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Holy Names Sister Bernadine blessed many lives

For Holy Names Sister Bernadine Casey, co-founder and co-editor who continued with The Fig Tree 23 years until her death May 10, The Fig Tree was a gift of love.

Sister Bernadine Casey

Sr. Bernadine Casey, SNJM, in 2004

When some asked why in her 90s she continued to edit, she told them, “because it is life giving.”  Even weakened as she was dying, she helped edit the May issue, making five corrections that escaped the other editors.

Sr. Bernadine reminded Fig Tree staff and volunteers that each issue was God’s work, said Mary Stamp, editor, colleague and friend throughout those years. 

Some insights on her life come from articles in the 10th and 20th anniversary editions of The Fig Tree, an article on her jubilee, a review of the book she edited on her uncle Fr. Solanus Casey, OFM Cap, and some excerpts of an autobiography read during the May 14 vigil service by her niece, Sr. Anne Herkenrath, SNJM, who is at St. James Cathedral in Seattle and who accompanied Sr. Bernadine on trips to visit family, across the United States and in Europe.

In the 1994 issue, Sr. Bernadine “counted the ways” she appreciated being part of the ministry.

“Foremost is the opportunity to carry out my mission of education in the faith as a Holy Names Sister and my community’s mandate to work for social justice,” she said. 

“The Fig Tree is religiously slanted educational journalism, oriented to building a more just society.  Whether writing or editing articles that deal with issues of social concern—acquainting readers with injustices and sharing ways of being socially responsible as Christians—I engage in Christian education and promote justice.”

Sr. Bernadine described her childhood as “pleasant and ordinary,” in a lower-middle class family that had adequate food with its backyard pear and cherry trees, berry bushes and a grape vine.

Sister Bernadine, in December

Sr. Bernadine

“We had adequate clothing, not extras.  As a child, I enjoyed sledding, skating, picnics, swimming, doing shows and playing school,” she wrote.  “We were also a family of faith and strong religious and civic values.”

Her family was the only Irish Catholic family in the Seattle neighborhood where she grew up.  Her brother, sisters and she played with neighborhood Protestant, Jewish and African-American children, and the families cared for one another.

Learning early that “people are people,” she valued and sought out relationships with people ethnically or religiously different from her. 

“That neighborhood was a blessing.  We were real neighbors.  Some were life-long friends.  Our front porch was the gathering place,” said Sr. Bernadine who attended Catholic and public schools.

“I realize how much of our religious faith is similar,” she said.

For her jubilee, the 50th anniversary as a Sister of the Holy Names, Sr. Bernadine reflected on her ecumenical and Catholic journey.

The idea of becoming a nun first surfaced when she was in junior high, but she forgot about it until she was in the first class of women admitted to Seattle College, now University, studying liberal arts with Jesuit teachers.  She had to drop out when her mother became ill.

She felt a growing conviction that God was calling her to a religious life, and planned to enter in 1936, but her mother had a stroke and again needed her help.

“I had had fun in high school and college, enjoying ballroom dances at school.  I enjoyed my social life, but it began to seem empty,” she said.  “Even so, the decision to leave it for the convent was difficult.

After struggling about her call, she entered the congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, a natural for her because so many other family members were in that order. 

“After I decided, I had no vocational indecision since the day I said, ‘All right, I’ll go.’  I was spared the problem some have in each step on the way to full profession,” she said.  “God was calling me.”

She completed her bachelor’s degree in English and French at Marylhurst College near Portland, Ore., and later earned a master’s in English literature from Gonzaga. 

She also studied at the Universities of Washington, Oregon and Notre Dame, Seattle University and the Catholic University Angers in France.

“I might not have chosen teaching as a career, but to be a Holy Names sister was to be a teacher.  The hardest part was learning and preparing lessons for new subjects,” she said.

She enjoyed interacting with students, believing God wanted her to bring young people to a greater knowledge of God.  Over the years, she has shared knowledge of God and God’s grace directly through religious education and indirectly by the religious atmosphere of her teaching and life.

She taught English, history, French and religion in both all-girls and co-ed high schools in Portland, Eugene, Medford and Salem, Ore.; Winnepeg, Manitoba, Seattle and Spokane, where she taught at Holy Names Academy.

“There were good days and years, and hard ones,” she said.  “Many students kept in touch for many years.”

Sr. Bernadine left the classroom in 1975 and helped out for a year at Marian Hall, her community’s convent for semi-retired sisters in Spokane.  Then she went to Fort Wright College, first as campus housing director for three years and then in succession as assistant to the academic dean and the dean of students. 

After the college closed in 1982, Sr. Bernadine took classes in radio and TV at Spokane Falls Community College.

Sister Bernadine

Sr. Bernadine

While a student there, she became involved with the work of the Spokane Christian Coalition—later the Spokane Council of Ecumenical Ministries—with the Religious Broadcasting Commission.  That involvement led to her connection with The Fig Tree.

“It was like the voice of the Lord.  I was getting my resume ready for broadcast media, but by the second meeting of the Steering Committee for this new publication, I was asked to be associate editor.  Although I had strong interest in and some ability for the radio media, I felt clumsy about the mechanical technicalities, and it seemed that God just dropped this into my lap,” she said.

“Without Sr. Bernadine’s help, we could not have produced or continued The Fig Tree.  She and I semi-volunteered our way into modest-paying jobs,” said Mary, “something few consider in this money-driven society.”

