Bernice Rigney was born February 4, 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland to Helen (Charles) Rigney and William Rigney. She had one sister: Patricia. She graduated from Catholic High School, Richmond, VA in 1958. After high school graduation she worked for a year as an IBM operator.
Bernice entered the Maryknoll Sisters Congregation September 2, 1959 at the Sisters’ Center in NY. She professed First Vows June 24, 1962 at the Center and Final vows June 24, 1968 also at the Center. Sister Bernice received a Bachelor of Arts in Community Service from Rogers College in 1969. Her first assignment, from 1963 – 1967, was Congregational Service in the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers’ Society Treasury in their Seminary Building.
Sister Bernice’s first overseas mission assignment was to Tanzania, East Africa in 1969. For 14 years in Tanzania her ministries were in rural community development; women’s groups; youth work; Basic Christian Communities, including participation in life and work in an Ujamaa (“family-hood”) Village.
The Ujamaa Village where Sister Bernice worked, in a corner of Tanzania, looked right into neighboring Rwanda. Twenty years later she was in Nairobi when Rwandan refugees, fleeing massacres there, poured in. She was still dealing with the neighbors whose land she could see from the Ujamaa Village. By 1996, more than 10,000 Rwandan refugees were in Nairobi. Sister Bernice designed a course for 30 Kenyans in basic counseling and dealing with trauma for the Rwandans. She also worked both with individual Rwandans and with groups.
Back at Maryknoll In 1983, Sister Bernice enjoyed working in vocation ministry accompanying young women interested in a mission vocation. Then she studied at Creighton University, Omaha, NE, earning a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry, in 1988 when she was assigned to Kenya.
In Kenya, Sister Bernice worked in a Women’s Resource Center and, for 15 years, worked for the Amani Center in Nairobi. Amani Center was a non-governmental organization that provided individual and group counseling, crisis intervention and debriefing with victims of violence, including Kenyan and U.S. survivors of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing in Nairobi. She also conducted parish-directed retreats.
Sister Bernice went to Rwanda after the genocide to provide trauma healing with Irish missioners who were there and she debriefed and counseled Peace Corps and Catholic Relief Services personnel as they left Rwanda. Sister Bernice witnessed a group of widows, survivors of the genocide in Rwanda, come together with their memories of terror and loss to support and assist other widows like themselves, regardless of ethnic identity. She commented: “These women seek to build on their similarities, their common loss and shared concern for their children.”
Later, she worked “at large,” which added to her ministry outreach both in Kenya and internationally. In 2000, Sister Bernice provided specialized study in the United States on conflict management and reconciliation and offered the fruits of her study to the Maryknoll Sisters in Guatemala and East Timor as well as several countries on the continent of Africa.
In 2005, Sister Bernice facilitated the General Chapter of the Mill Hill Missionaries in Nairobi. In 2006, she co-facilitated the Congregational Chapter of the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland, and in 2007, she co-facilitated the provincial chapters of their four Irish provinces. Her ministry included individual and group counseling sessions, facilitation for religious and other groups and availability for crisis intervention and response.
Of her decades of experience in Africa, Sister Bernice said, “A special gift the African people offer to the rest of our world is their ability to value relationships.”
Sister Bernice served as Co-Director of the Congregational Personnel Office at Maryknoll Center in NY. Until 2017 when she retired at the Center.