Meet Sister Bernadine, Retirement Fund for Religious Chairperson

Sister Bernadine poses for a photo

For 30 years, Notre Dame Sister Bernadine Janci, a retired Catholic school educator and pastoral minister has spoken for the Retirement Fund for Religious Appeal collection to help support retired members of religious communities. 

“I’ve spoken at parishes in all six of the counties of the diocese,” joining other religious who go to diocesan parishes to give pulpit talks on behalf of the annual appeal, noted Sister Bernadine.

The annual appeal, launched in the late 1980s, calls on laity to contribute to the collection that helps bridge the gap between the needs of the aging and infirm sisters, brothers and religious order priests, and the declining number of religious sisters, brothers and priests engaged in paid ministry that help  support their respective communities.

The veteran sister, who is one of the honorary chairpeople for the Youngstown diocesan collection, said that she enjoys visiting parishes for the campaign—not only to let parishioners know of the need and ask for their help but also “to let them know how much we appreciate their donations in past years.”

Sister Bernadine jokes that since her retirement last June, she has gone from being one of the sisters who engaged in paid ministry, which helps support her community, to one who is retired and is benefiting from her fellow sisters who continue to help support their community through their paid ministry.

“I went from one part of the equation to the other,” Sister Bernadine quipped.

A Youngstown native, Sister Bernadine said she first encountered women religious when attending St. Matthias School on the city’s South Side, where the Vincentian Sisters taught.

After St. Matthias, she progressed to the then-new Cardinal Mooney High School, graduating in 1959. “We were the first class.”

She enjoyed Mooney, which was served at the time by four different communities of religious women—Notre Dame Sisters, Ursulines, Vincentians and the Dominicans—all of whom helped her see how positive religious life was.

The Notre Dame Sisters, however, held a particular attraction for her. “There was just something very special there that attracted me. They were very strong on the idea of the goodness of God—spreading the goodness. I guess that is how God was directing me.”

“They were also excellent teachers—very interested in the kids. I always felt that I could talk to them,” Sister Bernadine said.

So, after graduating from Mooney, she entered the Notre Dame Sisters, beginning her novitiate at the Notre Dame Sister’s convent on Ansil Road in Cleveland.

“Three years later I moved out to our then-new motherhouse in Chardon,” taking her first vows. During that time, she and her fellow aspirants began going to St. John’s College, operated by the Cleveland Diocese.

“We were going to college because most of the sisters were going to be teachers,” Sister Bernadine said. She began teaching in 1964 at St. Gregory the Great School, South Euclid. She also pursued a master’s in education at John Carroll University.

After teaching a year at St. Agnes School Arlington, Virginia, “I came back to Youngtown and taught at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Austintown” from 1968 to 1976. After that, she was assigned to teach at St. James School in Warren.

“Ever since then, I ministered in the Youngstown area” for the rest of her active ministry years.

Sister Bernadine emphasized that she enjoyed teaching.

“I loved working with the children and seeing their enthusiasm for learning,” Sister Bernadine said. “I also loved teaching them about the goodness of God and how He always loves them, no matter what.”

Then in 1979 her ministry shifted when she became the principal of two Warren Catholic grade schools—St. James and SS Cyril and Methodius School. That dual assignment lasted until 1979, when she became principal of SS. Cyril and Methodius alone, remaining there until 1983.

Sister Bernadine returned to St. James as principal in 1983, serving there until 1989. What followed was a series of assignments as principal at various Catholic grade schools—St. Aloysius (East Liverpool), St. Peter (Canton), and finally St. Joseph the Provider (Campbell).

Though being principal posed different challenges, Sister Bernadine explained, she enjoyed her service.

“I liked trying to help the teachers and the kids—trying to make it a special place for them, a place that they knew that they were loved as they went about their daily work.

“I knew that the teachers worked very hard. So, whatever I could do to support them and encourage the, I tried to do that—to help them realize that they were doing something very special.”

Then in 2007, Sister Bernadine took a new direction again—embracing pastoral ministry at St. Joseph Parish in Campbell—“visiting the sick at home, taking them Communion. I loved teaching. I loved being principal, but I knew it was time to move on.”

She stayed in pastoral ministry in Campbell, serving at all the Campbell parishes, which eventually merged into Christ the Good Shepherd Parish. Among the ministries that she engaged in were funeral ministry, counseling, music, assisting teachers and liturgical planning.

In her pastoral ministry in Campbell, “I really liked going to visit the people. Many of the people were Slovak … I would help them plan liturgies and do some music with them.”

“When Father Mike [Swierz, who she worked with in Campbell] became pastor at St. Patrick’s in Hubbard in 2015, he asked me to come there to do funeral ministry,” which involved “helping families to prepare—visiting them, showing the possibilities in the hymns and the readings.

“We tried to make the funerals specific for the person who died,” Sister Bernadine explained. In addition, her hope was “to help [families] know what they are doing so that they do not have to worry, but can focus on prayer.”

After the funeral, “if they wanted some follow-up, I would meet with them.” In addition, for All Souls Day, the parish would have “All-Souls Mass for anyone in the parish who had someone die in the past year.”

She retired for health reasons this year but continues to promote the appeal. “Now that I’m on the other side of the equation, I can see the need even more clearly.”

Looking back, Sister Bernadine said that she has found vocation as a sister most fulfilling. “I’ve always been happy being a sister. I was never homesick.”

As a Notre Dame Sister, she has found encouragement in a prayer that another sister gave her before she began her first assignment. The prayer asked God to shape her so that “my life would be a reflection of you. Let them look and see not me, but Jesus.”

“I still have the original card,” Sister Bernadine said. “I was drawn to that light from the beginning. I’m still trying to be that light for Jesus.”

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Pete Sheehan

Pete Sheehan

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