“Religious life is a deeply life-giving vocation. It has offered opportunities to me and calls me to be life-giving to many people.”
The words of novelist John Steinbeck are the perfect choice for Sister Beverly Heitke to sketch her 60 years as a Sister of the Divine Savior: Oftentimes, we don’t take a journey; the journey takes us. And, you might say we have the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters to thank for Sr. Beverly’s vocation journey as a Salvatorian.
Twelve-year-old Beverly Heitke was enrolled at St. Mary’s Parish School in Portage, Wis. and taught by Sinsinawa Dominicans. Her admiration for the sisters sparked her interest in religious life. She shared with two of her teachers her dream to become a medical doctor and someday care for needy people in Africa. Since the Dominicans’ ministry focused on teaching, they suggested Beverly speak with the Salvatorian Sisters who owned Divine Savior Hospital in Portage. She soon learned the Salvatorians not only had hospitals but foreign missions too.
Sr. Beverly completed her high school education at the Sisters of the Divine Savor Prep School in Milwaukee and entered the novitiate in 1956. As her novitiate drew to a close, Superior General Mother Olympia Heuel called on Salvatorian Sisters to volunteer for the new mission field in Tanganyika, East Africa. Sr. Beverly volunteered and soon after professing first vows in 1957, boarded an ocean liner bound for Rome, Italy and the Salvator Mundi International School of Nursing.
Studying in Rome stretched Sr. Beverly and opened the door to learn about many cultures. She did her clinical nursing experience at Salvator Mundi and Bambin Gesu Pediatric Hospital. She also tutored English to an Italian dentist who cared for Salvatorian Sisters. The dentist reciprocated, showing Sr. Beverly about dentistry. About the same time, the Salvatorian Sisters decided dental services would be needed at a British hospital in Tanganyika where they recently opened a mission house. Just as Sr. Beverly began working on the surgical floor at Salvator Mundi, she was asked to return to Milwaukee to earn a degree in dentistry.
After completing dental school prerequisites, Sr. Beverly enrolled at Marquette University School of Dentistry in August 1962. Her years of study coincided with Vatican II and societal sea changes, especially for women. She was active in many ways at Marquette, with the SDS Province in Milwaukee, and in the local community. Sr. Beverly graduated as valedictorian of the dental school Class of 1966, received her dental license, and moved to New York City to begin an oral surgery internship at Mount Sinai Hospital. The plan was to prepare her for ministry in Tanganyika the following summer.
When a wave of nationalism reshaped African countries, foreigners were no longer allowed to work in the British hospital in the newly independent country now known as Tanzania. Sr. Beverly began to study Mandarin for a new assignment to the Salvatorian Hospital in Taiwan, but before she even finished her internship in New York, the plans changed again – twice.
Ultimately, Sr. Beverly returned to the U.S. where she filled a need in Milwaukee’s central city, volunteering her dental services and instructing young women in dental assisting. She also teamed up with a local private practice dentist to earn money for the province. In 1971, Sr. Beverly began serving on the faculty at Marquette’s School of Dentistry. She continued in various roles at the dental school through 1984, including as an assistant dean for the dental clinic. Meanwhile, Sr. Beverly continued her active involvement with the province, which at times necessitated a leave of absence from the dental school.
In 1984, Sr. Beverly was elected to serve on the congregational leadership team in Rome. Her primary responsibilities included visiting sisters serving in Tanzania, the Holy Land, many European countries, Brazil and the Philippines. She was elected to a second term on the Generalate, during which time she also served as directress of Salvator Mundi Hospital. Sr. Beverly describes her 12 years with the Generalate as “rich with opportunities” to visit Salvatorians throughout the world — not just sisters, but priests, religious brothers and Lay Salvatorian women and men too. Serving in Rome also positioned her as “tour guide” for her colleagues, friends and relatives, helping them to appreciate the wonders of Rome’s history and culture, its gifted artists, and the story of the Catholic Church throughout the ages.
Sr. Beverly fulfilled her commitment in Rome in 1996 and returned to the U.S. She completed a Clinical Pastoral Education program, hoping to take up spiritual care ministry at Divine Savior Healthcare (DSH) and live with the SDS community in Portage. Then she was called to serve as co-coordinator for our sponsored institutions including DSH, as well as Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, St. Anne’s Salvatorian Campus and Hadley Terrace Senior Apartments, all in Milwaukee. She served in that role until her election in February 2015 as North American Provincial Leader for a three-year term.
Sr. Beverly’s “yes” to many calls to serve over the last 60 years has taken her far from the Heitke family farm just north of Portage and life close to nature she loved as a child. Her dream to become a medical doctor and serve needy people in Africa didn’t quite come true, but she is grateful for the many experiences that have helped her come to know peoples around the world and understand their suffering. She says, “Religious life is a deeply life-giving vocation. It has offered opportunities to me and calls me to be life-giving to many people.”