The start of every school year at St. Mary’s Dominican High School is one of anticipation and excitement for students and their families. For 15-year-old Isabella Capasso and sisters Viviana (13) and Ilenia (12), it was a special family affair when they attended one-week of classes at the school where their mother Elise Berner Capasso graduated in 1988. The Capasso family has resided in Bracciano, Italy for the past nine years. Elise’s husband, Ciro, grew up in Naples, Italy. For Elise, a 30-year class reunion in New Orleans included this “once in a life-time opportunity for my three daughters to share in the legacy by getting to do a one-week mini foreign exchange program. It was an extraordinary opportunity for our girls to experience a little bit of the rich tradition and heritage of New Orleans and Dominican where my grandmothers, mother, two sisters and I, and many cousins have attended over the past 80 years,” she said.
Her daughters found the experience of going to an all-girls school wonderful. “They also loved the warm welcoming attitude of not only the teachers, but the students. A special highlight was the lunchtime scurry where everyone got together in their groups and had a nice long break in between lessons. It is such a nice way to connect with friends even from other classes” shares their mother. “Above all they are in love with saddle oxfords! As they have never grown up with such a detailed school uniform, it was a thrill for them to even have their own name tag.”
Elise says that coming from a long legacy of Dominican graduates, “I had always anticipated being a Dominican girl and getting the chance to experience it for myself. …many strong women were part of our Dominican family legacy and I was proud to continue that, especially since both of my grandmothers were alive and well and able to enjoy my Dominican adventure right alongside of me, with my mother and my sisters at every major event and ceremony. In fact, when I graduated in 1988, we celebrated 50 years from the time my grandmother, Evelyne Cambre Windmeyer, graduated in 1938. She was just so proud of me and such an important part of my life! Even today I am happy to say that I have never missed a reunion with my former classmates, even though I have lived in several places and mostly very far from New Orleans.”
The Berner family has deep ties that link Dominican’s rich history to the present generation. A Dominican Legacy Family, their ties are traced back four generations with Evelyne Cambre Windmeyer and Angela Guiffre Berner. Angela, a 1937 Dominican graduate, knew Evelyne who graduated the following year. Twenty-five years later, Angela’s son August “Augie” Joseph Berner, Jr. married Evelyne’s daughter Evelyne, “Evey.” August 2018, the couple celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary.
“We met on a double date with his best friend. I was 13, he was 15 at Jesuit,” recalls Mrs. Berner. “We quickly realized that we liked each other.”
Her mother had attended St. Dominic School in Lakeview where most of the girls moved on to the nearby high school. However, after a year at that school, Evelyne changed to Dominican where she forged friendships and graduated in 1938.
“My mom went to all of her class reunions and I thought every class did that,” notes Mrs. Berner, a 1962 Dominican graduate. “I still have my mother’s class ring. When my daughters went to Dominican, they loved it as much as I did.”
During their daughters’ time at Dominican, the Berners were active in the Parents Club, devoting time and talent to the variety show and school fairs. In addition to their daughters, their son Dr. Augie J. Berner III has followed family tradition. He is a Jesuit graduate, just like his father and grandfathers and the Berners participated in Jesuit’s activities as well. Even today, the Berners celebrate the different talents of their children and grandchildren.
“We share a deep faith and believe our children should be close to each other. Even though things can be hectic, all of us have always felt the support of each other,” offers Mrs. Berner.
Mr. Berner calls his wife amazing; her drive and determination inspiring, “spearheading everything we were involved with. We took a Girl Scouts troop to Europe with 42 scouts and visited seven countries. We always find the time to spend with family; taking several camping trips. She finished college at night while taking care of our family and went back for a master’s degree in education.”
For the past 25 years, the Berners have hosted Grand Camp at their home for their family. What began with five boys has blossomed to as many as 19 grandchildren. During one week there are activities focused on exploration and learning – field trips, painting, cooking, and plotting the stars with a telescope on the roof. On the last day of camp, everyone helps paint a large mural on a section of the back yard fence. After sanding and priming the fence, the family decides what the mural will be.
“Everyone including the parents have a part. It is a wonderful way to watch them expressing themselves through art and grow. This last year we ran out of fence – it is completely covered in murals. It is a labor of love,” says Mrs. Berner who has been a kindergarten teacher at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Kenner since it opened 35 years ago. Whenever she considers retiring, “I think of how much I love these five-year-olds. I now teach the children of the children I have taught. Some of them are Room Mothers.”
Daughter Eve Spires (Class of ’82) describes her years at Dominican “very meaningful to me simply because my mother, Evey Windmeyer Berner (1962) and Grandmothers, Evelyne Cambre Windmeyer (1938) and Angela Guiffre Berner (1937) preceded me. It was truly amazing to even have some of the same nuns – Sr. Angela, Sr. Delia, Sr. Angeline, and Sr. Savio teaching me and leading me as they did for my mom. I truly value that tradition. I love the legacy that the women in my family left me. I love the connection that is there because of my family’s roots.”
Eve has four sons and one daughter, Victoria. She homeschooled all of her children from kindergarten through high school, and gave her Dominican class ring to Victoria. Dominican President Dr. Cynthia A. Thomas presented the ring to Victoria. Eve calls it a special moment for the family to have Victoria feel included. “My mother was so touched,” recalls Eve.
Eve is grateful to Dominican for the memories and the legacy of faith and family. “My parents planted in my heart at an early age the vital importance of loving and serving Jesus. I thank God for their devotion to Christ and for passing that love of God to all of us. I know that Dominican helped to foster that call of God on my heart.”
Sister Elizabeth “Liz” Licata, is a 1983 Dominican graduate. Her daughter Emily, who graduated in 2017, has Great Grandmother Angela Guiffre Berner’s class ring. Liz loves volunteering at her alma mater and for the past seven years has been active with the Parents’ Club. She looks forward to serving Dominican in the future even after her other daughter Anne Marie graduates in May 2019.
Liz shares, “I also grew up with a love for Dominican from listening to my mother’s and grandmothers’ stories. As a freshman, I was very shy, but grew to love Dominican more and more as I became involved with school activities. Being a part of the Dominican Debs enabled me to develop close friendships and a strong school spirit.”
What she values most about a Dominican education, “is having prayer and God in everyday life for my daughters. I appreciate the reinforcement of values and the moral teachings to encourage our daughters to maintain higher standards for themselves in this ever-changing world. My daughters have grown to be able to think independently and value learning and pursuing excellence.”
“I have treasured being a part of the four generations of Dominican High School women,” adds Eve. “I believe our Dominican legacy has played a part in instilling Godly virtues in our lives. Values, traditions, and school spirit has been handed down from one generation to another. The sharing of life experiences continues to create generational connections and a love for Dominican High School.”
Reflecting on his family’s generations that have been a part of Dominican’s history, Mr. Berner points to lifetime values from a Dominican education. “Dominican instills a love of learning. Our daughters received a great education and strong foundation for their lives.”
Mrs. Berner never dreamed the Dominican legacy would span generations. She reflects, “What Augie and I wanted for our daughters was love of the school and the values that Dominican fosters – love of faith and the heart of scriptures that brings your mind to learn of the love of the Lord.”