Sister Bernie Ternes found the work of her heart at the age of 52 when she visited a shelter on First Avenue in Seattle. “I discovered that the deepest yearning of my heart is to be among God’s ‘anawim’ — the lost and forgotten ones,” she had said.
She became a founding member of Nightwatch, a group of ministers that began walking the streets at night, checking under bridges and in alleys and sitting on barstools with those who had no nope. She also served in prison ministry and intentionally lived in transitional housing to help those in need. Engaged in what she calls the “ministry of presence,” Sister Bernie felt that “just being there for them” helped these men and women recall the depths of God’s love.
Never one to ask much for herself, a request she had before she died on October 3, 2014 was that a memorial cross be placed for her in the small chapel of Seattle’s St. Martin de Porres Shelter, one of the places where she served. The shelter welcomes nearly 300 men a night and its chapel was a place where Sister Bernie spent much time in ministry.
Sister Bernie had expressed her wish to her Nightwatch colleague, Reverend Rick Reynolds, who now directs the program. “My life has never been the same after working with her,” he says. “She had such a welcoming presence and was so respectful of people. She still serves as a guide for me about all the subtle ways we can honor people’s dignity.”
On Thursday, March 17, 2016, a prayer-filled memorial took place at the shelter and Sister Bernie’s wish was fulfilled. A cross bearing her name along with other crosses honoring recently deceased staff and homeless were placed in the chapel. The service was led by Rita Peterson and attended by shelter director Jennifer Newman, Reverend Rick Reynolds, Reverend Rich Gamble, Oblates Nikki Nordstrom and Pat Thrasher, and others.
“It is a statement of our faith to say that every human life is precious,” shared Reverend Rich Gamble, a former shelter chaplain. “We are proclaiming our world view that is based on love. Love cannot be deflected or deferred. God’s love is alive in this place.” Sister Bernie was recalled as someone whose heart, more than anywhere else, was on the street with the homeless.
It was at her kids’ Catholic school when Oblate Nikki Nordstrom first learned of Sister Bernie, who began organizing drives at the schools for hats, gloves, and jackets for the homeless. “My kids saw her as their heroine,” says Nikki. “She was so fearless in her actions of being on the streets in Seattle.”
Oblate Pat Thrasher first learned of Sister Bernie by reading about her courageous ministry to the homeless in the Seattle Times.
“Sister Bernie showed us that you can’t fix all the problems but you can be present,” said Reverend Rick Reynolds. “I feel very satisfied that this memorial is happening. It is very satisfying for my soul.”