May 20, 1902 – September 25, 1991
“I waited, I waited for you, O God, and you stooped down to me; you heard my cry.” Psalm 40:2
On September 25, 1991, Sister Perpetua Maria’s waiting and suffering were over when the good Lord called her to that everlasting life of peace and tranquility where there is no more pain; no more suffering.
For Sister Perpetua Maria, her earthly life began in Grand Rapids on May 20, 1902, when she became the fourth child of a family of six girls. Her loving parents were Thomas and Elizabeth Visner. The father was a Canadian from Montreal and the mother was a Michigander. Her Baptism was at St. Alphonsus Church, and she was named Bernadine after the saint of the day. At the age of nine she made her First Holy Communion with two of her sisters, Cecil and Marie (Sister Elizabeth Mary and Sister Rose Miriam) and she was confirmed by the Most Reverend H. J. Richter.
Her education for grades one to three was at St. Andrew School, and she then completed her elementary education at St. Alphonsus School where the Dominican Sisters and the Redemptorist priests put their stamp upon her. For high school she attended Girls’ Catholic Central under the supervision of Mother Eveline Mackey. Following high school graduation, she attended the Davenport Business College, and then used her acquired knowledge in the business world.
Bernadine’s home was an exceptionally beautiful, Christian one. In her autobiography she writes” Child life for me was a very happy experience. I cannot recall at anytime friction or harsh words being a part of our home setting. My parents ruled with love, and we reciprocated with kindness and concern toward them and to the other members of the family.” This happy home environment was to nurture four vocations to the Grand Rapids Dominicans: Sisters Joachim, Perpetua Maria, Elizabeth Mary, and Rose Miriam.
However, this loving and happy home too soon experienced great sorrow. Bernadine was twenty when her dear father died very suddenly. This was indeed a shock for the family, but more suffering followed as five months later God summoned her mother to join her father.
Bernadine relates that after her graduation from high school she experienced a desire for the religious life. But after enjoying a summer of amusement, she banished the thought of entering the convent. Two years later, after attending a Novena at St. Alphonsus in honor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, she was convinced that her vocation was to be that of a Religious. With the guidance of Father Shaw, Bernadine entered Marywood March 18, 1923, two weeks after her dear mother’s death. Sister Joachim, the oldest in the family, had already entered.
Novitiate days under Sister Loyola Finn’s guidance were happy ones, and on October 20, 1923, Bernadine received the Holy Habit from Mother Benedicta O’Rourke and the name of Sister Perpetua Maria of St. Alphonsus. In November 1924 Sister Perpetua Maria was sent on her first mission, and the following summer she made her First Profession of Vows.
Sister Perpetua Maria devoted almost fifty years to Catholic education in diverse places: Michigan, Canada, Wisconsin, and New Mexico. She started her teaching career in the elementary grades, but most of her teaching was done on the junior and secondary level. For over half of her fifty years in education, Sister Perpetua Maria served in the capacity of convent superior and/or the school principal. Many were the recipients of Sister’s excellent and outstanding teaching and leadership at St. Joseph the Worker, Beal City; St. Anne, Alpena; St. Mary, Lake Leelanau; St. Joseph, Grand Rapids; Sacred Heart, Merrill; St. Alphonsus, Grand Rapids; Our Lady of Fatima, Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Blessed Sacrament, Grand Rapids.
One of Sister Perpetua Maria’s greatest gifts as a principal was to inspire confidence in her teachers. For Sister Perpetua Maria, teaching academically was not as important as developing good people. To her people were far more important than law. Both in the convent and in school she was kind, patient, and encouraging, and it was a joy to be associated with her. One Sister remarked that she was a “top notch” Superior and Principal. If Sister Perpetua Maria had an outstanding competency as a teacher, it was that of teaching orthography. To her this was an art.
When Sister Perpetua Maria’s years of classroom teaching and leadership terminated, she devoted some three years to tutoring and then came to Marywood in 1971. For the next ten years she was involved in reception work, clerical duties, and other service activities. During those ten years she also spent one year at the House of Studies.
In January 1981 she moved to Aquinata Hall. She was able to visit the Sister patients until she required total nursing care. One of the greatest comforts during those years for Sister Perpetua Maria was to have her sister Marie (Sister Rose Miriam) with her much of the time. This was a beautiful repetition of her childhood years about which she wrote in the autobiography, “Marie, fourteen months younger than I, was my constant companion during these early years.”
In commenting on her life, Sister Perpetua Maria shared this, “My convent life has been a happy, growing experience. At no time have I regretted having answered God’s call. My teaching career remained always a loving experience. I enjoyed every mission, working with both young and elderly Sisters. God had gifted me with talent to see the needs of the individual student and to help her or him along the way and for this I thank Him and give Him glory.”
And then she, who was always so interested in our Dominican community life, has this final message: “To all who have helped me along the way – the Sisters with whom I lived on missions, the sisters and the nursing and cooking staffs at Aquinata, friends who visited me, and Marie, my heart is full of love and thankfulness, and my prayer is that we might meet at the Eternal Banquet where sorrow and pain will be no more – only peace, love and joy.”
We truly pray with Sister Perpetua Maria that she may now experience only peace, love, and joy for “Blessed are the dead who died in the Lord, for their works follow them” (Rev. 14: 13). And may Our Lady of Perpetual Help who was Sister Perpetua Maria’s ever-loving Mother continue in that role for her for all eternity.
Sister Perpetua Maria is survived by her sister, Sister Rose Miriam; nieces, nephews, other relatives and many friends.
Entered eternal life on September 25, 1991 at the age of 89 after 68 years of religious life
We commend Sister Perpetua Maria to your prayers.