Sister M. Bernardine Heaney, MM

Born: August 27, 1900
Entered: September 24, 1922
Died: September 4, 1999

Today, as we gather to worship and celebrate, our hearts are filled with gratitude to God for the gift of Sister Mary Bernardine Heaney’s life and for the fullness of life that she now enjoys. On the evening of September 4, 1999 just eight days after joyfully celebrating her 99th birthday, Sister Mary Bernardine died peacefully in Residential Care, Assisted Living at Maryknoll, New York. She had the honor of being the eldest of our Maryknoll Community and dearly wished to be the first Maryknoll Sister to reach 100. Her desire was fulfilled for, as she told her cousin on her birthday, she would be in her one hundredth year the following day! At one of the many parties held in her honor on her birthday she also expressed her gratitude to all saying: “God and everyone at Maryknoll have been so good to me. Every day at Maryknoll has been happy.” Just 16 days from today, on September 24th, Sister Bernardine would have celebrated 77 years as a Maryknoll Sister, fifty of which were spent in teaching.

Ellen Josephine Heaney was born August 27, 1900 one of nine children – six girls and three boys — to Hugh and Elizabeth McGinnis Heaney, In the late 1800’s, her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland and settled in Brooklyn, New York where Ellen and all her sisters and brothers were born and raised. Ellen received her early education at St. John the Evangelist School in Brooklyn, New York and attended St. Joseph’s Commercial School, also in Brooklyn. She then worked as secretary for the General Manager of the Shubert Theatrical Company in New York City for three years before entering Maryknoll on September 24, 1922. At Reception, Ellen received the religious name of Sister Mary Bernardine. She made her First Profession April 30, 1925 and her Final Profession on the same date in 1928. Both ceremonies were at Maryknoll, New York.

Just three years ago, at the age of 96, Sister Mary Bernardine described what her life was like working for the famous theater company that produced Broadway plays and musicals and how she and her sisters, Sisters Dolorita and Laurentia became interested in Maryknoll and the missions:

“Before entering Maryknoll, Sr. Dolorita and I both worked for the Shubert Theatrical Company. I was the secretary of the General Manager, Ralf Lang. We had excellent salaries, plus free tickets to all Shubert Theaters. Our successful future was assured.

In 1922, a girl in the office at the Shubert Company asked me and my sister Marguerite (Sister Dolorita) to go with her to a Mission at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Brooklyn. Father Sercu, the Redemptorist priest conducting the mission, asked Marguerite if she was keeping steady company. She said “no” and he asked if she might be interested in entering the religious life. When Marguerite responded that she was considering becoming a missioner, Father immediately told her about Maryknoll. A week later we went to see him to ask him to get us applications. Father helped us prepare our applications and Marguerite and I entered Maryknoll that same year. Our sister, Alice (Sister Laurentia) who was a year younger than Marguerite, also desired to enter but our mother preferred that she wait and see first how her two sisters fared. When Sister Dolorita was assigned to China in 1928, Alice (Sister Laurentia) entered Maryknoll.

When I left the Shubert Theatrical Company to enter the Maryknoll Sisters, I was plied with the question “Why”. Now after my many years as a Sister I can easily answer that question. I entered to fulfill my destiny, my place in life, and in so doing I found peace, happiness, and a joyous fulfillment in love of God and of others.”

In describing the contrast between her life before and after entering Maryknoll, Sr. Mary Bernardine gives us a glimpse of daily life at Maryknoll in the early years. She wrote:

“The New York newspapers carried such headlines as “They leave lure of Broadway to enter convent” – “Shubert girls enter convent” and there were glamorous parties and farewells. Maryknoll in those days was rugged. Our rooms were plain, furniture was scarce; in fact, we carried chairs from one room to another; a water shortage found us carrying pails and buckets to a well to draw water for our needs. These early days were filled with sacrifice and laughter. Now, with the deluge of articles being written about religious life and the desire for freedom, I look back over my years and I can truly say they were free and untrammelled. The rules, regulations and deprivations were accepted because I wanted to enter into this life completely. I was dedicated and with dedication comes responsibility.”

In 1928, Sister was assigned to Hawaii which was to be her “home” for the next thirty-seven years. She taught grade school children, first in Punahou, then in Waikiki and Wailuku. During the summer school holidays she took extension courses from Catholic University, and later obtained a Bachelor of Education Degree from Maryknoll Teachers College. From 1943 to 1946 she served as Assistant Superior at Waikiki.

Looking back on her thirty-seven years in Hawaii, Sister Bernardine reflected:

“My years of teaching in Hawaii, then a rather undeveloped land, were filled with experiences that would thrill the heart of the most venturesome. I found tremendous happiness in teaching the mixture of races. The simplicity and cooperation of the children aided considerably in the art of learning. The parents, too, were hardworking and industrious people. All the children were anxious to learn. Each year when school began I would write the word THINK in big letters on the blackboard, and underline it twice. I would explain to the children that the purpose of being in school was to think. Several of my students wrote back and told me that they were grateful to me because it helped them in high school and later in adult life.”

In 1965, Sister left her beloved Hawaii and came to the Center. She worked in the Sponsor Department for one year, then went to Los Angeles to continue her teaching ministry. After one year, however, she was asked to return to the Center to work in the Motherhouse Superior’s Office. Three years later she returned to Los Angeles and for the next twelve years taught English as a second language to Japanese children and adults in the Maryknoll School in Los Angeles. During this same period she conducted Confraternity of Christian Doctrine courses in the parish.

In 1982, at the age of 82, Sister Bernardine became a member of the Monrovia Community where she spent the next sixteen years. As an educator, Sister was dedicated to life-long learning and that included her own. At the age of 83 while on Renewal she took two Mission Institute Programs – one was on Basic Ecclesial Communities and the other was on Universal Peace.

Sister remained alert and interested in Community until her death. While she herself lived a very simple life and had few needs, she was generous with both her time and gifts. At the age of 95, Sister Bernardine wrote to Sr. Andree Normandin, Coordinator at Monrovia: “Many times I’d like to be able to respond to the volunteer lists, but do not feel equal to adding my name. I do get very tired as I try to do my best. I do appreciate being here in Monrovia.” In February of this year, during the renovations of the dining room in Assisted Living, I received the following letter from her which I would like to share with you: Sister wrote: “As you know, I never go out… so when my allowance comes I use it for gifts. At present I have more than I want in my room so I am enclosing $50 for you to use in the work being done to renovate the dining room. I have always done this throughout my years”. Indeed, many years ago Sister Bernard me had gotten together with two other Sisters and over the years they saved $1000 from their Personal Allowance which they gave as a gift toward the building of our nursing home.

When Sister celebrated 70 years as a Maryknoll Sister, she was given a beautiful tribute in an article in the Monrovia Newspaper, the Star-Tribune, and upon her 75th Jubilee received a Certificate of Recognition from the California State Assembly. Last year, failing health necessitated her return to the Center at the age of 98.

While we shall miss Sister’s presence in our midst, we rejoice that she is now reunited with her family, relatives and friends. We welcome and extend our sincere sympathy to Sister’s family and friends. We also welcome our Maryknoll brother, Father John Halbert, who will preside at this Eucharistic Liturgy of Christian Burial as together we praise and thank God for the life of Sister Mary Bernardine.