Decisions our ancestors made continue to influence Wisconsin communities more than 200 years later. Many emigrated from Europe and settled in rural areas, seeking a better life for their family. Noel Bragger, a teacher at St. Boniface Catholic School in Waumandee, is one of those people who are thankful for this continued influence.
Noel’s great-great grandfather, Bernhard Hillig, emigrated from Denmark with aspirations to work at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. From there, he moved north and supported his family by painting churches. The interior of the Maria Angelorum Chapel in La Crosse is an example of his ornate work.
Noel and her family draw from his inspiration of hard work, family values and dedication to the Catholic Faith. Traditions of family farming run deep, with grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and siblings owning farmland throughout the Waumandee countryside. Though it would seem easy to imagine Noel someday teaching at the local parochial school, this wasn’t the career she originally planned.
“Early on, I knew I wanted to have a career in agriculture,” Noel recalls. “I love agriculture and I love farming. When I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls,
I didn’t go there thinking I’d end up being a teacher.
I went thinking I’d end up with some sort of agriculture or veterinarian degree.”
God had different plans for Noel. While in college, she joined the swim team, even though she had never swam before. “I loved it! It guided me towards a career in physical education and then a teaching degree.”
In the earlier years, I don’t think I appreciated teaching at a Catholic school as much.”
When Noel graduated from college in 1988, economic conditions made it difficult to find a job. She ended up taking a Catholic school position at St. John Parish School in Antigo. “The Holy Spirit is always guiding me. However, back then I didn’t know enough to ask for guidance. My sister and her family lived in Antigo, so it was a perfect place to begin my teaching career.”
After spending two years in Antigo, Noel was ready to move closer to home. She accepted a position at the Catholic school in Arcadia, the same year Noel married her husband, Joe.
“After nine years and three babies later, I decided not to return to teaching in Arcadia. My kids were too little. My husband and I operated a dairy farm and I raised pullets (chicken breeding stock) to replace my teaching income.”
She and Joe completed their family with four children and, after an 11-year break from teaching, Noel believed she’d never return to the classroom. However, the year her license was to expire, a friend, who was teaching at St. Boniface Catholic School in Waumandee, needed a long-term substitute. Noel accepted the position on a temporary basis. The next school year, she decided to accept a full-time position. “That was 12 years ago, and I’ve been here ever since!”
With an enrollment of about 25 students in grades 4K-8, teaching grades 3-5 in a country school fits Noel perfectly. “In the earlier years, I don’t think I appreciated teaching at a Catholic school as much. I wasn’t opposed to it because it blended well with my values, lifestyle and family. Now, after raising my own kids, I realize what a fantastic environment it is to teach children in.”
Noel and her family are quite familiar with St. Boniface Catholic School. Not only did she attend grade school there, but her father graduated from eighth grade in 1940 and two of her children also attended this same school. Photographs of every graduation class line the hallway as a reminder of the school’s history.
“On the feast of All Souls, I took the kids to the parish cemetery across the creek. That’s what the nuns did with me years ago. All but one student has family buried there. That way, they could see it’s not just about us.” Noel showed the students the area where her great-grandfather, father and other members of her family are buried. “These are the things I remember the nuns did that made a lasting impression on me. We think things are unimportant at the time, but they take on a meaning later in life.”
The parochial school is held in the highest esteem within the community. Parents want their children to have that niche community within the school. They want to protect their kids and limit the exposure from society for as long as they can.
“We must get children prepared and confident in themselves first. Once their morals and values are established, they’ll know how to handle the demands put upon them.” She tells her students to talk to the Holy Spirit for guidance, the same advice she follows herself.
Noel’s passion for agriculture kicks in on the family farm when she’s not at school. She and Joe, along with Joe’s brother and a team of employees, maintain 350 cows and grow 1,400 acres of crops. Noel oversees about 62,000 hens and roosters per year.
Even with the demands of farming, Joe was the district representative on the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Board for 12 years before being elected state president in 2019. “He’s the farmer’s voice in Madison and takes to heart the responsibility of representing his members,” Noel exclaims.
Noel’s love for agriculture and teaching fit together perfectly. “The area is pretty much all farming and most all the kids I teach have parents with some sort of farming-related income. That’s why it’s so easy to work with these kids. They have the same ethics and see the hard work their parents set as examples.”
Years ago, Noel was sure she should be teaching at a public school. “However, if you open your mind and give that to prayer, God will take you where you need to be. The difference in pay takes care of itself. God takes care of you, and that usually gets worked out before someone even thinks about applying for a teaching position at a parochial school.”
Noel’s definition of fun is so different than most other people. “What’s fun to me is when I can look back at the work I did on the farm that day or the success of my students. Accomplishment is my fun. I’m completely content and feel blessed in that way.”
Life is a journey for Noel. “God asks you to go where you are needed. I live by that.”
Story and Photography by Sharon Sliwka
Published in the May/June 2021 Catholic Life Issue