Bernadette, known more colloquially as “Bernie”, comes across as quiet and shy at times, but underneath she has a bubbly and warm personality. She enjoys a good joke, can see the fun in situations and adores being with children.
Bernie was born in Claremorris, Co. Mayo, the second eldest in a family of five. Although she lived in the town, her grandparents lived in a rural area so Bernie feels she had the advantages of both environments. She was educated at the local Mercy convent schools. From an early age she knew she had a religious vocation, but knew it was not for the Mercy Sisters. She was influenced by an elderly great aunt who was a Nursing Sister in Texas and heard family stories about her.
MMM was chosen by Bernie after corresponding with different missionary groups. On her first visit to Drogheda for a “come and see” experience, she was struck by just how the Sisters seemed so ‘ordinary’ and ‘normal’. “I just felt ‘at home’ and it was so interesting to hear of their mission experiences”, she says now, thinking back to that time.
After her initial Formation Period, Bernie went to the hospital in Drogheda and studied both nursing and midwifery before receiving her first missionary assignment to Malawi in Central Africa. Here she worked in a busy Health Centre which had a maternity unit, nutrition unit, and outpatients. They had under-five, nutrition and antenatal clinics at the unit and also primary health care outreach clinics. She loved her time in Nkhata Bay, northern Malawi, but it was difficult and, as the Aids pandemic began, heart-breaking too.
In 1996, Bernie went on a sabbatical programme. In Dublin, she went to work with the Daughters of Charity at their Centre for Adults with Learning Disabilities. This was a whole new and different learning experience, but it gave her strength and skills to face the challenges that lay ahead of her.
In 2001, Bernie went to Marcala, Honduras, to work with the Lenca indigenous people, forming and working with health committees in the making of natural medicines, home pharmacies, capacity building workshops and training of traditional Birth Attendants. The Lenca people, a marginalized people within an already poor country, suffer from marked economic, educational inequality and poor access to services. During her time with the Health Committees, she observed that the two most vulnerable groups were the children and the women. In 2005, the Sisters developed an Integrated health programme in the schools, using health education as a medium to develop their creative and participative skills, improve self-esteem, provide information and practical skills on health, human development and environmental themes. They also had lots of fun activities such as arts and crafts, painting, jigsaws, puzzles, games etc., activities that the children never had an opportunity to do before. Bernie reflects, “It was so beautiful to see the wonder in the children’s eyes and the smiles on their faces as they began to enjoy, gain confidence and develop their creative skills”. Bernie’s own face lights up as she talks.
In 2015, they moved to Siguatepeque, another needy community, and commenced working in the rural communities of the parish of Meambar. Here she worked with women, forming support groups and creating safe spaces where women could come together to receive capacity building on a wide range of themes and share their experiences in a safe environment. They were aware of a high incidence of domestic violence against the women in these communities. She was inspired by the resilience, strength and courage of these women in the midst of much suffering and hardship and also by their deep faith and trust in God.
During her time in Honduras, Bernie, at times, felt helpless seeing the poverty (62% of pop live in poverty), the violence, the corruption, extortion and the breakdown of family life etc. This was one of her biggest challenges. She eventually left Honduras in 2021 when MMM withdrew from the country.
Presently Bernie is in Ireland, in Drogheda, nursing our elderly and infirm Sisters. She has a little bit more time for her hobbies which she says are reading, knitting, walking, Sudoku and gardening.
Life has taught her that life is full of ups and downs and one of the phrases that sustains her is “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” from Julian of Norwich.
Bernie grins at me and says: “Change happens, it is better to prepare or plan for it rather than having it forced upon you!” She knows that God walks with her in all the events of her life whether she is aware of it or not, and is getting ready for her next MMM adventure on the road of life.