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For two generations, students at St. Eugene's Cathedral School have begun the fourth grade with their little 9-year-old guts all in a knot.

"I was completely scared," recalled Olivia Bertacco, a St. Eugene's alumna who's now 17 and a junior at Ursuline High. She remembers when she was in the third grade and older students told harrowing tales of how strict and demanding Sister Noreen Duffy — one of the last teaching nuns in the region — was.

The stories, Bertacco discovered, weren't without basis in fact. But by the end of the fourth grade, she was astonished by how much she'd learned and how much she loved — and felt loved by — Sister Noreen.

"I learned that there is no reason to be scared of the barely five-feet-tall nun that I had been so terrified of," Bertacco said.

"I have carried so many things she has taught me into my education — especially how to do a big project. Every time I go back to St. Eugene's my first stop is always to my favorite Irish lady, Sister Noreen."

The story about the sister that's circulating now among future and past St. Eugene's fourth-graders and their parents is the most unsettling yet. And it's true.

After 51 years of teaching large classes — 40, 50, even 65 students — at Catholic schools up and down California, the sister will retire when the current session ends in June.

Six months short of her 70th birthday, she said she won't be leaving St. Eugene's entirely but will stay on as the school's coordinator of religion education, though she'll work only part-time. She knows already that though she'll miss teaching children full-time, it will be heavenly to never again grade a pile of papers, tests or reports.

"I hate grading papers because, to me, if a child is working to the best of his or her ability, that's an A," she said.

During a rare pause in her busy but tidy classroom, she shared that she was a fourth-grader herself when she made up her mind to become a sister and to teach.

One of 10 children born to Catholic parents in Ireland, she felt certain of her calling after her school was visited by two American teaching nuns — Sister Stella and Sister Laurentia, both of the California-based Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange. That's the teaching and health-care community that would establish and still operates Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and its allied medical institutions.

Pondering why it was that those sisters impacted her so potently, she said, "They were two very kind people and they had a great sense of humor. I started writing to them and they always wrote me back."

Her father, left to single-parent 10 children when his wife died at age 38, was not pleased that Noreen was so keen to enter a convent in California's Orange County rather than one in Ireland. But his daughter was resolute.

"I never wavered from that," she said.

She was still 16 when she left Ireland in 1957 and commenced her training and studies at the motherhouse in Orange County. She went on to the Sisters of St. Joseph Teaching College that would later merge with Loyola Marymount University.

Young Sister Noreen's first teaching assignment was to a class of 65 first-graders at a Sisters of St. Joseph school in Santa Ana. She wore a habit then and she knew she had no say in where she was assigned or how long she would stay.

She was thrilled, early in the 1960s, to be sent to St. Bernard's Catholic School in green, cool Eureka. "It reminded me of Ireland, a little piece of Ireland," she said.

She taught in Eureka for more than 25 years, a stretch broken by temporary assignments to schools in Southern California and San Francisco. She transferred to St. Eugene's in 1987 and has taught and enforced high standards there ever since.

She appears to the last sister to teach full-time at any of Sonoma County's Catholic schools. Sister Joyce Poeschl of the Wisconsin-based Sinsinawa Dominicans continues to teach at St. John the Baptist School in Napa.

"She's one of a kind," parent Vic Trione said of Sister Noreen. Trione is the father of high-schoolers Madelyne and Henry Trione, both of whom survived the rigors of the sister's classroom in fine form.

"People think of her as a stern, no-nonsense person," Trione said. "In reality she has a deep love for each of her students."

Parent Carol Lowe-Drake said during a volunteer stint in the sister's classroom, "I know college students who use the same system they learned here, in the fourth grade, to write papers."

Once Sister Noreen retires, she'll volunteer to visit and comfort patients at Memorial Hospital. She'll give her sore bones a rest after striving for half a century to do "what Jesus called me to do."

"I hope I've done a good job," the sister said. "I've done my best."

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.