We come here today with sadness certainly, but also with a sense of joy and hope, to celebrate the life of Sr. Bernardine. We come in faith too, believing that the God who called her into mission as a Columban Sister more than 70 years ago, has now welcomed her into eternal life. I join Rose in welcoming all of you who have come here today to be with us, especially you her family whom she loved so much. She will be missed: by you whose visits she cherished; by all of us here in the community in Magheramore ; by her many friends, and throughout the Congregation where she served so faithfully throughout her long and dedicated life.
In a message for Mission Sunday 2015, Pope Francis defines the “true missionary” as one who is “passionate for the Gospel” and he defines mission itself as “a passion for Jesus and at the same time a passion for his people”. These two phrases admirably sum up the spirit in which Sr. Bernardine lived out her missionary call, from the day she responded to it, to the day she died. As I have mentioned, it was more than seventy years ago, that she heard and said “yes” to a call from God to be a missionary, and, more specifically, to be a Columban Sister. At her final profession she took for her motto: To Jesus, through Mary. That was the framework within which she lived her Religious life. She knew, as we heard in today’s Gospel, that God had chosen her, not the other way round, and that she was to go out and to bear fruit. She took this call seriously.
After her Profession and studies she and a companion were assigned to Burma (now known as Myanmar), but, because their visas were delayed, they were sent to the Philippines. After just one year there the Burma visas came through and in 1958 the two Sisters set out for Myitkyana, northern Burma, to join the community who had been there since 1947. For the next eight years, they ministered among the Kachin people. These were eight eventful and often very difficult years, but they were the most influential years in her missionary life and the years which in many ways defined the remainder of her many and varied ministries in the service of mission in the Congregation. During those eight years, among other things, a young Sister died, and later, as the political situation worsened, a Columban priest was shot. A medical mission set up by the Sisters further up the country had to close after a few months. And then one morning Government soldiers walked in and announced they were taking over the school with immediate effect. This, naturally, was a terrible blow, after the Sisters had built it up to a high standard, but they continued their ministry among the people with the aid of two bicycles which the Bishop bought them. This enabled them to travel further afield and meet more of the people of the area. In spite of the difficulties and dangers of the time, it was a time of joy and fulfilment for them, and a time when they drew very close to the people. But early in 1966 this too was taken from them: their visas had expired and would not be renewed, so they had at last to leave their beloved people.
Sr. Bernardine was involved in many ministries after that, most of them involving heavy responsibility, and she carried these out with zeal and enthusiasm, as well as a high degree of efficiency and success. She worked in school administration in Ozamis, in the southern Philippines. Next she was appointed Regional Superior, also in the Philippines, and this was followed by her becoming a member of the Central Administration of the Congregation. During her time in this last position she had special responsibility for Mission Promotion in the Congregation, an area of mission where she excelled, as she had the capacity to recruit helpers and communicate her zeal to them. In 1982 she was appointed Superior here in Magheramore, a position she held for six years. She then transferred to Dublin, to the Promotion Office in Crumlin, where she worked on the Sale of Work as well as visiting Churches and schools to promote the missions. Those of us who worked with her at that time can testify to the dedication, hard work and enthusiasm she showed as she carried out a demanding schedule, clearly exhibiting that passion for Jesus and his people of which the Pope spoke. Then, in 1992, at the age of 70, she expressed a desire to be assigned once again to overseas mission, and in that year she set out for Lima, Peru, to a new country and a new culture, and there she spent the next ten years.
Returning to Ireland in 2002, Sister was once again assigned to Promotion Work in Crumlin. The energy was not as high as before, but again she took up the task of Mission Promotion, and also worked with the dedicated Sale of Work committee on the organisation of that event. She was also very much involved during this time with Burma Action Ireland, attending their meetings, helping to raise funds, and speaking to groups about the situation in that country. Then, in 2003, she enjoyed one of the most treasured experiences of her life. Earlier that year a small community of Columban Sisters had been able to re-enter Burma, and were working in Myitkhana, in the same area where the first group of Sisters had been. They met many people who had known the first Sisters, and these people were extremely happy to hear that some of the Sisters they had known and loved were still living. An invitation was issued and later in that same year, she had the great joy and privilege of visiting once more the country and the people where she had spent eight happy and fruitful, if traumatic years. This visit was one of the high points of her life, and this is evident in the moving account she wrote of the visit, where she met many old friends and where she had the added joy of witnessing the zeal and enthusiasm of a new generation of Columban Sisters who were meeting new missionary challenges. Eventually she returned to Magheramore where, as long as she was able, she remained involved with the Sale of Work. However she grew more frail she finally, with regret, had to give up her active involvement, though never her interest. She remained a devoted missionary in her heart and in her prayer.
In all of the varied missionary activity I have mentioned, there was evidence of this tremendous passion for Christ’s mission and Christ’s people that the Pope has spoken of. Whatever she did, whether she was in the frontline of mission or raising awareness of mission at home, it was imbued with this passion. But of all the activities, all the places where she was on mission, there was one which was written on her heart, and that was Burma. When she wrote the book on Burma her energies were declining, but she wanted to do it and she persevered. In it she has left us a unique, first-person account of the turbulent but richly fruitful years she spent in that country at the beginning of her active missionary life. Its launch here in Magheramore, in the newly opened Nursing Home, with all her family present, was a very special occasion for all of us who were privileged to be there. Indeed the writing of that book, was in many respects the culmination of her eventful and dedicated missionary life. With Simeon she could say: Now Lord, dismiss your servant in peace!
There is one aspect of her life I have not referred to, and that is her gift and her love for music, especially for singing. She was a gifted musician and had a lovely soprano voice, and she loved to sing! I remember her many times singing at celebrations in the Philippines and also here in Ireland, and the people loved to hear her. One song that was always requested during those celebrations was The Holy City; it was her “party piece” and she was always happy to oblige. As I remember that, and remember too her joy in singing, I like to imagine that now, having reached the real Holy City at the end of her life’s journey, she is once again singing her party piece., this time in company with the angels.
by: Sr. Ann Bree, SSC