When Sister Bernice Kita shared her Guatemalan experiences in Vermont in 1985, a state senator wrote, “I had the privilege of meeting someone who is clearly at ease in implementing the Christian gospel in the real world…I will easily remember her when the gospel is read on Sunday morning.” She served for eight years as Maryknoll Sisters liaison to Maryknoll Magazine and contributing many articles in English and Spanish. She won three Catholic Press Association awards: two for articles and one for a photo story.
In 2006 she joined three other Maryknoll Sisters on Guatemala’s southern coast who worked in the San Marcos Diocesan Women’s Pastoral Ministry. That year the Sisters in Guatemala considered together an invitation to work in the parish of San Gaspar, Chajul in Quiché diocese. Chajul is at the end of the road in a mountainous area that received the brunt of the army’s military campaign against the guerrillas and the Mayan Indian population in the 1980’s. When the Sisters approved this new ministry, the question was, “Who could go there?” Sister Bernice immediately said, “I will! Long before I returned to Guatemala, I hoped to find a mission among indigenous people in the mountains. Chajul is just that sort of place.”
In early 2008 Father Santos Perez, the pastor, began renovating the convent which had been abandoned for many years. In January of that year, Sister Bernice moved north to be closer to Chajul. She lived for a year with the Maryknoll Sisters Contemplative Community in Lemoa, Quiché. From there she spent a few days a week in Chajul, a three-hour drive from Lemoa, supervising the renovation and getting to know the people. In December she moved into the parish convent and began this new pastoral ministry, joining Father Santos, her former pastor ten years earlier in San Andrés Sajcabajá, Quiché. In the photo above, Sister Bernice is shown with women employed by the Chajul Coffee Producing Association as they sorted coffee beans for export.
In May, 2015, Sister Bernice left her mission in Chajul to join Sister Barbara Noland in San Andres Sajcabajá, the parish she had left in 1998 to join the staff of Maryknoll magazine. She was delighted to find many people recognized her and welcomed her back.
For over 30 years she has lived among and served Mayan people of Guatemala in various regions of the country and Maya-Guatemalan refugees in their exile in the Quetzal Edzná refugee camp in Campeche, Mexico. They had fled for their lives during Guatemala’s civil war which ended in 1996 with the signing of peace accords.
Sister Bernice was assigned to Guatemala in 1970. She studied Spanish there before beginning her mission work in the Villa de Guadalupe parish in Guatemala City. She served as director of the parish Social Service Center and joined the parish priests and sisters in evening classes called The Family of God in the poor sectors of the parish. In 1977, the bishop of Sololá gave Sister Bernice and Sister Lorraine Beinkafner responsibility for the pastoral care of indigenous Kakchikel people in the towns of San Antonio Palopó and Santa Catarina Palopó on the shores of beautiful Lake Atitlán. The sisters responded to the requests of the parishioners in the towns and outlying villages. They helped form a weaving cooperative; gave bible study and leadership formation to catechists and community leaders; and taught courses in nutrition, child care and family relations to many groups of women in both towns and many outlying communities. She was eager to share life and faith with this community, a people who seemed strikingly similar to the rural folk whom Jesus himself pastored. She wrote about the town, its happenings and her neighbors to her family and friends. Her mother and a friend saved her letters which became the basis of the book, What Prize Awaits Us: Letters from Guatemala. She said it was the story of a people in a time of persecution. “And because I shared with them for many years their food, their homes, their joys and sorrows, their hopes and fears and pain, it is also my story.” The Catholic Press Association awarded the book Third Place in the “Best Book in 1988” spirituality category.
Sister Bernice dedicated her book to her parents from whom she learned justice and compassion. Her passion for justice has motivated her many stances on social justice. She responded to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to religious and clergy to go to Selma, Alabama in 1965, a few days after a young clergyman was fatally beaten for his voter registration work. She spent five days standing with hundreds of others in front of Brown’s Chapel facing police barriers awaiting permission to march to the county courthouse. In December, 1980 she attended the funeral of two Maryknoll Sisters and two other U.S. churchwomen who were martyred in El Salvador on December 2. In 1984 she was one of two Maryknoll Sisters who represented the Maryknoll Sisters at the trial of the Salvadoran national guardsmen who were convicted of the murders of the American churchwomen.
At the Second General Conference of the History of the Church in Latin America and the Caribbean in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1995, Sister Bernice delivered a paper, Maryknoll Sisters in Latin America, 1943-1993, Fifty Years of Commitment to the Marginated. In 1998, it was published in Missiology: An International Review. In 2010 the Maryknoll Sister’s president, Sister Janice McLaughlin, asked her to write a chapter on the Maryknoll Sisters for an internationally projected book entitled Preaching Justice II: Contributions of Dominican Women to Social Ethics in the 20th Century.
In her hometown of Philadelphia, on the 60th anniversary of her alma mater, St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls, she was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame, “reflecting 60 years of excellence as exhibited by outstanding alumnae like Sister Bernice.”