Saint of the Day – 19 May – St Maria Bernarda Bütler (1848-1924) aged 74 – Religious Sister, Founder, Missionary, Apostle of the Holy Eucharist, of prayer and charity, Marian devotee – born Verena Bütler on 28 May 1848 in Auw, Aargau, Switzerland and died on 19 May 1924 in Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia of natural causes. St Maria Bernarda was a Swiss Roman Catholic professed religious and the foundress of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Mary Help of Sinners and a part of the missions in Ecuador and Colombia. She worked for the care of the poor in these places until her exile from Ecuador and entrance into Colombia where she worked for the remainder of her life. Her order moved there with her and continued to expand during her time there until her death.
Maria Bernarda/Verena Bütler was born in Auw, in the Canton of Argovia, in Switzerland, on 28 May 1848 and was baptised on the same day. She was the fourth child of Henry and Catherine Bütler, modest but exemplary country people, who educated the eight children born of their marriage in the love of God and of neighbour.
Gifted with excellent health, Verena grew up happy, intelligent, generous and a lover of nature. She began to attend school at seven years of age. The fervour and commitment with which she made her First Communion, on 16 April 1860, remained constant in her for the rest of her life.
Devotion to the Eucharist would, in fact, form the foundation of her spirituality.
Having completed her elementary studies at the age of 14, Verena dedicated herself to farm work and experienced affection for a worthy young man with whom she fell in love. On feeling the call of God, she broke off the engagement in order to turn completely to the Lord. During this period in her life she was granted the grace of enjoying the presence of God, feeling Him very close. She herself said: “To explain this state of soul to someone who has never experienced anything similar is extremely difficult, if not impossible”. And again: “The Holy Spirit taught me to adore, praise, bless and give thanks to Jesus in the tabernacle at all times, even at work and in real life.
Drawn by the love of God, she entered a convent in her region as a postulant at 18 years of age. However, becoming aware that it was not the place to which the Lord was calling her, Verena very quickly returned home.
Work, prayer and apostolic activity in the parish kept her desire for the consecrated life alive. At the suggestion of her Pastor, Verena entered the Franciscan Monastery of Mary Help of Sinners in Altstätten on 12 November 1867. She took the Franciscan habit on 4 May 1868, taking the name of Sister Maria Bernarda of the Heart of Mary and made her Religious Profession on 4 October 1869 with the firm proposal of serving the Lord until death in the contemplative life.
She was very soon elected Mistress of Novices and Superior of the Community on three occasions, carrying out this fraternal service for nine consecutive years. Her zeal and love for the Kingdom of God had prepared her to begin a new missionary experience. Having willingly accepted the invitation of Msgr. Peter Schumacher, Bishop of Portoviejo in Ecuador, who, outlining the precarious situation of his people, asked her to come to his Diocese. Maria Bernarda clearly saw the will of God, who was calling her to be an announcer of the Gospel in that far away country, in this invitation.
Having overcome the initial resistance of the Bishop of St Gall and obtained a regular pontifical indult, Sr Maria Bernarda and six companions left the Monastery in Altstätten and set out for Ecuador on the 19th of June 1888. Only their light of faith and zeal to announce the Gospel sustained the Blessed and her companions in the difficult separation from their beloved Monastery and Sisters. In her intentions, Maria Bernarda thought of giving birth to a missionary foundation dependent on the Swiss Monastery.
The Lord, however, made her instead the foundress of a new Religious Congregation, that of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Mary Help of Sinners.
They were received paternally by the Bishop, who entrusted to Maria Bernarda the community of Chone, which presented a distressing spectacle because of the total lack of priests, scant religious practice and rampant immorality. Maria Bernarda became “everything to everyone”, placing prayer, poverty, fidelity to the Church and the constant exercise of the works of mercy at the base of her missionary work. She, together with her daughters, began an intense apostolate among families, deepening their knowledge of the language and of the culture of the people. The first fruits did not delay in maturing. The Christian life of the people blossomed again as if by magic.
