Sunday, 3 June 2012

Sister Marie-Bernard of Jesus, O.SS.R. of the Monastery of Louvain (1872 – 1899)

Dear Sister Marie-Bernard of Jesus, in the world Miss Odile-Marie-Alphonsine Séren, was born of devout and honourable parents in Profondeville, a charming little village of Between-Sambre-and-Meuse, not far from the city of Namur, on 9th May 1872. She lost her mother at the age of four. Her worthy father confided her with her younger sister and her two brothers to the devoted care of her aunts and an old and faithful domestic servant. When his little Odile made her First Communion, he sent her to board with the Sisters of Saint Mary in Namur, where she spent several years. Once her education had finished, she went back to the paternal home, good and serious no doubt but not extraordinarily pious. Her clothes and worldly entertainment gave her some pleasure, but for fear of having a religious vocation she avoided paying a visit to her former Mistresses. This was however what God had reserved for her in His infinite mercy and to attain His goal. He made use of an apparently petty incident. As lady and mistress of the house, since she was the family's eldest daughter and because her father had abandoned the care of the house to her, Miss Odile could act as she wished and dispose of everything as she saw fit. But in December 1893 it was her whim to celebrate the feast of Christmas as joyously as possible, which she justly regarded as the greatest solemnity of the year. Consequently, she undertook the organization of a magnificent dinner that she wanted to offer her relatives and acquaintances. Once the great preparations were finished, she sent her invitations to everyone expecting a great success. A terrible disappointment awaited her. Influenza, an illness that was everywhere at this time, all of a sudden ravaged the district of Namur and mainly affected Miss Odile’s guests, evidently by the providential permission of God Almighty, who holds the elements and events at the service of His intentions. Jealous of this soul, whose whole and absolute possession He coveted, He decreed that this misfortune that He had brought about so opportunely, would be the generating principle of the choice of life that He wanted her to make. Since they were all more or less confined to bed due to this epidemic, her relatives and friends were forced to send apologies and decline the invitation. Great was the young lady’s disappointment at seeing her beautiful project suddenly founder, and she started thinking about the fragility of the pleasures here below, was disgusted by the world and resolved to leave it forever. The Lord, who was watching over her, immediately sent her help for her weakness and her inexperience in the ways of the Spirit, by sending two good and valiant Religious Redemptorists to Profondeville to give a mission there in the month of January 1894.

The eloquent sermons of the missionaries achieved what grace had begun in this soul and finally determined her to embrace the religious state. She opened herself up to the Reverend Father * * *, who, after having put her somewhat to the test, encouraged and approved her resolution. It only remained for her to know what Order she had to enter… she turned with confidence to glorious Saint Joseph whom she greatly loved and who soon saved her from distress, because on 19th March, his feast-day, he revealed to her internally that God wanted her in the Order of the Most Holy Redeemer. Once she heard the divine call and had it confirmed by a wise director, the dear child hesitated no more, but went to her father to inform him of her desires and ask him for his consent, which, we may say, to the praise of this respectable and truly Christian man, was granted to her very easily. Full of gratitude towards Heaven, she made it her duty to present herself to the Redemptoristines of Louvain, who made her very welcome, accepted her with joy, and fixed her entry for the following 31st May, the feast of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. When this beautiful day arose, the excited young lady, tearing herself from the arms of her father, her sister and her beloved brother, generously sacrificed all expectations of this world. She bade an eternal farewell to the world which had charmed her for an instant and entered the enclosure of our monastery with a firm step, under the very eyes of her tearful relatives, to enrol herself under the banner of Jesus our Saviour. Feeling herself in her true home, from the very first hour she tasted how kind the Lord is to those who abandon everything for love of Him. Sister Marie-Bernard was one of these great and noble souls who, once in God, never withdraw and never look back. And so she sighed ardently for the blessed day when she could bind herself forever to the service of the King of kings, by taking the holy vows of Poverty, Chastity, Obedience and Perpetual Enclosure. She prepared herself with great devotion, by applying herself to becoming an exemplary Novice, irreproachable in all regards. Once the time of probation had passed, she had the signal grace of seeing her wishes fulfilled. On 11th June 1896, the minister of the Lord united her irrevocably to the Spouse of Virgins, after she had sworn fidelity to Him by holy Profession. This date, blessed before all others for our dear Sister, was never erased from her memory, because no one could ever say how much she loved to think and to speak of it. In the words of her first confessor in religion, Sister Marie-Bernard was indeed born to be a Redemptoristine and daughter of Saint Alphonsus, whom she cherished as her father and founder. She applied herself especially to resembling him by her tender and filial devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Born in the month of May and consecrated to the Madonna, she took pleasure in glorying in it and talking about it to her Sisters. She prepared herself for it by fervent novenas for each one of her feasts and readily seized every opportunity to prove her love for the Queen of Heaven. It was at her request that she was given the beautiful name of Marie-Bernard of Jesus upon taking the habit, because it had already been made illustrious by little Bernadette, the visionary of Lourdes, the privileged child of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, but especially because it was the name of one of the greatest servants of the august Mother of God, the glorious Saint Bernard.

