March 7, 1930 - August 20, 2022
“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)
When asked which part of Chicago she was from, Toni Bergen would laugh and respond: “All of it!” She would go on to tell the story of her South Side father who married her North Side mother. Toni believed the seeds of her great love for the city, and her great love for those trapped in poverty, were planted through her regular journeys on the “L” to visit family.
The Bergen family lived on the South Side until the middle of Toni’s junior year of high school when they moved north. Toni’s new school was Notre Dame High School where she met the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. She quickly became involved in the Service Club and Glee Club. Her classmates soon learned that in Toni they had gained a patient listener and fun-loving companion. Her great desire to help people trapped in poverty and her love for God opened her to a call to religious life. She knew other religious orders before coming to Notre Dame High School, but what Toni described as the “genuine religious spirit” of the Sisters of Notre Dame strongly attracted her. Toni traveled to Reading, Ohio and entered the Postulate in February 1949.
As a novice, Toni received the name Sister Anthony St. John and prepared for the ministry of teaching. Over a twenty year span she taught grades 2, 4, 6, 7 and 8 in Illinois and Ohio parish schools with English and History as her subjects of concentration. Toni believed in the power of education to change lives and was a good teacher. In 1966 she commented on a survey: “Teaching is an important work of the Church. I love teaching in the parish school and being part of the parish. It is a little bit of heaven here in St. Robert’s parish.” At the bottom of the survey, she wrote:
Last summer, I had the invigorating experience of teaching remedial reading at the Archdiocese Reading Center Cathedral School downtown Chicago. There were Negroes and Puerto Ricans – all very poor readers. The summer haunts me…. Will the future ever bring SND’s to Chicago’s inner city?
Her note, which would prove to be prophetic, goes on to talk about the possibility of collaborating with others to help the “poorest of the poor.”
Toni’s superiors listened to her desire to be of more direct service to people trapped in poverty and gave her permission to study in preparation for a change in ministry. While at Roosevelt College in Chicago, Toni needed a project to go with her coursework. She was directed to the Daughters of Charity at Marillac House. They had just received a grant to work with abused children and needed someone to begin a program. Would Toni be willing to work on it? Toni would spend almost 40 years collaborating with the Daughters of Charity and the people of the East Garfield neighborhood. Her work at Marillac House was Toni’s way of incarnating the words of St. Julie Billiart, the foundress of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur: “We exist only for the poor, only for the poor, absolutely only for the poor.” (Letter 86)
Over the course of her ministry at Marillac House, Toni worked in community development, as a case worker intervening to help abused and neglected children and eventually as the Director of Family Services. In 1986 she described her ministry as striving “…to meet the basic needs of residents of East Garfield by supporting family life within the neighborhood community, providing group and individual counseling, job preparation, advocacy, by teaching political awareness, etc.” The programs she oversaw included day care (provided for working parents and parents in pre-employment training), services to children whose parents have been reported for abuse or neglect, recreation programs designed for children aged 5 to young adults, and other neighborhood services for families, senior citizens, teen mothers, unemployed adults and the homeless. Later she would help establish an adult education program to enable clients to get their GED at Marillac House. For Toni, the person-to-person part of her ministry was essential. As she told one reporter, “The only thing that can stop the cycle of the underclass is intervention, and that takes a human being, not a check.” But checks were nice, too! Toni certainly understood the need for funding. She became an expert grant writer as Marillac House was in constant need of funds to continue existing programs and start additional programs as new needs arose. Her own efficiency and resourcefulness were recognized by the Marillac House staff, other agencies, and the clients with whom Toni worked.