The new Franciscan Congregation also grew in number and two filial houses were founded in Sant Ana and Canoa. Very soon after however, the missionary work of Mother Maria Bernarda was marked by the mystery of the Cross. Many indeed were the sufferings to which she and her daughters were submitted – absolute poverty, torrid heat, uncertainty and difficulties of every kind, risks to their health and security of their lives, misunderstanding on the part of ecclesiastical authorities and, besides, the separation of some Sisters from the community, establishing themselves later as an autonomous congregation (the Franciscans of the Immaculate: Blessed Charity Brader). Maria Bernarda underwent all this with heroic fortitude and in silence without defending herself or nourishing resentment towards anyone but forgiving them from her heart and praying for those who made her suffer.
As if all these trials were not enough, a violent persecution in 1895, begun by forces hostile to the Church, obliged Sr Maria Bernarda and her Sisters to flee from Ecuador. Without knowing where to go, she went, with 14 Sisters, towards Bahia, from where she continued towards Colombia.
The group was still wandering when it received an invitation from Msgr. Eugene Biffi to work in his Diocese of Cartagena. So, on 2 August 1895, the feast of the Porziuncola of Assisi, the Foundress and her Sisters, exiled from Ecuador, reached Cartagena and were received paternally by the Bishop . They found hospitality in a female hospital, commonly called a “Pious Work”. The Lord had led her by the hand towards that asylum, where Mother Mary Bernard would remain to the end of her life. After the house in Cartagena, the Foundation was extended not only in Columbia but also in Austria and Brasil.
With a compassionate heart, authentically Franciscan, she engaged above all in relieving the spiritual and material needs of the poor, whom she always considered to be her favourites. She used to say to the Sisters: “Open your houses to help the poor and marginalised. Give preference to the care of the indigent over all other activity”. The Mother guided her Congregation over thirty years. Even after resigning from the Office of Superior General, she continued to animate her dear Sisters with feelings of true humility, especially through the example of her life and her words and writings.
Struck by piercing hypo-gastric pains, while at the “Pious Work” in Cartagena, an establishment of her Daughters and loved and venerated by all as an authentic saint, Mary Bernard quietly went to sleep in the Lord on 19 May 1924. She was 74 years of age, 56 in the consecrated life and 38 in missionary life. News of her death spread quickly. The Pastor of the Cathedral of Cartagena announced her passing away, saying to the faithful: “A saint has died in this city, this morning – the reverend Mother Bernard!” Her tomb immediately became a centre of pilgrimage and a place of prayer.
The apostolic zeal and ardour of charity of Mother Mary Bernard are being re-lived today in the Church, particularly through the Congregation founded by her, present at the moment in various countries on three continents. The Blessed can be pointed out as an authentic model of “inculturation”, the urgency of which the Church has underlined for an efficient announcement of the Gospel (cf. Redemptoris Missio, n. 52). She incarnated perfectly her orienting motto: “My guide, my star, is the Gospel”.
During her life, she found support and comfort in God alone.
From the time she abandoned her homeland, to which she never went back, when she left her dear Monastery in Altstätten and during her untiring apostolic activity, she was always sustained by a solid spirituality of unceasing prayer, heroic charity towards God and her neighbour, by a faith that was solid as rock, by an unlimited trust in the Providence of God, by evangelical strength and humility and by a radical fidelity to the commitments of her consecrated life. From her contemplation of the mysteries of the Most Holy Trinity, the Eucharist and the Passion of the Lord, she also drew the gift of mercy towards all, which she practised and left, as the particular charism of her Congregation. Very devoted to the Virgin Mother of the Lord, she wished her Congregation to have Our Lady Help of Sinners as mother, protector and life model in her discipleship of Christ and in her missionary activity. As a Franciscan, she cultivated the same veneration which St Francis of Assisi nourished for “Holy Mother Church”, Pastors and priests, whom she called “the anointed of the Lord”.
The Blessed left an admirable example of the biblical woman – strong, prudent, mystical, spiritual teacher and notable missionary. She left the Church a wonderful testimony of dedication to the cause of the Gospel, teaching all, especially today, that it is possible to unite contemplation and action, life with God and service to humanity, bringing God to men and women, and men and women to God.
The Servant of God St Pope John Paul II conferred the title and honour of Blessed her on 29 October 1995. The Holy Father, Benedict XVI, inscribed her in the register of Saints on 12 October 2008…Vatican.va