Mississauga high school teacher Berta Milavec Byrne’s novel Encounters With the Sacred is being published by Justin Press. (Photo courtesy Berta Milavec Byrne)

Teacher takes winding path to be an author

By  Paula Ducepec, Youth Speak News
  • December 8, 2021

A long odyssey for Berta Milavec Byrne, beginning at the ripe age of 13, has finally resulted in the completion of her first novel.

The theology teacher from Mississauga, Ont.’s St. Francis Xavier Secondary School, who also works with special needs students, is about to have her book Encounters With the Sacred (Justin Press) published. It’s the story of three intertwining lives set 40 years apart in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The book follows the journey of a Slovenian man who narrowly escapes the clutches of death from a communist regime, and another of a man who impacted thousands of people — including himself — with one consequential decision. Forty years later, we meet Spela, the 13-year-old daughter of Slovenian immigrants, and learn of her journey of finding faith, history and identity.

For Byrne, 46, this book represents the realization of prayers and a childhood dream.

Byrne’s literary gift came early in her teen years. When all of her peers were out playing, she said she would sit at a desk and let her pen and imagination take flight. She pledged to one day become an author. Little did she know how long it would take to become reality.

First there were the creative writing courses, a Christianity course and eventually a Bachelor of Arts degree from Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College before teachers college. Her pathway into teaching, however, did not dim her desire to write a book.

It took a chance meeting with a priest Byrne said was blessed with a gift to read souls. It came early in her teaching tenure, when she volunteered at the school’s Salesian leadership retreat. There to support the students, Byrne did not imagine this retreat would profoundly impact her.

During confession, the priest concluded by informing Byrne that she was destined to write a book.

“It was a watershed moment,” Byrne said recalling the event. “I remember saying, ‘Yes! I know. I know. But what is this supposed to be about? Can you tell me?’ To which the priest said no and that I should pray about it. But that was it. That was a confirmation and a consolation that I should investigate what this is supposed to be.”

She deepened her prayer life and discovered St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers. She was seeking a spark of inspiration to determine the topic of her book.

The spark providentially came in a book given to her by a friend called Slovenia 1945: Memories of Death and Survival After WWII by John Corsellis and Marcus Ferrar. 

The story of Slovenia is part of Byrne’s history; they were stories that she had heard from family as a child. It never occurred to her that she would be writing about this subject. Byrne said she “felt whole” reading this book.

She began writing in earnest in 2004. From simply writing about the coming-of-age story of a Grade 8 girl came an intricate story of history and a journey of faith. The long process of writing ended about a decade later.

Then the arduous task of sending manuscripts to publishers was her next challenge. Constant rejections were thrown at her and her patience was tested.

It was clear to Byrne that God was calling her to one thing: to have complete trust and patience in Him.

Then in 2019, she found Justin Press, a Catholic publishing house based in Ottawa. They said yes to her manuscript. After two years of editing, rewriting, chopping and rearranging, her book is ready to be published.

What are some key ideas Byrne hopes readers take away from reading Encounters with the Sacred?

“There is a crisis in Catholic education. We need to remember why our system was founded. We need to remember who we are. The story of Spela going through Catholic school has so many scenes and symbols that give reminder how important the Catholic faith is and the role of Catholic schools really are,” she said.

“We need to have books, textbooks and works of art that openly talk about our faith. I hope that the messages of faith, hope and trust in the book will captivate the hearts of teachers, students and all readers alike.”

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