It’s been just over a year since Kaitlyn Rose Bernhardt of Mill Basin died from cancer, but the investigation into making her an official saint of the Catholic Church has already started with Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio’s blessing.
The Brooklyn girl, who died at 15, so inspired people all around the world with her simple acts of kindness, love, joy and faith that an official request came to the Diocese of Brooklyn to investigate her cause for canonization.
The request originated from Janet Parry, a Dame of Malta. Part of the lay religious order’s mission is to sponsor an annual pilgrimage for the seriously ill and their caregivers to the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France.
Kaitlyn was chosen to go on that pilgrimage in 2018, but her sickness had advanced to the point where she was no longer able to travel. Parry continued to correspond with Kaitlyn’s great- uncle, Robert Fallon, a Knight of Columbus.
“I learned of her deep devotion to the rosary and her prayers for the other sick children she met, as well as her prayers for sinners,” Parry wrote. “Not only that, she showed great bravery throughout her terrible suffering and offered it up for the salvation of souls.”
Parry, with the guidance of her spiritual director, began the steps needed to propose Kaitlyn for consideration for sainthood. In September 2018, three months after the girl died, Parry sent a letter to Bishop DiMarzio detailing her reasons for belief in Kaitlyn’s sainthood.
Three months after that, in January of this year, Parry received a letter from Msgr. Joseph Grimaldi, the vicar of the Diocese of Brooklyn and pastor of St. Bernard, Mill Basin, Kaitlyn’s home parish. In the letter, Msgr. Grimaldi explained that Bishop DiMarzio requested that the proposal be studied by Msgr. Steven Aggugia, the judicial vicar of the diocese’s tribunal.
Msgr. Grimaldi read the letter quoted above during a June 15 celebration in the St. Bernard parish hall of what the monsignor called the one-year anniversary of Kaitlyn’s entrance to heaven. Msgr. Grimaldi said that a lot of extraordinary things have happened through Kaitlyn’s inspiration during a very short period of time, including a new grotto in her honor dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes in an impoverished community in India, and that these things are not coincidences.
“Kaitlyn is part of God’s plan,” he said. He went on to describe her heroic virtues when she dealt with great pain and suffering. “Kaitlyn faced it with great faith and courage.” Kaitlyn’s mom, Jennifer, said the family is pretty private and Kaitlyn, especially, didn’t want to burden others with her pain. She wanted to share joy and spread happiness.
Now that it has been a year since her firstborn’s passing, Jennifer believes it is then right time to share the burden Kaitlyn endured and its cost. This way the true heroism of her baby girl’s joy and courage can be understood.
Jennifer put together a website to this end, www.sweetkaitlynrose.com. Neither Jennifer nor any part of Kaitlyn’s immediate family is specifically pushing for her canonization, but they are happy to go along with the process and provide any documentation requested.
In this early stage, the local diocese gathers evidence and documents. That can take many years, and the decision of whether to proceed to the next phase of the process lies with a diocese’s tribunal and bishop.
Kaitlyn was first diagnosed with bone cancer in 2016, just after she had graduated from St. Bernard Catholic Academy and chose to go to Bishop Kearney H.S., Bensonhurst. Kaitlyn was an excellent student and was accepted to many schools, but wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps and attend Kearney, a school she grew to love herself.
Kearney also offered her a substantial scholarship, her mother said. The August before her freshman year, Kaitlyn tried out for Kearny’s volleyball team. Her leg hurt, her mother said, and so she went to a doctor for a physical exam. The blood work was fine, but she was sent for an X-ray and then told to go to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for further tests.
Kaitlyn enjoyed the rest of her summer vacation with friends and family. She especially loved hanging out with her grandmother, Frances Fallon, who lived two blocks away. During the one-year anniversary Mass, Fallon described Kaitlyn as her best friend and as a fun-loving enthusiastic girl. Both Mets fans, the two loved to go to Citi Field to cheer on their favorite team.
And that’s exactly where they were when Fallon got the call from her own daughter, Jennifer, with the horrifying news: Kaitlyn was diagnosed with bone cancer. Jennifer pleaded with her mother not to tell the girl in order to give her one last normal afternoon before she would have to face cancer.
Fallon couldn’t help but cry. The granddaughter noticed. Fallon told the girl she was fine. Kaitlyn assumed it was her grandmother’s allergies that were behind the red eyes. “She was always worried about others,” Fallon recalled during the anniversary celebration, wearing a pendant necklace with the girl’s picture.