Before entering in religion, our dear Sister had wanted to visit one of Mary's most famous sanctuaries, the grotto of Lourdes. She had brought back the most wonderful impressions of it, and she was never happy until Our Lady of Lourdes was made the subject of conversations at recreation during her Novitiate. It was a happy coincidence, as all the Novices had seen like her, the visit of predilection and the little valley sanctified by apparitions of the Virgin without stain. Thanks no doubt to the protection of her heavenly Mother, who loves those who love her according to the words that the Holy Church puts on their lips, Sister Marie-Bernard was honoured to wear the name and habit of the Redemptoristines while progressing each day in the practice of the virtues. She distinguished herself especially by a simple and solid piety, by her exactitude, her regularity, her modesty and her humility. Calm and peaceable, she appeared not to notice what could try her patience as she focussed on the holy relationship she maintained with Jesus present in her heart; because she was an interior and singularly recollected soul, who scrupulously observed all the little pious customs proper to our holy Order.

The liturgical ceremonies and the sacred chants delighted her although she was not naturally enthusiastic. The Divine Office was all her delight and prayer her consolation. A particularly believing soul, a soul of duty, she fulfilled all her obligations conscientiously. No matter what the difficulties, she never consented, at any cost, to the omission of the least observance, unless her Superiors commanded her otherwise. A lover of holy poverty, she edified her Sisters by her detachment from the things of this world, diverting her eyes from the ephemeral goods of the earth to place all her affections in the Lord who alone was sufficient for her. While still a Novice, she disencumbered herself of anything which she could rigorously do without, placing no importance on the small objects which young religious sometimes hold dear. Always content with whatever she was given, she never allowed herself to complain. At most, some devout pictures excited her desire, especially those representing the Blessed Virgin and the holy Child Jesus, whom she loved with a childlike love. Being one day at the table of her Mother Mistress who was copying the chapter of a book called: “Poor Jesus and poor I” the dear Sister repeated these words with an unspeakable satisfaction, adding: “Yes, indeed I can say that in all truth.”

They thought she had a presentiment of a premature death, because nothing could ever captivate her soul during her religious life. Her precocious wisdom made her long for the imperishable goods of the other life that she made every effort to acquire by multiplying her acts of virtues and mortification. She singularly loved the hidden life, estimating herself happy to be able to practice it and imitate the Saint Family, especially the divine Workman of Nazareth. This is why she had great devotion to Saint Joseph, the patron of contemplative souls. A faithful observer of silence, she spoke only from necessity and always in a low and soft voice. Extremely serious and reserved, she had a religious bearing, always trying to efface herself and to avoid people’s eyes. Thus her Novitiate passed in the sustained exercise of the monastic virtues. In community our dear Sister never declined from her first fervour, and her good dispositions always remained.

In August 1897, she was named Assistant Housekeeper and she acquitted herself of her new functions to general satisfaction. She made herself liked by the Converse Sisters through her goodness, meekness, affability, and readiness to help them when she/it had the leisure. She did so with calmness, without delay and without undue haste. She was so charitable and devoted that she sacrificed her recreations and even her rest to oblige the Community that she sincerely loved. She would pleasantly say at mealtimes, “I am going to accomplish the precept of the divine Master, by giving food to those who are hungry and drink to those who are thirsty.” Being obliged, because of her employment, to dine at the second table, if it happened that the kitchen was short of meat, or something else, our good Sister deprived herself spontaneously of her portion and if she had been served, she passed her plate on to one of her Sisters. Many times she was seen coming in from the garden soaked through, when torrential rain had surprised her while she was gathering fruit or vegetables.

