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Group dives into the German culture, twice a month


    For some retired Sisters at St. Scholastica Convent in St. Cloud, Thursday afternoons offer a chance to be part of a German conversation group. As a part of the group, these women can speak German, share some of their own history and experiences, and learn some things about German history and culture. Twice a month, a small group gathers at a table in the corner of the bright, sunny dining room to talk and listen and learn. On the first Thursday after the New Year, the conversation was about Epiphany, the Magi, new year traditions, good luck symbols and the Christmas carol, Silent Night. To be an active participant in the discussion, it is helpful to be able to speak or understand some German. It is not required, however.  The coordinator of the group is volunteer Barbara Bloomer, of Sauk Rapids. She spent about 38 years teaching German in both high school and college settings. Bloomer said she has volunteered at St. Scholastica since about 1998. “I started out by doing a presentation at St. Benedict’s Center once a month.  Then I wondered if there weren’t some nuns who would like to be involved in a group like this,” she said. And that is how it began. Sister Marian has been a part of the group for a couple of years. “I’m not as good as some others at the language,” she admitted, “ but I find it interesting. And she (Bloomer) does a nice job of teaching. I get a lot out of it.” Sister Marian grew up in the Sauk Centre area and her parents both spoke German. Sister Burkard, who grew up in Richmond, understands the language well. Other group members have various abilities to speak and understand the language. In early January, members of the group talked about how the Christmas tree started in Germany and that in many homes real candles  are used to light the tree. They are only lit for a short time–on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Epiphany– before they are blown out. Sister Quidella told of her family tradition of always having oyster stew for Christmas Eve when she was growing up. Sister Marian said that a Christmas Eve tradition in her family was to sing Silent Night in German before opening gifts. It was especially meaningful to her when her father would sing Stille Nacht. Bloomer explained that the English version of the song is not identical to the German version, and that in the German version of Stille Nacht, the Christ child is a “lovely boy with curly hair.” “That is not in the English translation,” Bloomer said.  “When Joseph Mohr wrote the song he lived at the border of Austria and Bavaria where most manger scenes were done in a style showing the baby figure to have curly hair.” Bloomer showed the Sisters some of her art pieces of the wise men or Magi who came from the East to visit the Christ child, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. One piece, which she got in Puerto Rico, showed the Magi with different skin colors, representing Europe,  the Middle East and Africa. She also has a wood carving of a camel with three humps bearing the three kings who follow a star.  The wood carving was made by St. Cloud artist John Carlsted. Heilig Drei Koenige (Epiphany) is celebrated in Germany on Jan. 6. Bloomer and the Sisters shared their experiences about the tradition of blessing the doorways on that date. It is a new year tradition in Germany to exchange a sign of good luck, according to Bloomer.   In Germany, pigs are a sign of good luck, so many people give gifts of “gluecksschweinchen,” which means “little pigs.” After all, if a family has a pig, they can eat well. Marzipan candy pigs are popular in the candy shops in Germany around the new year.  Bloomer said that another sign of good fortune is a “schornsteinfeger” or a chimney sweep. The thin figures  dressed in black and wearing a stovepipe hat carry brushes and pails. They represent the dirt of the old year being swept away giving way to good luck in the new year. One Sister added that a horseshoe placed over a door or in the home is also a sign of good luck, but it has to be positioned correctly to “hold” the luck.  If the horseshoe is upside down, the luck spills out. Bloomer is not only the group facilitator, but she also provides treats for the women including “stollen” pieces, a Christmas bread which originated in Dresden. After Bloomer graduated from St. Olaf, she spent a year in Germany studying on a Fulbright scholarship.  As a conversational aide in a school, she studied how English as a second language was taught. When she returned to Minnesota, she was fortunate to land a job as a German teacher at Willmar High School. “I didn’t even major in German in college,” she said. But with her experience in Germany and with the extra credit, she was able to apply for the teaching position. “Willmar had a new superintendent at that time, right around 1957. He said that the one requirement he had for the new German teacher was that they had to have spent time in the country.”  Bloomer got the job. She taught for a couple of years before the Willmar school district began participating in a Fulbright teacher exchange program. The following year, Bloomer was living and teaching in Vienna. “It was a highlight in my career,” she said, adding that she went to the opera and concerts and the theater several times a week. She would go even if there was “standing room only.” Bloomer returned to the United States, completed graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and began her career as a German professor at SCSU in 1964. She remained there for 31 years, retiring in 1995. “When I retired,” said Bloomer, “I treated myself to a satellite system so I could get the German foreign news service. I can watch news and movies and programs.” She believes that the daily exposure allows her to keep her skills sharp, and she can maintain her language proficiency. She believes that if you don’t use a language, it begins to fade. Bloomer has remained active in her retirement, teaching German at Whitney Senior Center’s Third Age University and also teaching Sudanese women English and helping them learn about the American culture. She is busy with other activities as well, but she loves the afternoons that she spends with the nuns. “I enjoy it so much,” she said laughingly. “ I don’t want to give it up.”

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