May the Sacred Heart of Jesus be everywhere love
The two disciples (Andrew and John] followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following,
he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?”. They said to him, ‘Rabbi, where do you live?’
He said to them, ‘Come and see’. They came and saw … and remained with him. (John 1:35-39)
These words from the Gospel of John capture well the driving force behind Sister M St Bernard’s life: to be with Jesus and to share the love of his heart with all whom she contacted. On Sunday, 29 May 2016, the Feast of Corpus Christi, Bernie, as we affectionately knew her, realised her life’s goal when Jesus gently took her to himself. She was ninety-one years of age and in the sixty-fifth year of her religious profession.
Bernie was born in Mildura, Victoria, on 18 May 1925, the first of the three children of Clyde and Ellen (nee O’Donoghue) Dent. Her parents and her siblings, Elizabeth and William (Bill), have predeceased her. To Bernie’s sister-in-law, Marie, her niece, Louise, nephew, Bill, her cousins, Margaret and Patricia, and to those unable to be present with us today and their families, we offer our deepest sympathy and the support of our prayers. You know well her deep love for you, her pride and joy in you, and her gratitude to you.
Bernie’s father, Clyde, served in the Light Horse during World War I; he returned home to the Depression. Believing that a Government position would assure his ability to support his family in this difficult environment, he joined the Victorian Police Force. Bernie was an only child for almost three years and recalled that she spent long hours ‘talking to herself’ according to stories told her by her parents. She was also a sickly child and was often home from school, however, as she could read from a young age she lived in a world quite removed from the reality of her sick room. As she grew into adolescence poor health was no more a problem. She was very keen on sport and loved horses and the outdoors. She enjoyed school and was a bright student. Her interest in politics seems to have begun at an early age as she would recount how she would stand on the stump of a tree in the yard and deliver political speeches to her imaginary audiences. (Can’t you see it?)
Clyde’s role in the police force meant not infrequent transfers and hence new homes for the family and new schools for Bernie and her siblings. Bernie began her education at the local State school but later transferred to the Catholic school. Her father, although not then a Catholic, drove the children daily to the nearest Convent school. Her secondary education at was at the small Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High School, Elmore, Victoria, where Sister M Giovanni Sweeney FDNSC taught all subjects and all levels! Bernie described this as “a very blessed finale” to her schooling.
At Elmore Bernie was introduced to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and the beautiful painting in the Parish Church captivated her. In her late adolescence, as she pondered the richness of this spirituality, Jesus ‘came alive’ for her. On leaving school she was convinced that Jesus was calling her to follow him in the religious life but she knew also her parents’ clearly stated and strong opposition to this. In time, her parents agreed that she could enter religious life at the age of twenty-one.
In the interim Bernie joined the Victorian Education Department where she gained her Teachers’ Certificate and completed the first year of a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne. She then embarked on her teaching career and for the six years enjoyed what she described as ‘a wonderfully interesting life as a young school teacher, living a ‘lady’s life’, boarding in hotels, servants all round, plenty of social life – but always in the back of my mind the call of Jesus’.
At the age of twenty-four Bernie realised her dream. She entered the Congregation at Hartzer Park, Burradoo, on 21 November 1949, taking the name Sister M St Bernard. She later wrote: ‘On that day I felt an enormous sense of having finally come into port after a storm’. She was professed on 2 July 1951, ‘a day of unspeakable joy for me’, she noted. Her parents did not attend her First Profession but just prior to her taking her Final Vows they visited her at Kensington. Seeing her obvious happiness, her mother remarked, ‘I wouldn’t have you anywhere else’. This was ‘a wonderful joy’ for Bernie and brought with it a sense of completion that her parents too, appreciated her vocation. Her father, Clyde, was later received into the Church.
Following her profession Bernie was appointed to the staff of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart College, Kensington, where she continued her ministry in teaching, a ministry which spanned over thirty years. Bernie taught in our Colleges at Kensington, Bentleigh and Corinda and served as Principal at both Kensington and Bentleigh. In conjunction with this latter role she completed a Bachelor of Theology with the School of Divinity, University of Melbourne.
