By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
DILLON – After years of laying careful groundwork, Sister Bernadine Jax, Order of St. Francis, is taking a break.
The Diocese of Charleston’s first-ever pastoral administrator has gone on sabbatical leaving behind a stronger laity in her wake. She will spend the next year on educational pursuits and spiritual retreats in New York and Minnesota, and living in community of her motherhouse, Assisi Heights, in Rochester, Minn.
Like her order’s patron saint, this Franciscan is a trailblazer. Sister Bernadine was selected as the first pastoral administrator to the diocese and was the first woman to serve on the Priests’ Personnel Board. She was also the diocesan coordinator of pastoral administrators.
She came to the diocese in 1971; over that 28-year span she has worked with impoverished people, in religious education, contributed on the Synod of Charleston, and on overseeing the baptismal life of parishes around the state. Over the last three years, she has helped St. Louis Church in Dillon and Church of the Infant Jesus Mission in Marion strengthen their parishes from within by involving the laity. People are her main focus.
“I will miss the people most of all,” she said. When asked what she focuses on in her ministry she answered: “I work to empower people.”
And indeed she does
“Her spirit is contagious,” said Lauren DeNitto, director of music at Church of the Infant Jesus. Inspired by Sister Bernadine, DeNitto and her husband, Don, are becoming Franciscan associates and attend the Institute for Parish Leadership Development. He is also a candidate in the diaconate program.
The DeNittos have been parishioners for 20 years. They met Sister Bernadine in Florence eight years ago when she gave a talk about music ministry in rural churches.
“I was impressed,” she said. “She presented herself and her personal holiness with an enthusiasm for the faith. I could see she was a leader and pioneer, especially in the ecumenical movement and Church in general. She is always up front and creating a role. I didn’t know a lot about religious sisters back then. I thought they were nurses and teachers, and I saw her do something very different and was impressed by it.”
DeNitto also complimented her friend’s musical abilities saying Sister Bernadine is a fabulous vocalist, organ, piano and guitar player.
“She does not talk about herself and does not promote herself,” she asserted. “She is always looking at the individual, helping them grow, empowering them, learning what their gifts are. She is confident in the ministries and is there supporting, teaching and being very patient and waiting.
The musicians at Church of the Infant Jesus gave a special concert for the sister before she left. DeNitto said the performance had a lasting effect.
“Sister Bernadine deeply lives out the Franciscan charism,” she explained. “You don’t realize what kind of spirituality someone is giving to you until they are leaving. This was our way of saying goodbye and it was a spiritual revival. Twenty-five musicians came together from the two churches for the first time out of love for Sister Bernadine and thanksgiving to Jesus Christ. Everybody is still talking about it.”
By reaching out ecumenically to congregations who had their churches burned, forming liturgy committees and encouraging the Hispanic ministry and Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, Sister Bernadine prepared the two churches for her absence.
“She left us in a really good position,” DeNitto said.
St. Louis has 75 families and Church of the Infant Jesus has 85. Father Scott Buchanan, sacramental priest to the two churches, describes Sister Bernadine as the glue that held them together.
“She helped them through some very tough times,” he said. “They did a lot of building, erected a parish hall, and had no regular priest. It was very difficult for everybody and that can divide a parish. She managed to pull it off and keep them united. She was the center of unity and would bring things together.”
A distinguishing characteristic of the Franciscan is her involvement.
“She seemed to know everything and know everybody and she could always give me the rundown whether it was Catholics or non-Catholics in Dillon,” he described.
“She has a very positive effect in small towns like that. She pointed out to people that we, Catholics, do exist. A lot of people when they first meet her wouldn’t necessarily know she was a nun. That was helpful because they didn’t have any pre-existing bias. People (of other faiths) would come and visit the church.”
While Sister Bernadine is the first to admit she is actively working to encourage self-sufficiency and unity, Father Buchanan said those traits will have far-reaching effects.
“It will make it easier for whomever follows her whether it’s a priest or pastoral administrator or both,” he said. “But Sister Bernadine’s experience in the diocese is a loss. We’d love to see her come back.”
After her year of sabbatical is up, Sister Bernadine said she has left her options for the future open. She has not taken a break of this measure in her over-a-quarter-century mission and while many will miss her, she has left them in good hands their own.