2021 Heart of St. Luke Honoree: James Bratager

  • How does a kid growing up outside Miami, Florida, end up teaching history at St. Luke School for 30 years? It has been quite a journey.

    I was born in Hialeah, Florida, in 1960 to Pete and Alice Bratager. I was the fourth of five sons. No sisters. My brothers are Steve, Danny, Don, and Reid. I went to Immaculate Conception School, which the Sisters of Mercy ran. They were from a place called Enniskillen, North Ireland. Awesome educators. Then I attended St. Joseph Minor Seminary in Oak Brook. I did not graduate from there because the seminary closed in May 1977 and I found myself back in Hialeah going to Hialeah Senior High School. It was culture shock. I went from a class of seven to a class of 870. After my year at HHS, I went to Miami Dade North Community College. It was there that I learned about the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). UIC accepted me for the fall 1979 term. I had to get ready to move to Chicago.

    My college years at UIC went very fast. I originally majored in Spanish but switched to history mid-sophomore year. I graduated in June 1983. Pete and Alice were pretty proud of me. It was fantastic to see them in the stands as I walked back to my seat with my blue-and-orange U of I diploma. Besides my studies, I spent a significant amount of time at the JP II Newman Center. I found out about the Catholic Teachers Education Program (CTEP). So upon leaving UIC, I decided to teach in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

    My first school was St. Bernardine in Forest Park. My tenure there went from 1983–1986. I thoroughly enjoy my first school. Mr. Crannell was an excellent principal. In 1986 I moved to Quincy, Illinois, to attend Our Lady of the Angels Seminary and 18 months were spent there while I took my philosophy classes. Besides learning a ton about philosophy, I also learned that I was not called to the Franciscans. So back to Chicago for me.

    In 1988 I obtained a teaching position at St. Matthias School in the city near Western and Lawrence. The school, too, was a positive experience for me. But religious life still beckoned. I was drawn to St. Bede Abbey in Peru, Illinois. After a lengthy process, I started living the life of a monk on 01 January 1991. I enjoyed my life as a monk, but I knew in my heart that God was not calling me to that abbey. I left the abbey in June 1991. Once again, I turned to the Archdiocese to see if there was a teaching position open. There were two: St. Cajetan on Western and St. Luke. I was offered contracts at both schools. Ultimately, I chose to sign with St. Luke. I gave my signed contract to Dr. Wynne in the end of May 1991.

    My tenure at St. Luke started that August. I still remember the interview with Dr. Wynne and the question: “Mr. Bratager, do you think you would be able to create a geography program that focused on non-USA and non-European countries?” My response was yes. I could teach about Latin America, Africa, and Asia. “Very good, I want St. Luke students to be geographically and historically literate.”

    In my orientation I met two amazing women: Stephenie Sutton and the late Becky Noble. The friendship has lasted all these years. And I have been here ever since. I have taught history, geography, religion, Spanish, reading, and study skills. In 2013 I received my master’s degree from Loyola University in Chicago. I also attended some 13 summer institutes at Yale University. I was published on the Yale web site twice. Two of my lesson plans were picked.

    We have gone to nationals twice for National History Day at the University of Maryland: once in 2013 (Goslin and Padula) and again in 2018 (Hicks).

    Two other events that happened: Eugene Rinaldi was student historian for Illinois in 1994. Matt Wurtzback won the 1996 Sun Times essay contest: What Would I Do If I Were Elected President. He won a week’s trip to Washington, D.C.

    The 7th graders enjoy the yearly trip to Springfield. The 8th graders enjoy doing the Chicago Metro History Fair. Teaching here has been a tremendously fulfilling experience. St. Luke has wonderful and generous families, supportive colleagues, respectful students, great priests, and competent leadership. I have had tremendous peace of mind. I know I could have gone to other school districts but I know I would not have been as happy and content as I am now.

    So that is pretty much how I got to St. Luke and decided to stay. I have enjoyed my time here. It is a great place to teach. Even though the Lord did not call me to marriage or religious life, I have had a life-long vocation of teaching. What more important thing can you teach a child than to make sure their relationship with Christ is right? Everything flows out of that relationship. Proclaiming Christ in today’s world is exceedingly important.

    I saw a quote from Bishop Estevez that I thought was apropos: God’s merciful will is always surprising. He has not disappointed me here at St. Luke School. In the years that remain I want to recommit to the new evangelization and the teaching of the virtues in a classroom that is imbued with Benedictine stability and Franciscan joy.

    In closing, let me circle back to my four brothers. As the years played out, my brothers gifted the family six nieces and nephews. Those six have gifted the family with seven great-nieces and nephews. They keep “Tio” very busy and on his toes!

    I spend a great deal of time in West Palm Beach with my brothers Danny and Don and their wives Barb and Sherry and my niece Kathleen and in Raleigh, N.C., with my nephew Eric and his family and my niece Christina and her family.

    Since I started this reflection with a quote, let me end with one from St. Junipero Serra: Siempre adelante / nunca atras (“Always forward, never back”). I do not know what God’s will is for me over the next years, but I am open to it. Thank you for everything these past three decades. Keep calm and Bearcat on…

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