ABINGDON, Va. — As a young Jewish girl in Indiana, she was intrigued by the Catholic church across the street.
One day, she got the nerve to sneak inside and she was smitten. Later, in her 20s, she started pursuit of her calling in earnest, and entered into a Passionist community in 1982.
Today, with a handful of countries and monasteries to her name, Mother Bernadetta has planted roots in Abingdon as a member of the Order of the Preachers of the Cross. She is working to establish a priory in southwest Virginia, the region that was the home of her great-grandparents.
“It’s like that movie,” she said, referring to 1989′s “Field of Dreams.” ”You build it and they will come. That’s how I feel.”
Mother Bernadetta moved to Abingdon last summer, and has been attending Christ the King Catholic Church. Abingdon residents have likely seen her in her habit in the grocery store or around town. She said she’s gotten support, especially from the Protestant community, who often come to her for prayer.
“Our whole work is prayer,” she said of the contemplative order. “The whole reason for us to be in a monastic setting is living a life of penance and personal sacrifice.”
Mother Bernadetta spent the first few years of her life as a nun in Spain, at a Passionist monastery, which she said she chose because of its adherence to tradition. Later, after the Berlin Wall fell in the late 1980s, Mother Bernadetta said she answered a priest’s call to go to Eastern Europe to help rebuild the spiritual community there that for so long lived in isolation.
“We were hearing about everything that was happening, and the priests said (to) send one nun,” she said. “I left my community in 1991 and went to Latvia.”
She was in Prague for a year, where the cardinal gave her permission to write letters for invitations — to be sponsored or to stay in a place, nuns need to be invited, she said, and then she was asked to stay in Latvia and help the young women who were interested in joining the order there.
“There were 25 women in the next six to eight months that started coming, because there were no monasteries and hadn’t been any for decades,” Mother Bernadetta said.
And it wasn’t easy, either. The first postulant, or person interested in becoming a novice, the step before taking vows to become a nun, was beaten and suffered brain damage, Mother Bernadetta said.
“During that time, people didn’t want their kids to enter to be a nun,” she said, and soon, residents of the town started breaking into the cloister.
Mother Bernadetta was then invited to Poland, where she taught seminary in English for a few years, before the bishop said he was no longer going to sponsor her there.
She returned to the U.S. in 1997, and started a long wait for a bishop to give her instructions, or sponsor her to begin a new order.
In that time, she got bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and started a doctoral program at Loyola University. She also worked for the Department of Defense as a summer intern, and then a full-time employee, for several years, before she lost her job as part of department cuts.
Before moving to Abingdon, she spent about a year-and-a-half in Rhode Island, trying to establish a priory there. She decided to move to Abingdon because her grandparents hailed from this region, and because of the strong craft heritage here. She’s a master woodcarver.
Today, she has established herself in a townhouse on White’s Mill Road — a yellow sign on her door identifies it as the Blessed Bosilkov Priory. Inside is her work space, where she’s working on an ash wood crucifix, and the Tauler library, a collection of religious and secular works in multiple languages. Upstairs is a small chapel room and a cell, which is the room where sisters sleep.
“This is what you call a small cloister,” Mother Bernadetta said, adding that she’s been writing letters to bishops asking to be part of the diocese and start training a novice.
She said the last advice she got was that she could gather companions and wear her habit, which she does.
A few new cloisters are established every year, said Charles Reid, Jr., a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas, who has studied canon law. He said Mother Bernadetta’s path to doing so is not routine, but not unheard of.
“Most are never more than very small groups,” he said of developing cloisters. “They have to draft a constitution and get authorization from a bishop or, in some cases, from Rome. Then they proceed to live the course of their life.”
Which is what she is doing, Mother Bernadetta said.
“What I’m doing here in America is creating a community,” she said, adding that she hopes to build an environmentally sustainable stone-and-mortar monastery for her community eventually. “It separates us from the world — we’re not going by worldly distractions.”