MILL BASIN — As an effort to make her a saint inches forward, a Mill Basin teenager who died of bone cancer in 2018 and who inspired many others with her faith and courage was memorialized in a street co-naming ceremony near her church on Thursday, June 15.
The city officially co-named East 69th Street and Veterans Avenue in Mill Basin “Kaitlyn Bernhardt Way,” after Kaitlyn, who passed away five years ago to the day. She had been diagnosed with cancer in 2016 and died two years later after enduring grueling treatments and operations that included brain surgery.
The ceremony took place amid a backdrop of a drive to have Kaitlyn declared a saint. The Catholic Church dictates that any effort for sainthood cannot officially begin until five years after the person has passed away. But a group of advocates, led by Deacon Jim Stahlnecker, a retired deacon of the Archdiocese of New York, has already been busy trying to gather evidence of miracles the teenager’s intercession might have helped bring about.
“This is going to take a long, long time, but we’re determined to see this through. Kaitlyn deserves it,” said Deacon Stahlnecker, a friend of Kaitlyn’s great-uncle Bob Fallon.
Family and friends described Kaitlyn as a fearless young woman who managed to smile even through the worst of her cancer treatments and who religiously prayed the rosary every day of her young life. At one point, she cut off her hair and donated it to a charity that makes wigs for cancer patients.
The nonprofit organization John Leaps Evangelization, a group that works to promote the Catholic Church, is asking people to pray for Kaitlyn. “We believe that Kaitlyn’s legacy will inspire other young people to become closer to the Church,” said CEO Karen Japzon.
The street sign bearing Kaitlyn’s name is on the same block as her church, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and across the street from her old school, St. Bernard Catholic Academy. Kaitlyn was a freshman at Bishop Kearney High School when she passed away.
For the ceremony, the podium was decorated with balloons shaped like sunflowers (Kaitlyn’s favorite flower) as well as green and yellow balloons representing her favorite colors.
“This is a bittersweet day for me,” Kaitlyn’s mother, Jennifer Bernhardt, told The Tablet. “I’m proud we’re going to have the street sign, so her name will be up there forever. But today is five years that I haven’t had my daughter.”
Msgr. Joseph Grimaldi, pastor of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, said Kaitlyn set an example. “Yes, what we say is important, the wonderful words we speak could be inspirational, but more important than that is the example of our lives,” he said.
In order to be declared a saint of the Catholic Church, a person has to have two miracles attributed to their intercession, and the miracles must be verified by Church authorities.
While advocates for Kaitlyn are nowhere near the verification step, they are gathering evidence.
Deacon Stahlnecker pointed to the birth of a baby in New Orleans in 2020 as a possible miracle. The mother went into labor weeks early and the baby was not expected to survive. But her family prayed for Kaitlyn’s intercession and she delivered a healthy baby boy.
Jennifer Bernhardt said she experienced a miracle in July 2018, just two weeks after Kaitlyn’s passing. She was at Breezy Point with her husband Rob and her dad when she received a sign.
“Kaitlyn loved dolphins. And she loved the water. But when she was undergoing her treatments, she couldn’t go swimming because the doctors were afraid of infection,” she recalled.
At the beach that day, Jennifer Bernhardt’s husband and father urged her to go into the water, telling her that Kaitlyn would have wanted her to do it. “I went into the water and all of a sudden, I saw dolphins jumping all around me. Dolphins! Remember, this was Queens, not the Caribbean,” she said.
What happened next amazed her. As her husband came out of the water, floating near his feet was a plastic bag containing a rosary made of green and yellow beads. Not only were those Kaitlyn’s favorite colors but she had told her mother in the hospital she saw green and yellow when she dreamed of heaven.
Kaitlyn’s parents told The Tablet in 2019 that she understood things others didn’t and had special graces granted to her in her suffering, the most notable of which was during the night that she would have arrived in Lourdes, France, had her sickness allowed her to travel.
“She jumped up from sleeping and said, ‘Mommy, mommy, Mary is with me,’ ” Jennifer said. She recalled her daughter saying that Mary told her that it wasn’t her time. She also said she saw heaven as a field of yellow and green flowers.
Kaitlyn’s legacy is known far beyond the Diocese of Brooklyn.
When she was alive, Deacon Stahlnecker was so inspired by her courage that he urged a friend of his, Father Benjamin Chinnappan — with whom he had served at St. Mary the Assumption Parish in Oswego years earlier — to ask children at his parish, St. Theresa in Kakkanour, India, to pray for her.
“These were kids who were the poorest of the poor, outcasts. And also because they were Catholic, they weren’t treated well. But when they started praying for Kaitlyn, they felt better. They felt a sense of peace,” Deacon Stahlnecker said.
He later spearheaded an effort to have a grotto in Kaitlyn’s memory built at St. Theresa’s. Due to his fundraising efforts, the parish has since added classrooms to its school and a shopping center was constructed in the area.
Japzon said much more is possible. “Kaitlyn has planted a seed that could bring India into the Catholic faith,” she added.