Bernie was a brilliant, creative educator and in many ways ahead of her time. More than one of her former students who later became teachers owns that they modelled their teaching style on hers. Final Year students of Religious Education at Kensington in the early sixties recall with amazement that she broke open the Gospel of John for them under the symbolism of blood and water, light and darkness, and the like. The biblical exposition was just becoming available in the works of scholars and Bernie was able to absorb it and make it attractive to sixteen year olds! A card received recently from a former Bentleigh student to whom she taught Middle Eastern Studies some forty years ago marvelled at the fact that at different stages in the course Bernie invited a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Rabbi to address the class – in the 1970’s! It was always a source of wonder to Bernie that one of her forebears on her father’s side was Jewish.
Many years ago Bernie wrote: ‘A teacher is the best audio-visual aid. Our aim is to be something like a catalyst: to bring about the encounter of each individual child with Christ … It is imperative to remember that only a person can introduce us to reality, normally speaking, even to Divine reality. No electronic device will take the living, loving teacher’s place’. This motivated her teaching ministry and it is not surprising that, when contacted about her death, the immediate response from ex-students was a litany of praise: ‘brilliant’, ‘inspiring’, ‘amazing’, ‘unforgettable,’ ‘after my mother, the greatest influence on my life’. Bernie had a genuine love and concern for her students as individuals and for their families. She found education a richly rewarding apostolate and rejoiced to watch her students mature and grow in their faith and in knowledge and move into their chosen careers. She kept in touch with many of them well after they had left school and many still treasure her letters. This is true also of their parents and others. She had a wonderful gift with the pen.
Bernie’s contribution has not been confined to the school scene. In 1962 she was appointed to Hartzer Park as Directress of Pre-Novices and two years later, Directress of Novices. She herself always strove for the highest ideal and expected the same of her novices, something which was not always achievable. Her novices readily acknowledge that they were well instructed in the charism, spirituality and mission of the Congregation, the vows, and the spiritual life.
Vatican Council II (1962-1965) ushered in an era of great change for the Church and consequently for religious life. Among other things it called for a complete revision of our Constitutions or Rule of Life. In 1969 our Congregational Leader asked Bernie, together with Sister M Regina Cawood, to go to Rome to undertake this work. On arrival in Rome, Bernie enrolled at the Pontifical Institute, Regina Mundi, where she studied the Documents of Vatican II and the history and theology of religious life in depth while she pursued the revision. This revision was ground-breaking and laid the foundations for future revisions. In accomplishing this work Bernie’s contribution to the life of the entire Congregation, not simply of the Australian Province, cannot be overestimated. Needless to say, Bernie enjoyed Rome!
In 2001, at the age of seventy-six, with Sister M Valerian O’Brien, Bernie accepted an appointment to the mining city of Mt Isa in outback Queensland. Here she conducted Parish Retreats, offered programmes in the Adult Education in the Faith, visited the hospitals, aged care facilities, accompanied the aged to medical appointments and shopping, and visited those unable to leave their homes. All who visited the Convent were assured of a welcoming heart, listening ear and lovely cup of tea. Bernie’s presence and that of Sister M Valerian were very much appreciated by the town’s people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, the priest and the Bishop.
Towards the end of 2006 Bernie returned to Kensington. In August 2011, her health failing, she joined the community at our aged care facility, St Joseph’s, where she was beautifully cared for until her death.
The above words speak of Bernie’s achievements and they were significant. But behind the achievements is a woman who cannot be captured in words. Bernie had a deep biblical spirituality: she was a very prayerful woman. She was wise and was a respected mentor to many, a gifted woman who put her gifts at the service of others with humility and magnanimity of heart. She was a woman of many interests – study of sacred scripture, particularly the writings of St John, languages, sport, politics, and particularly people. She maintained a keen interest in life both on the local and international scenes and was careful to keep informed until gradually the mist of Alzheimer’s disease overtook her brilliant mind. While in the prime of her life she wrote in a prayer: ‘Let me grow old wisely and graciously. Let me smile peacefully as change leads to change …’. Alzheimer’s disease was the fullness of her self-offering. She was a dignified lady who aged gracefully, a faithful and much loved Daughter of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.
We praise God for his many gifts to Sister M St Bernard. We thank God and the Dent family for their gift of her to our religious family. We honour you, Bernie, and thank you, and we give you back to God, grateful and privileged that you have been our Sister, our teacher and our friend. We rejoice that the mist of Alzheimer’s disease has given way to the vision of God. May your noble soul rest in peace.
Moya Hanlen FDNSC
Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Convent Chapel, Kensington
7 June 2016