BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
In early November 2020, western Kentucky lost two “greats” – both of them women religious who had devoted their lives and vocations to serving the underrepresented and underprivileged.
Sr. Bernadette Hengstebeck, GHMS, passed away on Nov. 1, 2020. The Glenmary Home Mission Sister was 98 years old and in her 75th year of religious life.
Sr. Fran Wilhelm, OSU, an Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph, died Nov. 5, 2020, in her 73rd year of religious life. She was 91 years old.
Both women were beloved for their quiet strength and devotion as they served populations that others might have ignored or scorned.
Sr. Bernadette “knew the poor,” said Fr. Frank Ruff, GHM, the sacramental minister at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Guthrie. Sr. Bernadette had served in Guthrie for 15 years, and Fr. Frank served alongside her during the last six years prior to the sister’s retirement.
“A lot of people help the poor – but she knew them,” said Fr. Frank. “She loved them. She trusted them. A lot of organizations mistrust the poor. But she trusted them because she loved them.”
Fr. Frank said Sr. Bernadette had a gift for bookkeeping and “as soon as the Christmas décor was put away, she started being busy with tax returns,” which she helped people fill out free-of-charge.
Likewise, Sr. Fran – or Hermana Panchita, as she was known by the local Hispanic community – became a voice for the marginalized.
In 1992, Sr. Fran began working in Hispanic ministry in the Diocese of Owensboro and the next year founded Centro Latino – a resource center for Hispanics – in Stanley. Sr. Fran moved Centro Latino to Owensboro in 2000, a ministry she continued until 2018.
Prior to Sr. Fran, “there was no representation for Hispanics” in the region, said Susan Montalvo-Gesser, the director of the Diocese of Owensboro’s Catholic Charities, and who herself is Hispanic.
“She was instrumental for pushing all of us to develop our potential,” said Susan, who as a young person had been encouraged by Sr. Fran to attend law school – which she did.
Describing Sr. Fran as a “spark” to ignite local, dedicated ministry for Hispanics, Susan said families newly arriving in Daviess County were directed by “word-of-mouth” to see Sr. Fran at Centro Latino.
“It was the way you were welcomed into the community,” said Susan.
Meeting the needs of the poor
Sr. Bernadette began her ministry as a Glenmary Sister in 1945, serving Glenmary’s home missions in Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and Texas. She was made a Kentucky Colonel in 2006.
Her official obituary said that she was a “fierce advocate” for the Hispanic community during her time in Texas, even receiving the Titus County, Texas, Woman of the Year Award. She also worked to obtain justice in job-related disputes and court cases.
Sr. Darlene Presley, GHMS, the mother superior of the Glenmary Sisters, said that people “sought her out for wisdom, just to talk to her.”
“She never liked to call attention to herself, just doing what God wanted her to do,” said Sr. Darlene, who had spent her novitiate with Sr. Bernadette. But, “she always called herself a spoiled child of God because he never failed her.”
When Sr. Bernadette was doing full-time mission work in Texas, Sr. Darlene said she was known to drive 300 miles to take families to MD Anderson Cancer Center.
“She did what we call ‘unstructured social work,’” said Sr. Darlene. “She met the needs of the poor.”
“Her car was always filled with clothing and household items” to share with those in need, which Sr. Darlene said was known as “a mobile rummage store.”
In Guthrie, Sr. Bernadette’s car again became famous, but this time by being called the “breadmobile.”
She had once seen the local grocery store throwing out bread and approached them to ask if she could take it for those in need. The grocery store agreed, and so she was there every Saturday morning to pick up the bread.
Fr. Frank said Sr. Bernadette was an example to him of how to “help the poor without looking down on them.”
Her ministry with the senior citizen center in Guthrie and Guthrie Interchurch Ministry, as well as a free local health clinic in Todd County, drew people to her as a “friend,” said Fr. Frank.
“I describe her as a quiet woman, of few words, but you listened to the words she said because they came from thought and were wise,” he said.
A grandmother and big sister
Heidi Reyes, the AmeriCorps VISTA community resource bridge for Catholic Charities, said she first met Sr. Fran at age five or six.
Sr. Fran was known to organize the performance of traditional Mexican dances at events, including the Multicultural Festival in Owensboro. Heidi’s family, who are Mexican, would participate in the dances – even six-year-old Heidi. (She still participates in the dances to this day.)
“We were very close with Sr. Fran,” said Heidi.
As Sr. Fran aged, Heidi’s family would assist where they could – her mother once washing the curtains at Centro Latino, and her father changing the lightbulbs – and sometimes even brought the sister her favorite soup from Olive Garden.
“She was like our grandmother here in the States,” said Heidi, explaining that many Hispanics living in the U.S. have never met their grandparents still living in Latin America.
Ofelia Villegas, a parishioner of Sts. Joseph and Paul Parish in Owensboro, credits Sr. Fran for getting her involved in the choir that sings at the Spanish-language Masses.
When Ofelia first moved to Owensboro from Texas, she was feeling sad and homesick.
Then, “sweet, sweet” Sr. Fran invited her to join the Spanish choir, Ofelia told The Western Kentucky Catholic.
“I said Sister, I can’t sing! I get really nervous,” said Villegas. “She said, ‘No, go. Go to the choir. Go to the choir.’”
It was frequently quipped that nobody could say “no” to Sr. Fran – and this rang true for Ofelia.
After Sr. Fran’s insistent encouragement to join the choir, Ofelia said, “I did. I began singing in the choir,” and the rest was history.
Even when Sr. Fran retired from Centro Latino and returned to the Ursuline motherhouse in Maple Mount, Ofelia would visit her when she could.
“I feel happy that I have a lot of memories of her,” said Ofelia, though she added that “it’s hard for me because she’s gone.”
She said she thanks God every day for putting Sr. Fran in her life.
“I don’t have any sisters – she was my big sister,” said Villegas.
Becoming your best self
Back in 2015, a fire destroyed Sts. Mary and James Catholic Church in Guthrie. Deemed a total loss, the local Catholics were without a place to gather for Mass until a new church could be built.
But within a week, five different Protestant churches offered their facilities for free to their Catholic neighbors so that they would still have somewhere to worship. Eventually the Catholics were settled in the local Tiny Town Baptist Church, where they were even permitted to keep a tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament, until their new church home was finished.
Catholicism was, and continues to be, in the minority in Todd County. But friendship among the different faith communities is strong.
“A lot of that (relationship) I credit to the work of the Glenmary Sisters – including Sr. Bernadette,” said Fr. Frank.
Likewise, Sr. Fran’s inspiration and love of others made them feel “empowered to be able to do whatever you could do,” said Susan.
Susan said that in recent years she once went to Mount Saint Joseph for a meeting and was happy to see Sr. Fran. Though the retired sister was experiencing poor health, she lit up when seeing Susan. Sr. Fran turned to her fellow Ursuline Sisters and said to them, “I am so proud of this girl.”
Susan told The Western Kentucky Catholic that “you wanted to be your best self because of her.”
“She was so humble, one of the most humble people you’ll ever meet,” she said.
Originally printed in the December 2020 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.
Copyright © 2020 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic