Sister Bernadette S. Downes, C.I.J., former president of the Congregation of the Infant Jesus, also known as the Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, and former director of Disabled Persons for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Brooklyn, died peacefully Jan. 8, following a long illness.
Born in Holy Cross parish, Flatbush, she became interested in the needs of the deaf as a teenager, working as a volunteer with Msgr. Thomas Cribbin at Catholic Charities. She learned American Sign Language and used this skill throughout her lifetime.
Ministering to the deaf community became one of her lifelong passions as well as the needs of all the mentally challenged and persons with disabilities.
Sister Bernadette entered the Congregation of the Infant Jesus in 1959. She attended St. Joseph’s College for Women, Clinton Hill, and Fordham University, where she earned a master’s degree in educational psychology.
She joined the staff of Catholic Charities and was appointed director of the Association of Mentally Retarded in 1967. She was instrumental in the creation of the group homes for the disabled in Brooklyn and Queens.
During her career, she also was a member of the board of directors of the National Apostolate for Mentally Retarded; president of the National Apostolate for Mentally Retarded; a member of the board of directors of the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities.
She appointed to the Commission on Quality Life for Mentally Retarded by Gov. Mario Cuomo.
In 2002, she received papal honors that acknowledged her life and ministry of dedication in service to the Church and her love for persons with disabilities.
She was elected president of the Congregation of the Infant Jesus – Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor in 2002 and served two four-year terms.
A Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated Jan. 11 at Villa St. Joseph, Rockville Centre. Msgr. John Tosi was the main celebrant and preached the homily.
Msgr. Tosi recalled that when he was rector of St. James Cathedral-Basilica, Downtown Brooklyn, Sister Bernadette was an active parishioner there.
“She was a woman of the Church and a woman of the Gospel,” recalled Msgr. Tosi. “She was very active with the deaf community at St. James but she also was an active member of the larger parish.
“She was a strong woman and yet she was very gentle. She wanted to make the Church inclusive.”
She is survived by four sisters and many nephews and nieces.
Burial was in Holy Cross Cemetery, Flatbush.