Gilsenan, Sr. Bernadette

Gilsenan, Sr. Bernadette

Sister Bernadette was born in Dublin in 1933. She learned about MMM from her parents, who were great supporters of Mother Mary Martin in the early years of the Congregation. Bernadette joined MMM in 1952. After profession she helped in Drogheda, Clonmel, and in the Apostolic Nunciature in Ireland, mainly in catering.
In 1962 she was assigned to Kenya, at a time of great famine in the Turkana area.

She was one of the first three MMMs there and spent twelve years in development work among the Turkana people, especially at Lorugumu. While tending to the needs of the hungry and sick, Bernadette began education for the children by teaching them to write in the sand with small sticks. In turn, she learned the language from them. During this time, to make her work more effective she obtained certificates in catering and commerce.

In 1974, Bernadette began five years of mission awareness work in the USA. She then trained in social work in Scotland. She was involved in fundraising for three years in Ireland before returning to Kenya in early 1985. She helped in pastoral care in Nakuru Diocese for two years and returned to Ireland to serve in local MMM leadership in Rosemount and in mission awareness activities.

In 1990 she was back in Kenya, this time in Kakuma, where she began the Turkana Homecraft Centre. This programme, now run by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, recently celebrated its twenty-fifth jubilee. It continues to provide practical training for many Turkana women, enabling them to provide an income for themselves and their families.

In 1994, Bernadette was once again assigned to the USA. She spent the next fifteen years in Chicago, working tirelessly in a variety of activities to raise awareness about our common call to mission and raising funds to continue MMM projects around the globe. This included helping to organize our involvement in the Mission Cooperative Plan, in which MMM Sisters and Associates visit parishes in the USA and Canada. They provide information about our activities and thank the people for their wonderful support over the years.

At the end of 2009, Bernadette returned to Ireland and spent about eighteen months in our MMM community Realt na Mara in Dublin. In mid-2011 she was assigned to the Motherhouse and belonged to Saint Patrick’s Community. In January 2016 she moved to Aras Mhuire for additional care. She died there peacefully on 8 August 2016.

Bernadette was known for her kindness, hospitality and initiative.  During her time in Turkana, she would try anything to help the people. If something didn’t work she tried something else.  One of her projects was having the women make cotton pillows and mattresses from the local wild cotton. She soon realized that the smell wasn’t so pleasant for sleeping. She then taught them to make container covers to prevent flies from getting into the sugar.  She showed them how to make baskets and mats. These products were very lucrative and she sold them in Nairobi and to visitors to Turkana.  

Bernadette also worked in the local school with Saint Patrick’s Fathers Kevin Brehony and John O’Callaghan.  Bishop Mahon started a secondary school in Lodwar and she helped many children get into second level education. She later had the joy of seeing many of the children she worked with in Turkana go on to higher education and training and contribute to the development of their country. (See the article on our MMM Facebook page, ‘One Man’s Journey’, about an orphaned boy she helped.)
During her stay in Aras Mhuire she had many ailments, which caused much suffering and discomfort, but she was blessed in having a very clear mind up until the end. The staff were hoping she would be well enough to attend the month’s mind Mass for her brother, Msgr. John, in the Motherhouse on 10 August. He had died in Wichita, Kansas, USA. Bernadette was very close to him and it was a huge loss. On the first weekend in August her condition changed and she was on oxygen because of breathing difficulties. Nevertheless she had rallied after a similar condition before and her death came as a surprise.

Thirty of her family and friends were expected for Msgr. John’s Mass and no one thought Bernadette’s funeral would be celebrated on the same day.  In his eulogy her nephew said jokingly, ‘Bernadette was very obliging and she saved us all another trip to Drogheda!’  

Father Dessie Miller, SPS, was the chief celebrant. He said he felt privileged to be asked to say her funeral Mass. He recalled, ‘My first memory of Bernadette was in 1969 when she drove me from Kitale to Lodwar through running streams, rivers, river beds and dirt tracks.’  

Many MMMs have similar memories of Bernadette on her travels, illustrating the words from Saint James: ‘By my good deeds I will show you my faith.’ Happiest when reaching out to others, in all her work she trusted totally in God.