Carmel Home pioneer looks back on 70 years of religious life

Sr. M. Bernadette Niehaus, DCJ, looks through a scrapbook of the history of the Carmel Home on Oct. 5.


When Sr. M. Bernadette Niehaus, DCJ, and three other Carmelite sisters came to Owensboro from Wisconsin in 1952, it was a culture shock to say the least.

The sisters had come to Kentucky to staff a new nursing home facility called the Carmel Home, built under the guidance of Bishop Francis R. Cotton.

At that time, “it was country all around,” said Sr. Niehaus of the local landscape. Accents also provided a learning curve for the sisters.

“We went out grocery shopping to get rye bread, and the people couldn’t understand (our) dialect,” said Sr. Niehaus. Fortunately, after carefully pronouncing the words “rye bread” a few more times, the store employees determined what the sisters needed.

Sr. Niehaus celebrated her 70th jubilee of religious life at a special Mass and reception at the Carmel Home on Oct. 13, 2018, along with fellow jubilarians and Carmel Home residents Fr. Aloysius Powers, 70 years a priest; Fr. Joseph Mills, 65 years a priest; and Sr. Mary Therese Esselman, DCJ, 75 years as a professed religious.

Speaking with The Western Kentucky Catholic on Oct. 5, Sr. Niehaus recalled the early days of the Carmel Home.

When “four of us left Milwaukee and came by train to Evansville” on Aug. 16, 1952, the Carmel Home’s building was still being completed, said Sr. Niehaus.

And in the beginning, the Carmel Home had no elevator.

“(Even) if you had a tray, you had to climb the stairs,” said Sr. Niehaus.

She explained that the Carmel Home has always been on the same property; but has expanded considerably since 1952. Today, this includes separate apartments for retired priests on Carmel’s campus, named the Cotton Apartments as a nod to the former bishop.

Sr. Niehaus, who celebrated her 90th birthday in May, grew up in Cincinnati with an awareness of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as “the Little Flower.” St. Thérèse is one of the Carmelite order’s most famous members.

In fact, Sr. Niehaus’ family attended a local parish named after St. Thérèse.

“My mother would take me to the (St. Thérèse) novena every year,” said Sr. Niehaus. “I grew to know the Carmelites.”

Sr. Niehaus said her mother was devoted to St. Thérèse, especially because she lived through the Great Depression. Sr. Niehaus’ mother even credited the saint’s prayers for preventing them from having to sell their home during the Depression.

Over time, Sr. Niehaus felt a call to religious life. She found her calling with the Carmelite Sisters of Divine Heart of Jesus, who have a particular apostolate of caring for the elderly.

She entered the Carmelite community in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin on Sept. 7, 1946, and made her perpetual vows on July 2, 1953.

Sr. Niehaus attended nursing school and for many years took care of the elderly at Carmelite facilities around the country.

Looking back on the years, Sr. Niehaus believes it was partly because of her mother’s devotion that she entered the Carmelites.

“My mother was so devoted to the Little Flower,” said Sr. Niehaus.

Originally printed in the November 2018 Western Kentucky Catholic. 

Copyright © 2018 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic