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Student Days Under Pennings

Sixty years later, alumni from the St. Norbert College class of 1957 still laugh when recalling how they celebrated the birthday of the college’s founder. They remember gathering in the priory each year on June 9 with all the other students to sing “Happy Birthday” to the abbot – following with a “free day, free day” chant, asking for a day off from classes. Former Homecoming queen Sue (Nelson) Antonello ’57 remembers the founder saying, “You can have a free day anytime.” Still, he made sure to honor the tradition of the free day on his birthday. “He’d give it to us,” says John Rath ’57, who says he spent the day playing sheepshead with classmates. John Bayer ’57 chuckles when he admits, “We’d all go to the taverns.”

Abbot Bernard Pennings, a priest of Berne Abbey in the Netherlands, had landed in the United States in 1893 along with two Norbertine confreres. The three men were embarking on missions for the order in northeast Wisconsin. Pennings would preside over the college from its founding until 1955. He saw 1,652 students graduate from St. Norbert College while he was at the helm, says Chris Betcher (Alumni Relations), who coordinated the reunion.

About 15 of Pennings’ own students, alumni of the class of 1957, attended their 60-year reunion back on campus in August. They reminisced about the food served to them in the dining hall, how they hitchhiked to and from classes, and what it was like knowing they were in the presence of the founder of St. Norbert College. It was a special moment when Pennings was spotted on St. Norbert College grounds, always wearing his white Norbertine habit, says Thomas Kiedinger ’57. “I was excited to see him whenever he was walking on campus,” Kiedinger says. “It was nice to know he started the college.”

Pennings spent less time at St. Norbert College during the later years of his tenure, but students still felt his presence. “He was low-key as far as the students were concerned, but he knew what was going on,” Rath says. “He was very quiet, very devout. Just his presence commanded respect.” His affection for his students was evident, according to Rath.

Pennings established the first Norbertine foundation in the United States at the National Shrine of St. Joseph in De Pere in September 1898. He was named the first abbot of De Pere in 1925, after St. Norbert Priory was raised to the status of abbey. He died March 17, 1955.

“He had an aura about him,” Rath says. “You could tell he was a man of God. … He could ask you to do anything in the name of God, and you’d do it. And he wouldn’t tell you; he’d ask you.”

Nov. 10, 2017