KOKOMO – For most of her life, Sister Mary Bernadette has awakened at the stroke of midnight, stood up from the straw mattress inside her cell, and walked barefoot to the small chapel inside the Monastery of the Poor Clares.
There, she gathers with the 10 other nuns at the monastery, on the far west side of Kokomo, just outside the city limits.
In the dead of night, the sisters offer up prayers for the sick, suffering and afflicted. They pray for the weak and the powerful. They pray for the famous and the forgotten.
But of all the nuns, Sister Bernadette has been the one praying the longest, the Kokomo Tribune reported.
On Sunday, she celebrated her 100th birthday, making her the oldest living and longest serving sister in the Order of Saint Clare – a contemplative order in the Catholic Church founded in the 13th century with monasteries spread across the U.S. and around the world.
Prayer is what Sister Bernadette does, and she’s been doing it in poverty and privacy since she was 18.
She first joined the order in 1932 as a postulant at the monastery in Chicago. She took her first official vows of poverty, obedience and chastity four years later, giving up her birth name, Mary Yarc.
Those vows destined Sister Bernadette to an austere, isolated life.
Poor Clares own nothing. They sleep in small rooms, known as cells, on straw mats that lie on wooden planks. They don’t wear shoes. They don’t eat meat. Their only clothing is the simple, brown habit.
Poor Clares wake up at 5 a.m. every day – after their midnight prayer session – to begin a strict regimen of prayer and work. They don’t leave the monastery except for medical appointments or other emergencies. When people visit, they stay behind a screen to avoid physical contact.
It’s an ascetic existence, but it’s one Sister Bernadette said she knew she wanted from an early age.
I always knew I wanted to be a nun, she said Sunday. My family was poor anyways, and I was already used to hard work growing up on the farm in Elkhart. I knew I wanted a life of prayer.
The Poor Clares seemed like the monastic order that best fit her calling, so she joined, even though her father strongly disapproved.
Thus began a life of solitude. But Sister Bernadette hasn’t been completely isolated from the world, like other Poor Clares.
Since traveling from Chicago to establish the Kokomo monastery in 1959 with six other nuns, Sister Bernadette has been what’s called the extern – the nun designated to greet visitors at the door, answer the phone and head out into the community now and then on errands.
That’s made her a lot of friends over the decades, and most of them showed up Sunday at the monastery to wish her a happy birthday.
Charlie Walker was one of the people there celebrating Sister Bernadette’s 100th birthday, which was a remarkable enough achievement to garner a special letter of congratulations from the office of Pope Francis.
Walker said he’s known Sister Bernadette since he was a kid, when his mom would bring him to the Poor Clares to help out with maintenance projects or other jobs.
It was Sister Bernadette to whom Walker went to ask for prayers when he and his wife learned their son had cerebral palsy and possible brain damage. The doctors said he’d never walk.
But after Sister Bernadette and the other nuns began praying for him, Walker said his son soon was able to get around with the help of a walker, and he’s sharp as a tack.
Elise Ring, who helped organize the birthday party, said she’s known Sister Bernadette most of her life. She grew up a few blocks from the monastery when it was first located on Sycamore Street.
Ring said Sister Bernadette has always been available to talk, listen and pray whenever she’s needed help.
When you see all the people coming today, you can just imagine how many lives have been touched by her, she said. To me, she’s like a mother or an aunt. She has a great sense of humor, and she’s still pretty feisty.
These days, Sister Bernadette said she doesn’t have to wake up at midnight anymore to go to the scheduled late-night prayer vigil, since her aches and pains keep her tossing and turning most of the time.
She’s also retired for the most part from her duties as the extern nun, letting other sisters answer the door and do errands.
But she’s still praying, and that’s what matters, said Bishop Emeritus William Higi, who previously served the Lafayette Diocese, which includes the Kokomo monastery.She’s a wonderful person and so full of joy, he said. It’s astounding how much joy she has, along with all the sisters here. She’s a woman who loves God and has given her life to God in a very special way, and we’re all grateful to her for having done that.
Charlie Walker said he’s more than just grateful to Sister Bernadette for her prayers – he’s inspired.
Over the years, I’ve learned that Sister Bernadette is the kind of person who lends an ear to you, but then gets right to the point, the 49-year-old Peru native said. You can talk to her about any subject, and she always knows what kind of medicine you need. She’s a spiritual doctor.
She’s 100 years old, still wearing her habit, still going strong, and I can still call her on the phone, and she listens to me and I listen to her, he said. There are a lot of definitions of inspiration, but I think Sister Bernadette is inspiration.