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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There are many hearts heavy at the loss of this wonderful woman. And there are many memories that will be shared, I’m sure. One that is prominent for me is Sister Bernice’s constant theme of “Freedom with Responsibility” that was drilled into novices in the 60’s. That was a persistent lesson that has stuck in my brain for fifty years! Bless you, Sister Bernice. I know you are at One with Holy Mystery now.
What a wonderful woman of God she was. She was so joyful and inspiring. We worked together at St John The Baptist Church in Newburgh IN and I recall the days at the office with such great memories. Her smile, dedication to her work and love of everyone was contagious. I have thought of her so many times over the years. I am grateful and blessed for knowing her. Rest now my sweet friend.
I had the pleasure of knowing Sister Bernice during my brief time as a nurse with Providence Health Care. She was a blessing to all who knew and loved her. May she find rest in the arms of her Lord.
Sr. Bernice was an inspiration through her significant contributions related to the varied, visible, and valuable positions she held. In particular, through critical listening, dedicated purpose, focused attentiveness, remarkable insight, collaborative works, and unwavering commitment, she was an esteemed and crucial member of the formation team. And her ability to adjust to unanticipated and difficult circumstances reflected a person of faith, trust, and strength. I will miss my visits with her.
Just ten months ago, I sent the following note to Bernice. She truly was a gift to so many of us.
“Dear Bernice, February 14, 2013
I have kept the copy of “HOPE” on the table in front of me for almost two weeks now waiting for the moment when I could sit down and share my thoughts after reading the terrific article you wrote.
First of all, I loved the photos! And while so much has changed in those many years, you still have that wonderful “presence” that shows in your sparkling eyes. You have always had that uncanny ability to look through, to probe the depths of situations or people.
I remember when you arrived at Owens Hall. My group was small, only nine of us and the groups in front and behind us were so large….AND so different from each other. And there you were, plopped smack dab in the middle of the beginning realities of John XXIII. He proclaimed the windows to be open and you were, in a way, put in a position where you helped many open the window of their lives. For some, early on, the window was an exit. For others, it simply brought a wonderful breath of fresh air that invigorated and strengthened the resolve to serve others as a Sister of Providence.
You joined the SPs two years before I was born and lived, as you noted, in a time when convent life was very “monastic.” The fact that you chose to be a “learner” just as you were a mentor and teacher seems, in my mind, to have made all the difference. You could have chosen to remain steadfast in the past, in the rituals that were so enticing. And yet, you chose to be a “learner.” I admire that greatly. To me, it means you chose to be open and vulnerable…..and, I am sure it had some dire implications in your relationship with many of your “sisters.” You trusted! You trusted in the roots of the Woods. You trusted in Providence! And that trust has clearly served you well….but, I imagine, not without a price at times.
I recall meeting you, all 19 years of me, across from Marie Ambrose’s office. You were, to me, an enigma of sorts. I didn’t know what you were thinking and I could not figure out what “expectations” you had of me and my colleagues. All I knew was that going into your office meant an encounter with someone who truly was “present for you.” That was amazing to me…and, at first, quite uncomfortable.
You had a lot patience interacting with others and could go with silence like no one I had met…then or since. I have come to realize, after many years, that you were introducing many of us to a “lived spirituality” full of vitality. Ah, that was so refreshing, especially for someone who felt full of vitality and yet wondered where it fit in this new life.
I am so glad our paths crossed those many years ago. My path as an SP took me to wonderful worlds of teaching, working in Cook County Jail and with the Latin King Street gang. Those years were the foundation of so much that followed. I have been truly blessed by Providence and I thank you for your part in contributing your presence and your wisdom at a time that called for courageous leaders ….
Again, loved the article! It gave me the impetus to sit down and write to you.
My best to you as your life journey continues.
Marge (Marge Tye Zuba / Josita)