235.
In addition, alumni and friends may honor the Sisters through gifts to the Santa Chiara Fund — a need-based scholarship fund. To make a donation, please send a check to Cardinal Stritch University in honor of Sister Romana or connect to the University's online giving page.
Hear a radio interview with Sister Romana and read her autobiographical essay from “Our Stories: A Franciscan Heritage.”
Photos courtesy of University Archives.