Nonetheless, she did not complain: her zeal and her courage made her quite compliant and helpful when it was a matter of the interests of her dear Sisters, whom she helped with good grace as frequently as she could. So we may say that she spent herself generously in the service of the Monastery. And in the evening, after a rough day, when she could have a moment of recreation, she happily profited from this by asking after her Sisters and exchanging a pleasant word with them. Although she had a character that was melancholy rather than jovial, like all children who never knew a Mother's caresses, she knew how to laugh and have fun with her Sisters, if need be play little tricks on them and lend herself amiably to their innocent jokes. The next day she would get back with renewed ardour to her laborious work. But soon, alas, her strength betrayed her and she was no longer in any state to fulfil the requirements of her tasks.

Suffering from a stubborn and troubling cough, she declined from day to day. Her complexion, her features, her gait, all in her seemed to display the secret devastations of the pitiless illness that was to carry her away. Yet the dear Sister suspected nothing, and so as not to frighten her too much by condemning her to idleness, the Reverend Mother entrusted the refectory to her, and it was there that she exhausted the rest of her powers. She kept going as long as she could remain standing. Endowed with much moral energy, she wished, in spite of her extreme weakness, to still attend all the conventual exercises, and force herself until the end to do penance in the refectory according to the Rule.

Seeing that our dear Sister was sinking rapidly, the Reverend Mother managed, under some good pretext, to confine her to the infirmary. First of all she refused to accept the gravity of her state. She often had beautiful dreams for the following year. But her illness worsened from day to day and she finally understood that she had consumption and death was rapidly approaching. They made use of this to suggest Extreme-Unction to her, which she accepted with joy. She received this Sacrament and the Holy Eucharist with all the fervour of her soul, after asking pardon for all her faults from the Community, with a calmness and a humility that edified us. From this moment on, far from still wanting to be cured, our dear patient called for death with all her heart so as to go and enjoy her Jesus. She spoke only now of heaven and asked for someone to sing her some canticles. As it was the month of March, she began some prayers in honour of Saint Joseph, so as to obtain from him the grace of dying on the day of his feast. The good Saint seemed first to grant it, because in the evening of 19th March there was a crisis of a more alarming character than the others. The Community was convened to recite the prayers of the agonising. The Reverend Mother sent for the Rev. Father de Kerchove, our confessor, who arrived in all haste. After addressing a few pious words to her, he leaned over her bed and said to her: “Do you not know, Sister Marie-Bernard, that I would like to be in your place!” “I will not change places with you,” she answered, as she still had all her presence of mind, “as I have worked far too hard to get here.” This reflection made the whole Community laugh. “So you will pray a lot for us up there, especially for your Sisters,” continued the Rev. Father Confessor. “My Sisters? I love them! They are Angels of charity,” she said with a very expressive gesture. Her dry lips betrayed the thirst that tortured them, so they offered her something to drink. “No, no,” she said, “Jesus on the Cross also endured thirst,” and then she murmured softly: “Good Jesus, come and find your poor child.” Feeling life returning, she told us sadly: “I have missed this train and I will have to wait for the next one.” The Reverend Mother then advised her to abandon herself to the divine good pleasure, which she immediately did. Wednesday 22nd March 1899, on the feast of Our Lady of Foggia, who is particularly honoured in our Community, she fell asleep peacefully in the Lord at about 7 o’clock in the morning, after a short agony, in the midst of the prayers and tears of her Sisters whom she had edified during the five years she spent in the midst of them. The funeral of our good Sister Marie-Bernard took place on 25th March, on the feast of Mary's Annunciation, who herself wished to close the casket of her much-beloved child, just as she had opened her cradle on 9th May 1872 on the feast of the Ascension of Our Lord.

This necrology is translated from Fleurs de l'Institut des Rédemptoristines by Mr John R. Bradbury. The copyright of this translation is the property of the Redemptoristine Nuns of Maitland, Australia. The integral version of the translated book will be posted here as the necrologies appear.

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