Villa Maria Academy bids farewell to two longtime educational stalwarts

Villa Marie Academy in the Spencer Estate section of the Bronx is set to see two of its longtime educators retire.
Photo ET Rodriguez

Students at the private Catholic school, Villa Maria Academy, lay out their blankets and play on a sprawling lawn of manicured grass with an unobstructed view of the open sky over Eastchester Bay. But the end of this particular academic year is a bittersweet one for many in the school community as two members of the faculty say goodbye.

Tucked away on Country Club Road in the Spencer Estate section of the Bronx, the elementary school campus feels like a New England summer destination. Sunshine glistens on the water and a fresh breeze fills the air.

Two young students run up to the physical education teacher, Michael Bernard, and ask him why he was recently at the doctor. He assures them that he is OK and responds, “I heard you were at the doctor.”

In turn, the young girl responds that she is also OK and the two students run off in giggles.

Bernard, endearingly referred to as Mr. B, has been teaching physical education at Villa Maria Academy since 1988 — his four children graduated from the school. Immersed in the community, he even bought a house a block away.

Michael Bernard, physical education teacher at Villa Maria Academy. Photo ET Rodriguez

But Bernard’s teaching career, which is set to come to a close on June 30, began in his home state of California in 1979. He became a physical education teacher because of his own high school gym teacher, Mr. Thiele, he told the Bronx Times.

Despite being present and attentive, Bernard was no longer able to attend shop class in his junior year at Tulare Western High School in Tulare, California,  because his hard-working single mother couldn’t afford the fees. Noticing Bernard’s perseverance and commitment to school, Thiele decided to pay his student’s shop class fees for the entire year. According to Bernard, Thiele told him, “Michael, if you’re going to do anything in life – a person has to try their best and if you can honestly say, ‘I tried my best,’ then you can always be proud of yourself.”

Now, in reflection, Bernard sits in his emptied office, anticipating his last official day before retirement and says, “I always wanted to give that back to my students as best I could. To treat them nicely, to treat them firmly.”

Bernard also credits his wife who is a reading specialist with the New York City Department of Education. “I told all the kids, there wouldn’t be a Mr. B if it wasn’t for my wife Cathy, because she’s the one who made me the best version of myself I could ever be; as a teacher, as a parent, as a grandparent and as a husband – we do everything together,” he said.

Bernard’s legacy at Villa Maria Academy will live on in the Detective Steven McDonald Evening of Champions: an annual ceremony held for the students with the highest achievement in the New York state physical fitness test. The event was renamed for the late detective of the New York Police Department who passed in 2017 and was a frequent speaker at the school.

Bernard strives to live life in a kind and thoughtful manner and looks forward to spending his pension check traveling with his wife and taking her out to the restaurants where he has made many friends over the years.

He also thanks the school’s principal, Sister Teresa Barton. “[She] was the greatest boss I’ve ever had in my 43 years of teaching,” he said. “Nobody is more compassionate than her.”

Coincidentally, Barton is also riding off into the sunset after a lengthy career in education.

Sister Teresa Barton, principal of Villa Maria Academy. Photo ET Rodriguez

Barton has kind eyes and a soft demeanor, and many find it hard to believe that such a small frame can fit her large heart. Barton began her career at Villa Maria Academy in 1997 but has been with the Congregation of Notre Dame since 1957, which guides the mission of the academy.

“I was attracted to the religious life and the spiritual aspects of it,” she said. “I just felt a closeness to God. I was in high school and then I said, ‘well, I think I’ll try that life out.’ I did. And here I am years later.”

Sixty-five years later to be exact.

Barton comes from a long line of service. Her father was in World War II, her sister was a nurse for the Army Nurse Corps during the Vietnam War, and her four brothers also served in the U.S. military. And while she would love to continue serving the children and the community, she sagely understands, “As we get older, there are new ideas that come with youth. And it’s important for young people to be able to have a place to stretch and develop new ways of doing things. So even though I hate to give up the position myself, I see that it’s a step forward.”

However, she will not be far. Barton lives in the congregation on campus and will stay on board to guide the new principal through the beginning steps of their journey. Barton admits that she’s never traveled and is looking forward to visiting London.

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