One nun's departure from her convent after 53 years of devotion.

By Julie Grace Immink

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Sister Mary Bernard in her room praying the rosary. Photo by Julie Grace Immink

Sister Mary Bernard’s dedication and austerity are still discernible in her new space. No longer permitted to wear her religious habit, her attire is still modest. She is wearing a button-up blouse and a floor-length skirt when she teaches me how to pray with her rosary beads. A twin bed, dresser, and a miniature refrigerator tucked into her 7-by-10 room. Two boxes lie on the floor. One has childhood photographs and letters from her family during the fifty years she spent living in a convent. The other bin is full of lesson plans from her time teaching in a Catholic school. On top of her bureau is a homemade shrine. The altar contains a rosary, bible, holy water, and several images of Him.

Fifty-three years ago, Bernard took her first vows of commitment to the Catholic Church. Since then, she has lived with her Sisters at Sacred Heart Convent in Southern California. Until last year, her journey with faith transformed. She decided to take a leave of absence from the nunnery. Due to anxiety and other stress-related troubles, she resides in an assisted living facility in San Gabriel, CA.

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Holy water and photographs of Jesus. Photo by Julie Grace Immink

“God drew me,” Bernard says. “He knew me before I was born.”

She points to a photograph on her dresser of a transfiguration of Christ that she witnessed at the San Gabriel Mission. One evening after Mass, Jesus appeared in a divine vision to her. A priest snapped a photo of this celestial manifestation and framed it for her. The dark image is blurry and shows a side of the church building and treetops. Amidst the palm leaves, He presents himself in the same form and familiarity depicted in famous paintings: crucified with long hair and wearing a loincloth. She smiles proudly at the picture as it is her most prized earthly possession.

“I treasure it,” Bernard says. “God can make miracles.”

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Stairwell with a cross inside a convent. Photo by Julie Grace Immink

Material possessions are a distraction from her higher calling of service to God. She has taken sacred vows to mimic the life of Jesus: chastity, poverty, and obedience.

“I am trying to imitate Christ, the way He lived,” Bernard says. “Although He was rich, He became poor.”

Bernard grew up in Montebello, CA, in a Catholic working-class family. Her mother stayed at home to raise the five children. Her father, a workaholic, was hardly ever around. She mentions that she had puppy love in middle school because she was yearning for attention.

“In grade school, I was boy crazy,” Bernard says.

Bernard went to Catholic school through 12th grade. Each morning, she would help the nuns get their classrooms ready. But during the class, she would pass the boys a note and pray that the nuns would not see what they were doing. However, when she took her first sacred vows as a teenager, all those desires went away.

“I never once thought about boys ever again,” Bernard says. “If we give in to our human feelings, the devil wants that.”

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Sister Mary Bernard with her family and her Catholic teacher yearbook photo.

At age eighteen, during her probationary candidacy, she learned how to behave like a Sister. That meant no boys, smoking, alcohol, cursing, or chewing gum. For nine years, she studied and trained at the Carmelite Sister’s motherhouse. Those intense years of guidance as a novitiate she describes as her engagement to Christ.

“We don’t see [Him] face to face but, we have communication in our own way,” Bernard says. “God is a mystery.”

After her nine-year betrothment, at age 27, she pledged her faithfulness to Him in a Catholic wedding ceremony. The church was full of flower bouquets and the other Sisters who were also professing marriage that day. They recited the same vows as many brides to their groom — To remain devoted to Him, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.She even wears a wedding ring to symbolize her lifelong commitment.

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The garden at San Gabriel Mission. Photo by Julie Grace Immink

Bernard wants to remain as a bride of Christ even though she is no longer living with His other wives in a religious community. She continues to pray the rosary and attend Mass. She says she can remain devoted because it is His power that keeps her faithful.

One of the ways Bernard communes with her Husband is through helping others. She believes the people of God are their children. She feels God led her to this new living facility to help serve that community. Not sure if she will ever return to the convent, she now talks to the other residents about God and passes out Bibles to those in need.

“Life with our lover is a divine romance,” Bernard says. “We experience Him through loving His people.”

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Bible with a shadow on a church pew. Photo by Julie Grace Immink
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The entryway into the San Gabriel Mission. Photo by Julie Grace Immink

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A photojournalist based in Milwaukee. She works on documentary projects about the human condition. You can also find her kayaking the wilds of the Midwest.

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