The doctors recommended Kaitlyn undergo a complicated surgery to remove part of her lower leg bone and muscle and replace that muscle with a transplant from her thigh. The 22-hour surgery was successful, the doctors said, but she had to wear braces and learn to walk again.
Kaitlyn was most distraught by one specific aspect of the surgery: the strong pain-killing medicine she was given. Kaitlyn told her mother that it made her feel like she wasn’t even alive and that she never wanted to take the painkillers again.
She would rather feel pain and feel alive than feel nothing at all, her mother explained. Despite initial good reports and many moments of hope for recovery, Kaitlyn’s condition deteriorated. At one point, one of
her lungs collapsed. By the end, her body was full of painful cancer sores on the inside and outside. It frustrated Kaitlyn when she couldn’t go outside and spend time with loved ones, but she endured it with
grace, her mother said.
Her determination was so strong that she even refused opioids when her cancer spread to her brain
and doctors bolted an instrument around her head and straight into her skull. Pictures show her smiling even with the device on her head.
She underwent many procedures and treatments and had chemotherapy so strong that she lost a portion of her hearing and ability to have children. Her father, Robert, said he felt it was his job to do everything in his power to save Kaitlyn. During the anniversary celebration, he recalled how his daughter took it all in stride. They tried diets and homeopathic cures.
Robert said they made her feel better, but didn’t make the cancer go away.
Strength From Heaven
Kaitlyn drew her strength from the eternal. She had a deep devotion to God and the Blessed Mother. She surprised her family when she announced in the fifth grade that she wanted to join a newly formed rosary society.
Jennifer explained that the family taught their children when they were little to say their prayers before bed, go to Mass and develop their own personal relationship with God. They weren’t the kind of family to pray the rosary together.
In fact, Jennifer explained, it was her eldest daughter’s example that brought her to a deeper faith. Kaitlyn was an example to her younger siblings, too. Ella, Kaitlyn’s younger sister, followed her into the rosary society. Ella, 14, surprised everyone when she decided on the morning of the celebration at St. Bernard’s to give a speech to her friends, family and community.
Ella ended her speech by suggesting that if anyone ever has a dilemma of what they should do, they could follow the WWJAKD rule, which stands for: What Would Jesus and Kaitlyn Do?
As part of the celebration in Kailyn’s honor, Father Michael Tedone described Kaitlyn in his homily during Mass. He explained that the girl loved to put on makeup. In the hospital, she would carefully apply makeup to her face with professional precision.
The truth of his words was reflected back in the parish hall with life- size photos of Kaitlyn looking stunning, rocking a bold look, during her time of chemotherapy. “She went around to the other children to put makeup on them,” Father Tedone said. It was her way of spreading joy and helping the other sick children feel better about themselves.
He explained it was the Love of God poured out through His instrument, Kaitlyn, and onto
the sick children. Kaitlyn was able to achieve some amazing things when she set her mind to it. Her grandmother, Frances, was hospitalized for arrhythmia and went into surgery during a time when Kaitlyn was also in the hospital and told she couldn’t leave.
Kaitlyn, however, could be persuasive.
She convinced the people in charge to let her go see her grandmother. They eventually relented and gave her 30 minutes in her grandmother’s room. Fallon opened her eyes and saw Kaitlyn who was supposed to be confined to her hospital room.
“Are we both dead?” Fallon asked.
In reply, Kaitlyn laughed.
Kaitlyn’s spirit was so strengthened by the pure Love of God that people she had little to no physical contact with reported feeling a deep spiritual connection with her. One of those people, Joe Dai, was asked to speak during the celebration.
He knew Kaitlyn’s mother because they were both on the school board. He helped the family with fundraisers for Kaitlyn. He explained that he had maybe spoken with the girl face-to-face for a whole two minutes when she was alive.
“But yet, we communicated more in my mind and heart than people that I see day in and day out and can speak with on a daily basis,” he said. “For me, communicating with Kaitie was more of a spiritual thing. Whatever her Aunt Corinne told me she needed, if I could help, I would do it for Kaitie. The aura of her presence was felt in my heart and soul, and it is still there. So although our time together was not spoken word, if I can put the presence of her spirit in a description: It is larger than this entire room and it is an overwhelming, joyous feeling. I don’t think Kaitie realized how much her feeling. I don’t think Kaitie realized how much her positive energy was transmitted through her smile. And she had an amazing smile!”