Sister Marie Bernard Purcell, MM

Born: January 21, 1904
Entered: December 22, 1932
Died: December 13, 2001

Today our hearts are filled with gratitude to God for the gift of Sister Marie Bernard’s life and, in a very special way, for the fullness of life she now enjoys. On Thursday evening, December 13, 2001, surrounded by her Maryknoll Sisters and nursing staff, Sister died peacefully in our Residential Care Facility. Sister Marie Bernard would have celebrated her 98th birthday next month, and her sixty-ninth anniversary as a Maryknoll Sister this coming Saturday, December 22nd.

Mary Edith Bridget Purcell was born in Cornwall, Ontario, Canada, on January 21, 1904, to Patrick and Catherine McGillis Purcell. She had three brothers and one sister. She received her early education in Cornwall and after graduating from Cornwall Collegiate High School came to the United States to continue her studies at St. Mary’s Hospital School of Nursing in Brooklyn, New York. In 1926, after receiving certification as a Registered Nurse, specializing in industrial nursing, Mary Edith did private duty nursing and industrial nursing for the New York Telephone Co. in Brooklyn before entering Maryknoll on December 22, 1932. She wrote: “I came to Maryknoll because I was thoroughly convinced that I had a vocation. Missionary work attracted me more than anything else did.”

At Reception, Mary Edith received the religious name of Sister Marie Bernard. As a Senior Novice she, with Sister Lillian Erhard, cared for Bishop James Anthony Walsh around the clock in our former Bishop’s Suite at the Center when he was very ill, and later at the Seminary before his death. On June 30, 1935, Sister made her First Profession of Vows at Maryknoll, New York, and later that year was assigned to work in the Philippines where she made her Final Profession of Vows three years later in Baguio.

Upon her arrival in the Philippines, Sister Marie Bernard immediately began to use her nursing skills as she served on the nursing staff at St. Paul’s Hospital. This ministry was short-lived however. When World War II broke out she was among the forty-seven Maryknoll Sisters and over two thousand civilians placed in the Los Banos Internment Camp.

For Sister Marie Bernard, February 23, 1945, was perhaps the most significant day in her entire life. It was on that date – after three years and two months of internment – that she and other internees were liberated from the Camp by the 11th Airborne Division of the United States Army (known as “the Angels”) in a dramatic and historic rescue operation.

Later in 1945, Sister returned to the United States where, after recuperation from the rigors of the internment camp, she was to spend the next 22 years in mission education/promotion giving talks in schools, parishes, and to other organizations on the work of Maryknoll around the world. During this time, she not only interested a great number of people in the ministries of the Maryknoll Sisters but was also influential in encouraging others to volunteer their time to support the work of mission. The Sisters who worked with her during this time remember her as one of the most enterprising and enthusiastic Sisters in promotion work. Her love of people was obvious in her approach to them and her articulate manner kept her listeners attentive, thus winning many supporters for Maryknoll especially among pastors. After twenty-two years in Promotion, Sister Marie Bernard assumed responsibility for directing all the fund-raising activities of the Maryknoll Sisters from 1967 to 1971.

After a refresher course in nursing in 1971, Sister Marie Bernard returned to her beloved nursing profession and for three years did nursing administration work in New York City at Governeur Health Service, followed by volunteer work for the Community Council of Greater New York, in Queens. There she served as Ombudsman at Trump Nursing Home from 1981 to 1982. Following this, she returned to Canada for five years to help care for her family members. Upon her return to the Center, at the age of eighty-four, she decided it was time for her to retire. An active retirement it was, however, as she continued to remain interested and active in community. Due to her long life and excellent memory she was a willing and wonderful resource person for researchers in Archives. She was often asked about her personal experiences regarding being a woman, a religious and a nurse interned in the Philippines during WWII. She was very articulate and researchers found her easy to talk with and informative.

In 1997, when she was ninety three, failing health necessitated Sister’s admission to Residential Care. But, once again, she continued to do as much as her health permitted. She helped nurses in the Residential Care Facility, who came from other countries, to study for their nursing exams for certification in this country. One of those nurses was at Sister’s bedside when she died and her affection for Sister was so obvious.

Throughout the years, Sister Marie Bernard kept in close contact with the “Angels” – members of the 11th Airborne Division of the United States Army. On the 50th anniversary of their dramatic and historic rescue operation, she and Sister Mary McCormick, also a former inmate of Los Banos, coordinated a celebration here at Maryknoll to mark the occasion and to say “Thank You” to the paratroopers and their families. Recalling February 23, 1945, they said: “It was a truly miraculous event. There was not a single casualty among the internees or their rescuers. God was certainly with us!”

We extend our deepest sympathy to Sister’s sister and her niece who are unable to be with us today and to all her relatives and friends.

We welcome members of the 11th Airborne Division of the United States Army, part of the rescue operation that freed Sr. Marie Bernard and the many other internees, from the Los Banos Internment Camp and who continued to be “angels” to Sister Marie Bernard throughout the years. We also thank and welcome our Maryknoll brother, Fr. Gerald Nagle, who will preside at this Eucharistic Liturgy of Christian Burial as we lovingly, gratefully and prayerfully remember Sr. Marie Bernard.