Sister Bernice Kuper (formerly Sister Ann Bernice)
“But she was greatly troubled by what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her: “Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God. …
Mary said: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Holy One.
May it be done unto me according to your word.”
Luke 1:29-30; 38
Sister Bernice would be surprised to hear this Scripture chosen as one which mirrors her openness to the Spirit of God, her trust in following the Word of God revealed to her in people, sacrament, scripture, reading, and her times of deep and contemplative prayer, said Sister Denise Wilkinson in her commentary for Sister Bernice Kuper who died Nov. 26, 2013 at age 91.
Bernice did indeed “ponder” the motions and words of Providence from whomever or wherever they came to her. Like Mary, she allowed the Word of God to root itself in her. Like Mary, she allowed herself to be shaped by that Word of God. She said “yes” to what Providence asked. “Be it done unto me according to your Word” was the pattern of her life.
Anna Bernice Kuper, born Aug. 22, 1922, was the second of three children born to William G. and Theresa Fritsch Kuper. Bernice’s brother Maurice preceded her in death.
As members of St. Joseph’s Parish in Jasper, the Kuper children: Dolores, Bernice and Maurie, attended St. Joseph School. When it came time for high school, Bernice came to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods to Providence Aspirancy.
She entered the Congregation in January 1940. She professed first vows in August 1942 and perpetual vows in August 1946.
Sister Bernice earned her bachelor’s degree at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College — her major was Latin — and her master’s in education from the University of Notre Dame.
She taught in Illinois at St. Mel and St. Angela in Chicago and at St. Francis Xavier in Wilmette. In Indiana she taught at St. Patrick in Terre Haute, Nativity in Indianapolis and Reitz Memorial High School in Evansville. She taught in Oregon at La Salle High School in Milwaukie.
Bernice was elected a provincial councilor of St. Gabriel’s Province. She served as pastoral associate at her beloved St. John Parish in Newburgh, Ind., for 13 years. She earned her credentials in spiritual direction and pastoral counseling.
Among her ministries is one that perhaps has had the most profound effect on the Sisters of Providence. In 1961 Bernice was appointed to be a “novitiate sister.” In 1962 she became director of postulants and in 1964 became director of novices – a position she held until August 1969.
I’m sure when she left the ministry of formation in 1969 she was certain she had done her stint, her share. But Providence, through then General Superior Nancy Nolan, had other plans.
In 1993, Sister Nancy visited Sister Bernice at St. John’s to ask her to return to formation ministry. According to Nancy, Bernice didn’t hesitate – simply said yes.
Nonetheless, leaving the parish was difficult for Bernice. She loved the ministry and the people. Evidently the love was reciprocal. Pastor Father Joe Ziliak wrote this in the parish bulletin to announce her leave taking: “I have relied on her presence…. I have relied on her wise judgment in a number of pastoral decisions. I have always had nothing but the highest regard for her presence, judgment and spiritual vision in our midst.”
The Congregation was glad and grateful. Sister Nancy wrote this to Bernice in her name and the name of the General Councilors: “Each of us is delighted with your response to our request to meet the particular need in the Formation Program at this time. Each of us also believes that your wisdom and experience will bring a new dimension to our program and have a positive influence on the persons in the program.”
Sister Bernice came back to the Woods to be on the formation team in August of that year. Her first day on the job however, the novice she was to direct absconded with the Congregation’s van, packed up her belongings and returned to her home. Did Sister Nancy Nolan let Sister Bernice off the hook? No – she appointed her as Vocation Director, a position Bernice held until 2011.
During her time of parish and formation ministries and until very recently, Bernice served as a spiritual director to many.
In the days since her death, I’ve heard these words used over and over to describe Sister Bernice: wise, centered, interested in everyone and accepting of everyone, perceptive – sometimes too perceptive, challenging when needed yet always affirming.
Sister Denise continued, from my experience of Bernice I recognized the truth of these comments:
• Bernice’s ability to be quiet and centered when I talked with her amazed me. She never judged; simply listened and asked questions until I had found my way.
• Bernice was always reading cutting edge theology and could “translate” it into in a way that made so much sense to me.
• She made the best coleslaw and potato salad in the world.
As a young sister, Bernice learned from her “home superior” Sister Rose Dolores a great respect for and awareness of the “sacrament of the present moment.” Bernice was in the moment, each moment. She also internalized that same sister mentor’s love of the Holy Spirit. The prayer on Bernice’s memorial card is a prayer taught to her by Sister Rose Dolores and prayed by Bernice every day.
When Bernice was our novice director, we numbered 150 women. One of Bernice’s mantras was “freedom with responsibility.” She assured us that we were free to make our own choices as long as we would be 100% responsible for those choices. I am sure many a woman – in or out of this congregation – can still see “Sister’s” steady blue eyes gazing at her as she tried to explain exactly why it was she chose to skip a class, go visit a college girl in her room or decide not to be faithful to her canonical hour for the last week.
We teased Bernice mercilessly for one of her favorite sayings: “The wise man in the valley sees more than the donkey on the hill.” Yet, like many of her homey sayings, I think of it often and realize the truth of it.
Sister Bernice had a sure-fire discernment/decision method that I still employ today. I thought I wanted to go home. I told Bernice. Again – that steady, calm gaze. After a time of silence, she told me to go about my canonical novice business for three days – living as if I were going to leave, as if I had made the decision. At the end of those three days, live three days as if I had made the decision to stay. I was to come back to see her on day seven to let her know what I was going to do, Sister Denise continued.
What I decided is obvious – but the confidence I had in the decision still feels very real in my memory.
In an article she wrote for our Sisters of Providence HOPE magazine, Bernice called her years as novice director “the most challenging and transformative” of all her years in ministry.
These last years of living with cancer were challenging and transformative as well. Bernice moved with characteristic calm discernment through a series of decisions – to move from the Corbe House community to the Lourdes Hall community; to continue radiation treatment when the cancer recurred; to cease treatments when it was shown that the radiation hadn’t been very effective against the cancer.
Her recent fall, the resultant broken pelvis, the encroaching cancer finally took its toll in the last two weeks. So, with equal parts rejoicing and grieving, we mark Bernice’s movement into freedom, into new and everlasting life, into the fullness of the presence of Providence, whose faithful witness she was.
Yesterday, I opened a note to Bernice from one of our sisters. To close, I’d like to quote a portion of that note: “Throughout my community life you have been a mentor and such a life force for good. I hope you know how much you are loved and appreciated by me and this community and by your loving God!”
Thank you, Bernice, for saying yes again and again, for being an instrument of God’s unfailing Providence again and again, Sister Denise concluded.
The Mass of Christian Burial for Sister Bernice Kuper was Nov. 30, 2013, in the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. She had lived 73 years as a Sister of Providence.
Please share your memories of Sister Bernice in the comments section below.
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