Richmond woman puts her art and soul into Catholic education

Berni Doll believes that anything worth having is worth fighting for. Ever since she was a child, the oldest of a robust Catholic family of 12 in Minneapolis, she has fought for Catholic education, not only for herself but for others.

“My love of Catholic education has everything to do with my lifelong experience with it,” Doll said. “I grew up on a city block with only two Catholic families. Much teasing went on from neighbors that I was too young to understand at the time.

Berni Doll (Photo by Dianne Towalski/The Central Minnesota Catholic)

“Our eight-block walk to St. Joan of Arc School coincided with the public school children’s walk to their school, each of us on opposite sides of the street. Many days, our walk was punctuated with calls of nasty names. It was sometimes mixed with stone throwing. Of course, this behavior, mixed with the stories of the saints we were reading in school, left me realizing how valuable my faith was.”

After graduating from eighth grade at the age of 14, Doll and a few of her friends decided they wanted to attend St. Joseph’s Academy in Crookston, a boarding school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph.

“It was a challenge, I was homesick, but the discipline I learned at 14, for my life and, more importantly, for my faith, has been a strong base for my love of Catholic education,” Doll said.

Her education didn’t come free and, being from a large family, funds were tight. Doll spent her spare time in a work study program to help offset expenses.

“In boarding school, one of my jobs was to scrub every sink in the building every morning before class and then work in the laundry with my friends after school,” she recalled.

After graduating from the academy, she married Jim Doll and moved to Richmond. She said that, at first, she was homesick for her “little brothers and sisters,” but that’s when she also fell in love with their church, Sts. Peter and Paul.

(Photo by Dianne Towalski/The Central Minnesota Catholic)

By the time their oldest child started school, Berni Doll had settled into the community and made friends. She and Jim were part of a group of five couples who started a school board at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic School.

One of the first tasks they undertook was starting a spring carnival to raise money for new books.

Around the same time, Doll began to share one of her greatest talents, her love of art. She started simply, creating bulletin boards and seasonal decorations that were dotted throughout the school.

She continues to offer her talents in service to the school, hand-lettering graduation certificates, event invitations and whatever needs the school has. She also painted a giant mural on the wall of the school gym, which remains there today.

“Art is who I am,” Doll said. “It feels like, if I give my art to the school, I am giving myself. It feels like I’m contributing to the spirit of the school, helping to make it a fun and interesting place. It’s an extension of my faith because I was given this gift. I didn’t earn it. I didn’t ask for it. So, I’ve never felt right to keep it for myself. It’s a gift I’m thankful for and has to be returned.”

She believes all people deserve a Catholic education, through the schools as well as through faith formation programs. Doll, who had a developmentally disabled daughter, was asked to develop and teach a religious education class for other developmentally disabled students.

“There was no curriculum and my students had a variety of disabilities, but we learned about creation for six weeks,” Doll said. “What we work for, we value,” she said, and she continued teaching faith formation for 17 years.

Jim, who worked as a banker and is now retired, also attended the school in Richmond, as did their seven children and three of their grandchildren. Two of their great-grandchildren currently attend Sts. Peter and Paul School.

“The biggest thing I have seen them learn is to be giving people,” Berni Doll said. “I believe that children should be taught that they are not just a material being. Kids need to learn there are reasons why we have trials in life. When you understand you are a spiritual being, you can understand life a little easier. I also think it’s important that they learn how to sacrifice, how to offer up their own suffering.”

Over the years, Doll saw some Catholic schools around the diocese close or merge and she was concerned about the school in Richmond.

“I firmly believe it is the Church’s job to educate the children in the faith. … We still have many wonderful Catholic schools, schools that have been fought for and worked for,” she said.

“Every year, when I make the bulletin board for Catholic Schools Week, my heart is happy,” Doll said. “I always hope it inspires all who see it to celebrate in their hearts how lucky we are to have our Catholic schools.”

Kristi Anderson is a multimedia reporter for The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine.

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