Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Sister Bernadine Casey: ‘From the novitiate on, I never really did look back’
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the May 18, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
Holy Names Sister Bernardine Casey (IR photo)
Holy Names Sister Bernadine Casey, diminutive, white-haired, bespectacled, smiles brightly as she greets her visitor. Together they walk a few steps to what, in days gone by, in stately old convents would have been called a “parlor.” It’s a small room in the Convent of the Holy Names in Spokane. The room is furnished with a sofa, comfortable chairs, and a small writing table, just the place for visiting and conversation. Sister Bernadine settles into a chair, chatting amiably, ready for whatever develops, and her smile brightens the room frequently.
For more than four decades she taught in high schools staffed by Holy Names Sisters in Oregon and Washington, including Holy Names Academy in Spokane, and Manitoba, Canada. Occasionally, she also taught college summer session English and French classes. Her life began, however, in another time and another place, rather far away: Superior, Wis., on Sept. 4, 1915.
When she was almost three years old, Bernadine’s parents moved their family from Superior to Seattle. Bernadine was the youngest, with one brother and five sisters. She attended both public and Catholic schools, graduating from Seattle’s Holy Names Academy. Prior to entering Religious life, she also completed two years at the Jesuits’ Seattle College, which later became Seattle University. “They were struggling,” Sister Bernadine recalls, “and they took women as students to save the college. I was among the first women to attend Seattle College.”
In 1937, with two years of higher education behind her, young Bernadine Casey entered the Sisters of the Holy Names. “I’d been having an awful good time in college,” she says with a laugh. “I really didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I was having quite a nice social life, and I liked that. But I guess I just kind of felt inside that I wanted something else, and I didn’t really quite know what.”
Sister Bernadine’s vocation didn’t just pop into her head fully formed one day. It gestated in fits and starts. “I can remember one time, we were making a retreat – they had a three-day retreat for the women at the college – and, of course, during that retreat the priest gave a talk on vocations. I mean, that would be the natural thing to do. Well, a group went over to the drug store across the street, and I had stayed behind to talk to the priest, and my friends were waiting for me to join them. They said, ‘We hope you’re not going to go be a nun!’ I said, ‘I don’t think so, not now, anyway.’ The priest had told me that he didn’t think I had a vocation now, because I didn’t want it. But he said it could come later.”
That summer, two of Bernadine’s older sisters paid for her to take a trip back East, where they were living. So the young woman took the train back to Superior, where she was born, and visited various other places in the Midwest and East where relatives lived. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” she says.
The Christmas prior to this, one of the two older sisters, who lived in St. Paul, Minn., came home for Christmas. “She wanted to get me on the road,” Sister Bernadine recalls, “and she said, ‘Well, what are you going to do with your life?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. Maybe I’ll do what Franny did’ – Franny being my sibling second up from me, who had become a Holy Names Sister. That was almost out of the blue. That was the seed. So it was that following summer that she and my other sister had me come back East, and that was when my mother had a stroke.” Her father had passed away seven years earlier.
Bernadine was the only one of the offspring in the family free to care for their mother, so she did that for about a year, and while she was at home she took classes, off and on, at Seattle College. “Once things had settled down at home, that was when it was a struggle because I was thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I still want to do this.’ I didn’t know what to do. My mother was saying, ‘Well, make up your mind!’ So finally one day, I just crawled onto my mom’s lap – I was almost 23 years old! – and I said, ‘Mom, I don’t know,’ and I started to cry. In my tears I said, ‘I think I have to go.’ Entry date was July 25, and this was already into the summer, so I had to make tracks.”
She never looked back. Novitiate took place at Marylhurst, the Sisters’ property outside Lake Oswego, Ore.
“I didn’t have a single doubt,” she said. “Once I was there, I went through that novitiate with perfect peace. Some would leave the novitiate and go home. Some had that pull. I didn’t have it. Once I got there, it all fell into place.”
When she took her first vows, Bernadine adopted the name Sister Miriam James but, like many Sisters, she returned to her birth name in the years following the Second Vatican Council, in the mid-1960s.
“Right out of the novitiate,” she says, “I started teaching in Portland. I taught for about 38 years, in different schools.” During the summers she completed her college degree at Marylhurst College, and her last year of teaching was 1975.
After she left teaching, Sister Bernadine did community service work for a while, then she was in charge of campus housing years at Fort Wright College. After that, she enrolled in the radio and television program at Spokane Falls Community College. “I always wanted to be involved with radio,” she says, “but television was the coming thing, so I did both, but I didn’t do either one completely. I ended up just dabbling.”
Back at square one, more or less, Sister Bernadine went about getting her résumé in order, preparatory to looking for a job. “I got a phone call from Mary Stamp,” she explains. “She was just starting The Fig Tree,” Spokane’s ecumenical newspaper. “I got this phone call from this total stranger, and she was trying to get a steering committee together, and she invited me to attend. I said that I was interested in radio, and she said, ‘Well, it wouldn’t hurt you to go to a meeting.’ She’s very persuasive. Well, it usually does ‘hurt you’ to go to a meeting!” she laughed. “So I agreed to go to the meeting. So at the second meeting, she looked across the table at me and said, ‘Sister Bernadine, I can’t do this by myself.’ So, I was in.”
