A love of vocations led to a friendship with Pope Francis

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When he was 14-years-old, Father Robert C. Cilinski left his family in Alexandria to attend St. John Vianney Seminary, a boarding school near Richmond for boys considering the priesthood. The one bright spot in an otherwise difficult transition was the Poor Sisters of St. Joseph.

“I was so homesick, and the sisters were so good to us,” he said. “They cared for us and cooked our meals. Every day when we had a break in the morning, they served us donuts and chocolate milk. They went to Mass with us. They went to our basketball games and cheered for us.”

Father Cilinski, now pastor of Church of the Nativity in Burke, became especially close to Mother Maria Bernardetta de la Inmaculada, an Italian who led the group of religious women. The smiling sister devoted her whole life to priests, seminarians and their families, said Father Cilinski. “During my senior year, my youngest brother was born, and the rest of my life she always would ask me, ‘How’s your little brother?’ ” said Father Cilinski. 

After Father Cilinski graduated, they continued to correspond. Though Mother Bernardetta couldn’t come to his diaconate ordination, she made him a stole. “It’s a treasure,” he said. On his first trip to Rome, he made a surprise visit to the convent where she was living. “I hadn't seen her in a number of years. She walked down the steps and said ‘Bobby Cilinski!’ It was like a reunion.”

In 2018, Mother Bernardetta was declared a Servant of God, a step on the path to canonization. Father Cilinski is one of the many witnesses testifying to her good character. If she is canonized, he will have been fed by a saint. “It's very humbling to think about,” he said. 

Mother Bernardetta was born Adela Sesso Oct. 15, 1918, in Montella, Italy. From a young age, she wanted to enter the Congregation of the Vocationists, but as her sister already had entered the order, she wasn’t allowed. She entered the Poor Sisters of St. Joseph at age 17 and professed her final vows in 1938 in Rome. Only months later, she was sent to serve in Argentina. 

For many years she served in Muñiz, Buenos Aires, where the order has a secondary school next to its motherhouse. Sister Delfina Gomez, 81, was a student there when she met Mother Bernardetta. Sister Fermina Dri, 83, met Mother Bernardetta as a novitiate. Both women now live at the Poor Sisters of St. Joseph convent in Alexandria. 

The two women were with Mother Bernardetta when they were sent to St. Mary’s College in North East, Pa., to cook for the young men attending the Redemptorist high school seminary. “It was another world,” said Sister Delfina, one where they didn’t speak the language. But it was a peaceful place. “We were very happy there,” she said. “Mother Bernardetta, too.” 

When the school closed two years later, Msgr. Gabriel Maioriello invited them to the Richmond Diocese. There, Sister Bernardetta became the local superior There also, the sisters cooked for the 100 or so young men. Sisters Fermina and Delfina remember primarily following a menu of Italian, Argentinean and American food, such as hamburgers, meatloaf, and lots of pizza. 

During the years they lived with her, the sisters remember Mother Bernardetta as energetic, hard-working, cheerful and attentive to the needs of the community. She would make tablecloths or other items to sell to the seminarians’ families to raise money for the sisters in Argentina. Sometimes, she would go on trips with the other sisters to beg for alms. 

Father Cilinksi remembers her impact on the men of the seminary. “A lot of priests, those on the faculty, looked to her for wisdom,” he said. 

The seminary closed in 1978, and she headed back to Argentina, where Mother Maria Gonzalez, current superior of the Alexandria convent, first met her. “She had so much love for the time she had spent here that every sister that came from here was (someone) special for her. She would always look for us,” Mother Maria said. 

Mother Bernardetta also became friends with Jesuit Father Jorge Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, when she was working near the Jesuit house of formation in San Miguel. In a 2016 homily, the pope spoke about her. “Whenever I, as master of novices and also as provincial superior, had some problems with someone, I would send him to speak with her. And she would give a couple of ‘spiritual slaps,’ and the matter would be solved. That (is) wisdom of the women of God, of mothers.”

Their friendship continued when Mother Bernardetta moved back to her native Italy in 1986. “He always would bring his things for her to sew and fix,” recalls Mother Maria. “He would call her every Sunday from Buenos Aires when she was in Rome. You would see Bernardetta next to the phone. She told me, ‘I'm waiting on the cardinal to call me, sometimes he can’t but most of the time he calls me at 2.’ ”

The next time Mother Maria returned to Rome, she was very sick. Mother Bernardetta received anointing of the sick from Cardinal Bergoglio, died of pancreatic cancer Dec. 12, 2001, and was buried in her hometown. 

The Poor Sisters of St. Joseph who knew her hope people imitate her love of work and prayer and her support of priests and those discerning the priesthood. “It’s a joyful surprise to remember that she was my superior and companion for so many years,” Sister Fermina said. “Now her cause is on the way.”

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019

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