Sister Bernice Downey, MM

Born: March 7, 1922
Entered: September 2, 1956
Died: December 27, 2000

In March 2000, Sister Bernice Marie Downey returned to our Maryknoll Sisters Center for medical evaluation. Over these past few months Bernice’s condition deteriorated rapidly and she was admitted to the Maryknoll Sisters Residential Care facility, where she died on Wednesday, December 27, 2000. Bernice was seventy-eight years old and had been a Maryknoll Sister for forty-four years.

Bernice Marie Downey was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, on March 7, 1922, to John and Bertha Neubert Downey. She was the only daughter in their family of four children. Bernice attended Barnard Grammar School and Waterbury Catholic High School. After high school, she attended Post Junior College of Commerce from which she received a diploma in the Executive Secretarial field. After graduation, Bernice worked as a Record Interviewer for a manufacturing company until 1944 when she decided to study at Saint Francis School of Nursing in Hartford and from which she graduated in 1947 having obtained a Registered Nursing Certificate. She then received a scholarship to Saint Joseph’s College in 1950 where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree with a major in Child Psychology. In 1952 Bernice received another scholarship to attend Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Upon graduation in 1954, she received a Masters of Science degree in Public Health Nursing and Mental Health with a minor in Social Work. After graduation she worked at the “Institute of Living” as the Assistant Director of Nursing Education.

Since high school, Bernice had entertained the idea of becoming a religious. However, in talking with her Spiritual Director, he advised her to take advantage of the scholarships she was offered because that way she could better serve as a religious. Once her studies were completed, Bernice applied to Maryknoll in November 1955 and entered on September 2, 1956, at Maryknoll, New York. She made her First Vows at Maryknoll on June 24, 1959.

Soon afterwards, she was assigned to Central America, where she professed her Final Vows on June 24, 1965. Her first assignment was to the mountain mission in Jacaltenango, Guatemala where she worked with Sr. Rose Cordis, a Maryknoll physician, to attend to the medical needs of the mainly Mayan Indigenous population. Since there were no roads into Jacaltenango, after several hours by jeep from Huehuetenango, Bernice would be met at the end of the road by a guide with horses sent out by the Maryknoll Fathers for the four to five hour trip by horseback into the town. While Bernice not only had a background in public health nursing, she was also an accomplished equestrienne and made visits by horseback to the thirty or so small hamlets connected to Jacaltenango providing an immunization program for the children, establishing well-baby clinics and arranging for those needing hospital care to be brought to Jacaltenango.

In a letter she wrote to Mother Mary Coleman regarding her first overseas mission experience, she wrote “Jacaltenango is really all and more than you said it would be. The people are so generous and responsive, that you can’t help loving them.” While in Jacaltenango, she was also involved in the design and construction of the Jacaltenango hospital. It was in this parish hospital where Bernice assisted Sr. Rose Cordis in the successful re-attachment of the nearly totally severed foot of a little Mayan girl. The daring surgery was performed in a room without electricity by the light of a handheld kerosene lantern.

In 1966 Bernice was assigned to Bolivia to the jungle town of Riberalta where she served as Administrator and Supervisor for the medical staff at the Riberalta Hospital which was under the responsibility of the Maryknoll Sisters and the Vicariate of the Pando. In 1974 Bernice played a key role in transferring the responsibility for the hospital from the Vicariate to the Bolivian government. It was for her success in achieving quality nursing care and in adequately preparing a Bolivian staff to gradually take over the hospital that Saint Joseph College awarded Bernice the Distinguished Alumna Award in June 1977.

For the next few years Bernice continued to minister in Riberalta collaborating with the Director of Public Health and inaugurating a much needed program in Maternal Child Health. In February 1975 the Congregational Governing Board (CGB) asked Bernice to return to the United States to become the Administrator of Bethany, our Retirement/Nursing Residence. Bernice had not planned on returning to the States, but her response to the CGB’s request exemplifies her sense of love, loyalty and service toward her Maryknoll community. She wrote: “I appreciate the needs of the Community at this time and am ready to help, but wonder if there would be someone else who would be a little less involved who could fulfill this position at this time allowing me another year or so to at least fulfill what I see as our commitment here. However, I want you to know that if the CGB feels that I should come to the Center after considering the above, I shall be most willing to oblige as I feel the community has first priority on what I have to offer. I feel no hesitation in coming back to the Center to do my share as I have always found a warm and vital atmosphere there.” Bernice was instrumental in the move from Bethany to our new Residential Care Facility at the Center. Upon the completion of Bernice’s term as Bethany Administrator, Sister Barbara Hendricks, the President of the Congregation at that time, wrote: “Speaking for the whole community, I want to express our gratitude for your fine, dedicated contribution to the healing and caring ministry of our community during these past three years. We are grateful for your self gift.”

In 1979 Bernice returned to Bolivia, where she did community health nursing in the city of Cochabamba in the parish of Cristo Rey as well as working with the women in the Fotrama Cooperative. The women produced sweaters, scarves and other knit articles from the alpaca, a domesticated animal native to the Andes. In 1983 Bernice became the Administrator of Fotrama where she was involved in health education and the medical care for the members of the cooperative. In 1993 Bernice devoted all of her time to an AIDS ministry in Cochabamba.

In August 2000, while at the Center for medical care, Bernice received the Con El Award in recognition for all the assistance she had given the Con El Teams who journeyed to Cochabamba to work for the poor. In speaking with Sister Marilyn Belt, a long time friend of Bernice’s, Marilyn mentioned how Bernice had a deep relationship with God and that no person or thing ever came between her and her God. These words spoken yesterday were almost the same words used by Bernice’s superiors to recommend her when she requested to make her vows. Her superiors noted that Bernice exhibited a generosity that was beautiful to see and that she managed to fulfill her religious obligation and carry her classes without a word about “not having enough time”. They also noted that Bernice had mature judgement, well ordered sympathy and understanding, and discretion combined with admirable spiritual depth. They wrote that these qualities seemed to characterize her and were sure that for Bernice first things would always be first.

In today’s gospel there is a line that says: “…lend when there is nothing to expect in return.” Bernice’s years in Guatemala, Bolivia and Bethany are a testimony to these words and fully express Bernice’s life as a Maryknoll Sister. She was a woman who gave unconditional love and service to others. She served not only the people of Guatemala and Bolivia but also all in the Maryknoll family – Sisters, Lay Missioners, Fathers and Brothers – without asking anything in return. Although Bernice had a more than busy ministry schedule, she was always graciously willing to set up doctor appointments for Maryknollers and even take them to the appointment if necessary. She visited Maryknollers in the hospital and even made house calls to make sure that we were following doctor’s orders! She not only did this for Maryknollers but also for other religious as well as patients sent by Maryknoll Sisters from the rural area to the city for medical attention. Her life was one of complete service without counting the cost to herself. Thank you Bernice for this testimony of love and service.

In the name of the Maryknoll Sisters I offer our loving condolences to Bernice’s family and friends. We promise you our prayers at this time of sorrow and we are grateful to you for having shared Bernice with us these past forty-four years. We welcome our brother Maryknoller and long time friend of Bernice’s, Fr. Bill Coy, and thank him for being with us today to celebrate this Liturgy, as together, we praise and thank God for the gift of Bernice’s life.