Sister Bernadine belongs to the generation of women Religious who took the sometimes wild ride from the pre-Vatican II version of Religious life to the post-Vatican II version. “I don’t know that I was deeply affected in any way,” Sister Bernadine says. “I do know that earlier, probably in the late ’50s, before Vatican II, or maybe right during that Vatican II time, we were going to lectures that were preparing us for some of the new thinking about liturgy and theology. I can recall being in large crowds of mostly men and women Religious, listening to these talks and being impressed. My mind was being opened, gradually, to the possibility of these changes. Everything always made sense to me.”
The transition in Religious life “was simply a natural transformation,” she said. It was hard to see companions in Religious life leave, however. “But never being inclined to go myself, I was ready for the next step. I think I’ve always been just ready for the next step.”
Prior to the changes in Religious life that followed Vatican II, the traditional daily schedule and lifestyle of the Holy Names Sisters was structured with set times for just about everything, from prayer to recreation and from meals to work time. “Once in a while,” says Sister Bernadine, “I think it would be nice to be doing more of that kind of thing together. However, being free of the rigid schedule is another kind of freedom that is good for the individual. There is a freedom of spirit, I think, involved in that. I belong to four different groups (of Sisters) that get together for prayer a t different times and different places. So there is a lot of communal prayer going on, but it’s not according to the hour on the clock. It’s more adjustable to our own ministries and our own interests.”
A few years ago, Sister Bernadine felt that she was “inspired” to “work with letters” that her uncle, Father Solanus Casey, (1880-1957), had written, and collect them into book form. Father Solanus was a Capuchin Franciscan who lived mostly in Detroit, but also spent time in New York and Huntington, Ind.
“He was a man who developed a reputation for holiness,” Sister Bernadine explains. Father Solanus was what was called a “simplex priest,” so he was not allowed, for example, to hear confessions. He served his community as porter – answering the door. “As people came to the monastery to see somebody they began more and more to want to see Father Solanus. His clientele just grew, and grew, and grew, until it was fulltime work for him just taking care of people. He would pray with people, and for them, and apparently cures started happening.”
The cause for Father Solanus’s canonization began in 1960. In 1984, Sister Bernadine was called to be an official witness for the canonization process, representing the family. In 1995, the church declared Father Solanus to be Venerable, which is the step in the canonization process prior to being beatified; after that, the next step is to be canonized a saint.
“I met (Father Solanus) in ’36,” Sister Bernadine says, “the summer that I went back East, before I entered” Religious life. “Then in the summer of ’56 I had a summer of study at Notre Dame, and I went to see him when I was there, and that was just a year before he died. In ’45 he had been out to Seattle for the first Mass of (Jesuit) Father John McCluskey, who was my first cousin, and he went down to Portland and stopped off to see me.”
She characterized Father Solanus as “a dear man, a very gentle man, and unpretentious – saintly in the real ways. He played the fiddle, but not very well. Sometimes he drove his brother friars nutty because he screeched” when he played. “He probably never had a lesson.”
She worked on the book at home, and made several trips to Detroit as well. She cut back on her hours at The Fig Tree. The book, titled God Bless You and Yours: Letters from Solanus Casey, OFM Cap. was published by the Father Solanus Guild in 2000.
Sister Bernadine still puts in three days a week at The Fig Tree. “We’re almost finished with 22 years for the paper,” she says with a smile. “The first 10 years, I did everything, along with Mary (Stamp). It was just Mary and me. I even went out and tried to get advertising. Now, we’re still Mary and me, and another associate editor, that’s about it.”
Looking into the misty future to what Religious life in the U.S. might look like 50 years from now, Sister Bernadine says with a laugh, “I hope I’ll still be around,” then adds, “The way things are going with Religious communities, ours included, we’re not getting the subjects. Some of the big monastic type communities have lasted for the centuries, they still seem to be alive, although they also are dropping in membership, so I don’t know about them. Historically, there has been a rise and a fall, in the church, in Religious communities. And then somehow the Holy Spirit is there to build it up again, and in the process there can be a death and a new life. It’s not what I want to see happen, but I can see that possibly our current century is going to see such a drop that we will emerge in new forms or die out totally.
“What I do see happening,” Sister Bernadine observes, “and it makes me think, is that there are several new communities of women starting up in these times. There is a group that I stayed with in New York when I went there to do a talk on Father Solanus. They’re lovely people, they’re young, and they have a full, old-fashioned habit. From time to time, I’ve met somebody from newer communities, and they’re wearing veils, and I don’t know. But the whole movement in the church is toward conservatism again. In some areas it’s pre-Vatican II, and I think that’s a mistake.”
Looking back, Sister Bernadine is pleased as punch that she has done what she has done with her life. “Oh, yes,” she says with deep conviction. “In the beginning, I didn’t know what I was going to do, but having done this it has been perfectly satisfying. I’m glad that I did make that decision. From the novitiate on, I never really did look back.”
To women thinking today about Religious life, she has a concise message: “Come on in.” She laughs a joyful, bubbling laugh. “The opportunities to serve are great, and if you feel in your heart that you want to do that kind of thing, if you want to give, and give in a communal setting, then by all means enter a community and give it a try.”
(Sister Bernardine’s book, God Bless You and Yours: Letters from Solanus Casey, OFM Cap., is available on-line: http://www.solanuscasey.org/guild-books.shtml)