This is the first of a series of sister’s interviews by MSBT staff writer Mary Jean Torpey.
I walked into the large front room of the Motherhouse to see if Sister Bernadine was ready for her interview. She was sitting comfortably on the floral couch talking with a couple of Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity employees. She joked around and also offered an interesting suggestion that I interview some of the employees that work for the sisters. After we greeted each other she was ready to move into the parlor and start the interview. I briefly explained why I was interviewing a number of the sisters and how these interviews may interest many of our friends, partners in ministry and especially any women discerning religious life. Within the first five minutes of talking with Sister Bernadine I could tell she had a great sense of humor.
My first questions in the interview start from the beginning of her story, “When and how did you first feel a call to religious life?” This question gave Sister Bernadine the opportunity to take me back to when she grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She approximated that there were about 25 vocations just within her parish growing up. Her words were, “it was not unusual.” That might lead one to assume that she felt a call to religious life when she was young and always knew this was God’s plan for her however that is not the case. During and after the war years she worked in the offices of Armstrong World Industries for fifteen years, it was at age 33 that Sister Bernadine asked herself, “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?” Sister Bernadine told a story of a serendipitous meeting with a nun. Her sister asked her to meet a nun that had come into her life but Sister Bernadine had no interest in meeting her.
She then was surprised while she was driving she saw crossing the street, a tall woman dressed in all black. After running into this woman a second time, she came to learn that this was the woman her sister wanted her to meet – a Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity. This sister would come to be a very influential person in Sister Bernadine’s life.
After they got to know each other, Sister Bernadine was invited to help this sister with some of her apostolic work. Sister Bernadine enjoyed the work and decided to join the Missionary Cenacle Apostolate. Sister Bernadine expressed that she was surprised at all the ministry done by this Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity. She had never met a nun before that drove a car and was always so busy. It was the work done by the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity and the active community life that drew her to this order. Before entering life as a religious sister, Sister Bernadine said she owned her own home, her own car and living a good life.
She doesn’t recall any concerns or worries she felt when she entered, to quote Sister Bernadine, “Once my mind was made up I never looked back.” This isn’t to say her transition to this lifestyle was without difficulty. She felt quite homesick when she entered, however that feeling disappeared after her first two weeks. Her work has primarily been social work. She worked for Catholic Social Services from 1961-2016 and was given the opportunity to attend St. Joe’s University for two years before attending Catholic University in Washington D.C. for her master’s degree, MSW in social work. Returning to school is something Sister Bernadine brought up when I asked her how being a sister has had a significant impact on her life. She stated that being a sister has enhanced and broadened her life in this way, along with the enrichment she has felt by meeting diverse sisters. Sister Bernadine said that being a Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity has naturally made her more spiritual and her love of God has increased.
When discussing the work Sister Bernadine has done over the years, she stated that it all has been meaningful, especially working with teen boys some who were troubled and faced challenges and problems, and accompanying them and in a special way helping them strengthen their faith and having God in their lives. She found, sometimes to the surprise of others, they were receptive to the work of the sisters. She was assigned to work with Catholic Social Services and when I asked her what the most difficult aspect of her work, she said it was taking on social work before she had formal training. Though social work was her main focus, she was asked to take on a position to create a spiritual development program at St. Joseph’s / St. Vincent’s home for children. Sister Bernadine had to create this program from scratch and ended up working for the home for children for 26 years. Nowadays, Sister Bernadine is enjoying retirement by keeping busy at the Motherhouse. She wakes up at 5:30, has her coffee and reads, prays and attends mass all before breakfast. After, she takes care of different jobs around the Motherhouse and attends Adoration from 2-3pm. After Adoration, Sister Bernadine is free until prayer time before dinner. Her hobbies include reading and she enjoys getting together with the sisters to play cards and board games. She and other sisters like to get together to watch football games. Sister Bernadine for years has been a great Notre Dame Football fan.
For those that are considering entering religious life, Sister Bernadine was able to offer some advice. She suggests not entering too early and learning what life is all about. She herself felt that if she had entered when she was 17 she wouldn’t have made it. She believes having life experience before entering would be helpful because you may end up meeting some people or families that have experienced the same things. She also said to make sure you are ready for the spiritual aspect of religious life.
As we concluded our interview I asked Sister Bernadine if there was anything else she’d want those that read her story to know. She simply added, “It’s been a good life.” Sister Bernadine is a ‘young at heart’ 96 year old missionary.