Sister Bernice Kuper
Editor’s note: Sister Bernice died Nov. 26, 2013, at age 91.
Sister Bernice Kuper has been a first-hand witness to many dramatic changes that have impacted vocation, formation and spiritual life for herself, scores of individuals and the Catholic Church. Most of Sister Bernice’s ministerial life has been devoted to assisting others who have questions about spirituality or about devoting their life to God by living in a religious congregation.
The first change came after she had spent more than 15 years, “as every Sister of Providence did,” in elementary education she said.
It was a surprise. But fulfilling the request from her general superior at the time was a challenge that she accepted gracefully.
“Those were the days when we were given assignments. The general superior called me into her office one day and said that my next assignment would be here in this building (Owens Hall) in the novitiate. I spent the first year as an assistant to the director of novices. At the end of that year, I was assigned to be the director of postulants. It gave me an entirely different responsibility because I was working with the women who were coming into the Congregation for the first time,” Sister Bernice said.
That was in the early 1960s. Those familiar with Catholic Church history know that the Second Vatican Council initiated what many would say was radical change.
“I had some misgivings because I had questions about some of the things that we were doing, the rules and regulations, and the strictness of the Congregation. I had questions about how I would pass that on to another generation of women.” Sister Bernice said.
“For those of us who lived in those times, it was a radical switch from the way we had been living. Our Congregation was very structured and we had a regular schedule that we followed. Up until that time, the novices were doing very much the same thing that the Congregation was doing,” she remembered.
“With Vatican II, so many changes happened for Catholics that they really didn’t know where they were coming from. For women religious, all of a sudden we weren’t wearing the habit. We weren’t doing the things we had always done,” she said.
One of the mandates from the Second Vatican Council was that within two years of the council’s closure, every religious congregation worldwide would examine every aspect of its life.
“The consensus, which was true, was that religious life was out of touch with reality. We were no longer keeping up with the times,” Sister Bernice said. “We had a special chapter meeting to begin the whole process of looking at what we did, how we did it, and why we did it.”
As the Catholic Church was going through a stringent self-examination, so was society’s culture, especially in the United States, where a generation of young people was protesting the Vietnam War, questioning authorities, and searching for a new way to live with more freedom.
“Women who were in formation at the time were women of the 1960s. They were women who were on college campuses who were wanting to change things. The women in the novitiate were no different. They wanted to know why we couldn’t do it all right now. Of course, having lived all these years in a whole different lifestyle, many people in the membership didn’t
really understand what was happening and why some of these changes were being made,” she remembered.
Sister Bernice another change in 1969. She went on a sabbatical, served as a guidance counselor, and then served on the Congregation’s leadership team as a provincial counselor. She went to St. John Parish in Newburgh, Ind., in 1980 as a pastoral associate, a position she enjoyed for 13 years before change came again.
Once again, the general superior came calling. The novice director had resigned and no one was prepared to take over. A one-year commitment was all that was requested. Well, that was in 1993 and she is still ministering to women in formation.
Now Sister Bernice serves as vocation minister for the Congregation. She often is the first contact for women seeking information about religious life, or the Sisters of Providence in particular. Understandably, in four decades women have changed, and so have their questions and their needs and desires.
“Women who are applying today are older. The ones whom I respond to are in their late 20s and their 30s. There is a movement in the Church today that is kind of wanting to go back to what was. There is a large group of women searching for communities that wear the habit. I don’t know quite why that is. It’s probably coming out of the culture where they have not known the stability or structure that other generations would have known. Maybe they want some of that,” Sister Bernice said.
“Also, today’s women don’t necessarily come to a community they’ve known as did the ones in the 1960s. Many of our sisters came from schools where our sisters had taught for many years. We don’t have those schools any more, so women today are shopping around, and they are shopping the web sites. They may come for a ‘Come and See’ weekend, but they may do the same for five or six other communities,” she added.
Sister Bernice enjoys working with women who are searching for answers.
“I have the experience. I think I can ask the right questions to help them unravel their own thinking, and also help them understand when they are choosing religious life for the wrong reasons. Whether they come or they don’t, it’s very heartening to know that there are women out there who are willing to serve the church,” she said.
Sister Bernice remains joy-filled with her life as a Sister of Providence, and her service to God, the Congregation and the Church. She has worked to embrace and understand change as it has happened and continues to happen.
“I can only thank God for drawing me to this way of life and for allowing me to have the opportunities I have had. It has been very fulfilling. Ours is a vocation to a particular lifestyle. Every woman is called to serve God in the way she chooses,” Sister Bernice said. “What the future holds for women religious remains to be seen. I think there will always be women who choose the vowed life. At least there are women out there who are asking the question.”
And for those who have questions, Sister Bernice works diligently to help them find answers.
“The call is a special one. It comes from God. You don’t give it to people. I think there is a lot to be said for the witness value of people working side by side with us and seeing what our lives stand for. That would be the best vocation literature there is,” she said.
Favoritesrecreation: relaxing with friends
time of the day: morning
Saint: Mother Theodore Guerin
comic strip: Peanuts
least favorite food: liver
least favorite course in school: geometry
dessert: banana cream pie
flower: African violet
movie: March of the Penguins
music style: classical and meditative
hobby: spinning and knitting and Sudoku puzzles
vacation spot: near water
outdoor activity: walking
pizza topping: sausage and cheese
childhood activity was: Playing hopscotch and jump rope with friends after school.