Bringing skills as an English teacher, Sr. Bernadine adjusted formal grammatical style to journalistic style, and The Fig Tree adapted Associated Press journalistic style to some grammatical matters on which Sr. Bernadine was adamant. 

“Her talent in editing and proofreading has kept our accuracy high, not only in grammar but also in sensitivity to diverse religious understandings,” Mary said.  “We had a great working relationship and friendship, through struggles of editing one another’s work.  Her skills complemented mine.”

Through her years with The Fig Tree, she interviewed more than 250 people in local social agencies, on church committees and in community projects, people living active Christian lives.

“I have become acquainted—frequently in only an hour’s interview—with many beautiful people:  ordained and lay men and women, individuals who have shared with me, sometimes deeply, their personal stories and shown me a rich variety of gifts used for building the kingdom,” she said.  “They inspired me and enriched my life. God has often entered my soul through the wonder and the goodness of subjects of my feature stories.”

Sr. Bernadine also enjoyed contacting and connecting with the many volunteers who helped mail and deliver papers.  In the early years, there were hours of socializing around counting, sorting and bundling the newspapers to prepare them for bulk mailing, until computerized lists and automated services made it more practical to leave it to the printer.

“Sometimes the work was tedious.  Fund raising and selling ads were not my most relished activity, but brought some non-monetary rewards, such as telephone acquaintances with people I never met in person,” she said. 

Many advertisers she brought in continue to have a regular presence in The Fig Tree.

“Not least, The Fig Tree has contributed to developing my social conscience and call to responsibility that broadened my horizons,” she said.  “Social justice, a key element in the charism of my community, whose educational mission is to develop and educate the whole person with preferential option for the poor and disadvantaged,” she said.

 “Through the people I interviewed, I have developed a deeper appreciation for other confessions.  I didn’t know before just how similar most of us are in beliefs and interpretation of Christ’s message,” Sr. Bernadine commented.

“I also have a deeper appreciation of my own tradition, the Catholic faith, which has been enhanced by the ecumenical encounters,” she said.

Sr. Bernadine was active for many years at St. Patrick’s Catholic Parish in Hillyard, where she lived with two other Holy Names sisters, before moving to Marian Hall and more recently to the Convent of the Holy Names at 2911 W. Fort Wright Dr., where she died.

At St. Patrick’s, she was in the choir, on the social justice committee and formed an ecumenical committee that spearheaded bringing many churches together for ecumenical services.  She was also sacramental minister and sacristan for daily Mass in chapel.

She appreciated the opportunity to promote Christian unity both The Fig Tree and as neighborhood ecumenical coordinator through St. Patrick’s ecumenical studies and worship experiences.

“Perhaps the day will come when intercommunion will be allowed,” she said.

When Sr. Bernadine entered the Sisters of the Holy Names, who were founded in Montreal nearly 150 years ago, nuns wore black and white habits.

“Most of us now wear modern dress.  We first changed in the 1960s to a shorter black skirt, jacket and short veil.  In the 1970s, I stopped wearing a veil and went into colors, which I consider to be among God’s good gifts.

“Our manner of dress used to make us more outwardly visible, but now we are more visible in terms of being out in the world in places we never were before. 

“We are mixing more with the secular community,” she said.  “There is now more emphasis on responsibility to live out our religious life than on following specific rules within the framework of a daily community schedule.  We have more open space to live out our commitment.”

At first, most Holy Names sisters were classroom or music teachers.  Now there are fewer schools and the sisters are in a variety of ministries in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba; Massachusetts, New York, Florida, Washington, Oregon and California; Haiti and Lesotho, an independent state surrounded by South Africa.  Some are working in special ministries among the poor in Honduras, Mexico, Texas and Mississippi.

Another one of her passions was working with Capuchin monks in Detroit to help promote the sainthood of her uncle, Father Solanus Casey, a Capuchin Franciscan friar who was the monastery doorkeeper.  She had hoped to go there in July.

He was a simple man who brought joy to the lives of many people.

Sr. Bernadine helped his words of faith spring to life 43 years after his death in a collection of his letters she selected and edited for the book, Letters from Solanus Casey, OFM CAP.

Sr. Bernadine often prayed to Fr. Solanus, revering him for his humility and the compassion with which he comforted families as they struggled with sickness and other problems.

In one letter, Fr. Solanus told a friend, “God condescends to use our power if we don’t spoil God’s plans by ours.”

In the introduction, Sr. Bernadine points out that “Fr. Solanus perhaps without being consciously aware of it lived and preached a code that ran counter to the spirit and culture he knew in his 87 years of life.  Not only did it bring him happiness and deep joy in living even in the midst of suffering, but also the wisdom and compassion growing out of it brought positive things to the lives of thousands of other people, even in the midst of their suffering.”

Even when she knew she was dying, Sr. Bernadine said she didn’t feel like she was dying.  She was considering what her next career might be.

“Sr. Bernadine, called ‘Bunnie’ by many, was ageless—standing tall, still able to hear and mentally and spiritually clear.  She defied the reality that we are all dying, because her path on that journey was to live each day,” said Mary.  “She blessed the life of The Fig Tree, her family, her church, her religious community, the community and the world,” Mary said.

Mary Stamp - The Fig Tree - © June 2007