Toni did not just give direct service people trapped in poverty; she also advocated for systemic change and devoted time to educating legislatures at all levels of government about the needs of those she served. When one of her elderly clients died because her heat had been turned off during a bitterly cold Chicago winter, Toni became involved with the Low-Income Utility Coalition and eventually served on the Chicago Energy Council. She was available to be a part of other coalitions working for justice as well. As one supervisor wrote, “Sr. Antoinette is first and foremost dedicated to serving the needs of those in this community who are less fortunate.” The evaluation goes on to commend Toni’s work which was not just about “… the food bags, clothing, light bulbs and the like she provides, but the information given to clients in group sessions from speakers she invites, and her staff who are properly trained by Sr. Antoinette in numerous services provided by her department…. She must add staff to assist her!” People marveled at Toni’s tireless energy. She drew energy from her ministry and often expressed gratitude to her community for allowing her “the privilege” of serving Christ in “the materially Poor of God’s people.”
Toni served her Sisters at various times as cook, sacristan, librarian, and nurse. She was always willing to help, a good listener, very cheerful, genuinely interested in her Sisters, and a good conversationalist. Toni was the resident expert on Chicago and loved sharing her city with visitors. She loved reading the New York Times, listening to classical music, and watching police dramas. The latter she attributed the fact her grandfather, father and brother-in-law were all Chicago policemen. Toni also enjoyed ice skating (even in the habit!), biking, hiking, camping, and traveling. Utilizing the same budget-stretching skills she used in her ministry; Toni and another Sister would plan annual vacations that included camping and exploring state and national parks. She also had the opportunity to see Holland, France, and Belgium while she participated in a program at the SNDdeN Mother House in Namur, Belgium. Toni was active in community discussions, served on community committees and as a member of the Ohio Unit Assembly. After she retired to the Mount Notre Dame Health Center, she would regularly visit the “elderly” Sisters in Cuvilly. Because Toni’s concern for people trapped in poverty was the prism through which she viewed the world, she gently and consistently reminded her Sisters of our communal commitment to work with and on behalf of impoverished people.
Toni always enjoyed visiting family and friends. One of her favorite stories to tell was of walking along Lake Michigan with her beloved sister, Rae. They would look for smooth rocks that Rae would paint. Toni kept some of Rae’s creations and shared them with Sisters who visited her room. She loved watching her nieces and nephews grow into amazing adults, and then had the joy of getting to know their children. Even when distance separated them, her family members were always in Toni’s thoughts and prayers. Toni lived life with a delightful sense of awe and wonder that came through in her interactions with everyone she met. Her family, friends and Sisters will miss her loving presence but can take great consolation in imagining her awe and wonder at being welcomed home by her good God. We thank God for the gift of Tony’s life so faithfully lived as she made God’s goodness known to each person she met.
- Born March 7, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois
- Parents: John Bergen (born in Chicago) and Antoinette Pfister (born in Chicago)
- Sister: Raynelda Bergen Burns
- Baptized March 30, 1930, at St. Killian Church, Chicago, Illinois
- Confirmed May 4, 1941, at St. Killian Church, Chicago, Illinois
- Entered February 2, 1949, at Mt. Notre Dame
- First Profession: August 13, 1951
- Final Profession: August 13, 1956
- St. Kilian Parish School, Chicago, Illinois, 1944
- Notre Dame High School, Chicago, Illinois, 1948
- Bachelor of Science in Education from the University of Dayton, 1962
- Master of Arts in Urban Studies from Roosevelt College, Chicago 1972
- Masters License in Social Work from the State of Illinois 1999-2001
- 1951-1952 St. Victor School, Calumet City, Illinois
- 1952-1961 St. Peter Canisius School, Chicago, Illinois
- 1961-1963 Holy Family School, Dayton, Ohio
- 1963-1967 St. Robert Bellarmine School, Chicago, Illinois
- 1967-1968 St. Peter Canisius School, Chicago, Illinois,
- 1968-1971 Our Lady of the Rosary, Dayton, Ohio
- 1971-1972 Roosevelt College, Chicago, Illinois
- 1972-2011Marillac House, Chicago, Illinois
- 2011-2012 Community Service, Chicago, Illinois
- 6/1/2012- 2022 Mount Notre Dame Health Center
Died: August 20, 2022 at Mount Notre Dame Health Center
Sr. Kim Dalgarn SNDdeN
August 23, 2022