Actress Michelle Myers Berg has what she considers a heavenly role. As Sister Celeste, Myers Berg conducts historical walking tours of Saint Paul clad in a habit and veil and thick-soled black Oxford shoes. This weekend she has added Jazz Spots, a tour of notable downtown music venues as part of the annual Twin Cities Jazz Festival.

Taking on the persona of Sister Celeste has been a blessing for Myers Berg. A longtime tour guide at the Wabasha Street Caves, she was approached two years ago by the managers of the newly reopened Celeste Saint Paul Hotel and Bar at 26 E. Exchange St.

“They were familiar with my cave tours and asked me about doing a walking tour from the hotel,” Myers Berg said. “I said, ‘sure,’ and that was the beginning”—if not for the less than divine intervention of COVID-19. But after waiting out the first year of the pandemic, Sister Celeste was up and walking by the spring of 2021 with her Saint Peter and Saint Paul Tour. “The tours themselves were shaped by the fact that when I first walked into the hotel, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the Saint Agatha Conservatory space,” Myers Berg said. “If I’m going to do tours from here, I should do them through the lens of this remarkable woman.’”

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Sister Celeste
Michelle Myers Berg (aka Sister Celeste) poses in the lounge of the historic Hotel Celeste where her Celestial Tours Jazz Spots walking tour begins. Photo by Brad Stauffer

The conservatory was once the site of Saint Agatha Convent, an early home of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet in Saint Paul, according to Myers Berg. Her namesake, Celestine, was the mother superior of the convent and the one responsible for turning it into the Saint Agatha Conservatory for Art and Music. Celestine was a cousin of Archbishop John Ireland and his sister Ellen, who also joined the Sisters of Saint Joseph and became Sister Seraphine.

“The cousins worked together to create the conservatory, but Celestine was really the person behind it,” Myers Berg said. “I actually played Seraphine for a Wabasha Caves tour, so I know she was an astonishing person too. Seraphine was responsible for five hospitals, three colleges, two orphanages, 15 high schools and 35 elementary schools as mother superior of the Saint Paul province of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. But I thought I should do the tours as Sister Celestine, considering her part in the conservatory and with the hotel being named for her.”

Lifelong love of Saint Paul history.

Myers Berg has long had a love for Saint Paul and its history. Despite her recent move to the west metro, she has spent most of her life in the capital city, and her favorite saying remains, “you can take the girl out of the neighborhood, but you can’t take the neighborhood out of the girl.”

She grew up in Merriam Park and attended Immaculate Heart of Mary Grade School, Ramsey Junior High and Central High School. After earning a bachelor’s degree in theater arts at the University of Minnesota, she left the Twin Cities for additional training at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Then it was back to Macalester-Groveland where she and her husband raised their children.

Eventually, Myers Berg said, the time was right to rekindle her love of theater. That came with the writing of a one-woman play based on her years growing up in Saint Paul. The Blue Collar Diaries: Celebrating the Class in the Working Class was first performed at the Minnesota Fringe Festival in 2007. It was later expanded and performed at the History Theatre and other stages.

Saints and gangsters and spooks, oh my!

Myers Berg’s first Celestine Tour, the Saint Peter and Saint Paul, is “filled with both the sacred and the profane,” she said. The tour begins and ends at the Celeste Saint Paul Hotel with stops at the Capitol, the Cathedral, Assumption Church, Mickey’s Diner, the Green Lantern and Fitzgerald Theatre.

Once that tour was up and running, “it made sense for me to do a gangster tour,” Myers Berg said. She had created a similar tour for an auction, so some of the research had been done. But as with all of her tours, she did a “deep dive” into the history before emerging with her True Confessions Gangster Tour. That tour “explores the lesser-known chapters of the city’s history when America’s Most Wanted lived and died on the streets of Saint Paul,” she said. Stops on the tour include the former Lowry Hotel, the Hamm Building, Rice Park, the former Saint Francis Hotel, the Palace Theatre and the former downtown police station.

Also on her docket is Myers Berg’s Guide to the Gilded Age Tour and the seasonal Sister Celeste’s All Hallows’ Eve and Sister Celeste’s Advent Sing-A-Long tours. The Gilded Age Tour begins and ends at Lookout Park on Summit Avenue and includes the mansions of the Historic Hill District as well as the passions and contradictions of that neighborhood’s heyday.

The All Hallows’ Eve Tour takes place at the Celeste Saint Paul, highlighting the otherworldly behavior that has been noticed there. “When the hotel reopened in 2019, a group of sisters who lived in the hotel (when it was a convent) were there,” Myers Berg said. “They said the place is haunted. And apparently hotel managers and others have had such experiences, too.”

A communion among jazz fans.

Which brings us to the Jazz Spots Tour. To be sure, Myers Berg said, a nun may not seem the most likely jazz fan. “Typically, I begin my tours by saying, ‘Good afternoon, I’m Mother Celestine Howard, or Sister Celeste.’ For the Jazz Fest, I’ll be saying, ‘I’m Sister Scooby Doo Wah Wah, and if I had been around long enough, I’d have loved jazz. Does that surprise you? Well, it shouldn’t.’”

Myers Berg will lead jazz fest tour-goers from the Celeste Hotel to such past and present musical venues as the Booker T. Cafe & Tavern, Vieux Carre (the former Artists’ Quarter), the Saint Paul Hotel and the Flame. Myers Berg will explain to participants the importance of Saint Paul’s jazz clubs in bringing together people of different racial and economic backgrounds.

In jazz music, Myers Berg said, there’s a communion among the people. “I want to lift the skirt on this immensely important aspect,” Myers Berg said, “or as sister would say, ‘lift the veil.’”

For more information on the Jazz Spots Tour, visit twincitiesjazzfestival.com/jazz-spots-historic-walking-tour. For information on Myers Berg’s other tours, visit celestial-tours.com.

— Anne Murphy

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