Osage Co. native Sr. Bernice Orscheln was an educator, nurse, missionary

Started a highly successful health mission in Ghana


Osage County native Sister Bernice Orscheln, 85, of the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND), died peacefully the afternoon of Feb. 15, at her home at St. Mary of the Pines in Chatawa, Mississippi.

The Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated on Feb. 19 in St. Alphonsus Church in McComb, Miss., with Father Suresh Thirumalareddy, pastor of St. James Church in Magnolia, presiding.

Sr. Bernice was born on Oct. 23, 1934, in Loose Creek, the second of four children and the only daughter of Charles P. and Conradine (Muenks) Orscheln.

When she was 5 years old, the Orschelns moved to a farm two miles south of Chamois.

She attended the old two-room Most Pure Heart of Mary School in Chamois. There, visiting missionaries who had been to far-away places fed her childhood dreams of emulating their work.

One day, one of the SSNDs at the parish told her, “You are going to be a sister someday, and you will be a missionary, too.”

Sr. Bernice replied, “How do you know that?”

The sister pointed to a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and, referring to the person it represents, said, “He told me so.”

Sr. Bernice continued her education at Notre Dame High School in St. Louis and entered the candidature of the School Sisters of Notre Dame upon graduating in 1951.

She studied at Notre Dame College in St. Louis and was received into the SSND congregation and given the name Sister Marie Charles.

She pronounced her vows in 1954.

She taught children in the elementary grades in Illinois, Texas and Louisiana.

After earning a degree in biology, she taught the subject to high school students in San Antonio, Texas, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

She returned to her Baptismal name, Bernice, in the 70s.

Even as she was teaching, she felt called to serve as a nurse. She pursued and completed a bachelor of science degree in nursing in 1973.

The following year, she and four other SSNDs volunteered to be the founding members of the SSND mission in Ghana, West Africa.

She wrote to her mother to inform her of her decision to enter the missions. Her mother wrote back that she had discovered a reflection Sr. Bernice had written in a notebook during a high school retreat.

It said: “My monthly intention: Dear Jesus, I want to offer everything I do during this month of February for the missions in Africa, and I ask that some day, you will send me there where I long to go.”

In Ghana, Sr. Bernice worked with Church and government officials to open and serve as administrator of the Notre Dame Clinic in the village of Adoagyiri-Nsawam.

Many of the cases she and the other nurses dealt with in the clinic were burns, because most of the cooking is done outside over a fire.

“One of the hardest things was to take care of children who had accidents with fire,” she recalled in 2001.

The scarcity of water also led to malnourished children and the spread of disease.

“We saw a lot of people suffer,” Sr. Bernice once told The Catholic Missourian.

Working to ease that suffering helped relieve her own pain over what she saw.

After seeing the clinic well established during the next 10 years and upon helping to acclimate her successor, Sr. Bernice returned to the United States.

She then served on the nursing staff at St. Mary of the Pines in Chatawa for five years.

She then served as a home health nurse in Pike County, Miss.; as head nurse at the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur Health Care Center, in Fort Worth, Texas; and as coordinator of Health Care at St. Mary of the Pines.

She lived in community in Jefferson City from 1998-2008, assisting her parents in their final years and serving on the staff of St. Joseph Home for the Aged.

She said she was happy to be back home in the United States but missed the simplicity of her life in Ghana.

In a 2012 letter to the people of Most Pure Heart of Mary parish in her hometown, she wrote: “May you continue to be active members of your parish community, continue to nourish each other’s faith and bring joy and friendship to one another in the spirit of Christ, our Lord.”

Sr. Bernice survived several bouts with cancer in the past 10 years, attributing the successful outcomes of successive treatments to prayer.

She required increasing levels of healthcare in the past several years as she tried to maintain her usual regimen of community activities and service.

She became more fragile over the past few months, and with great faith she peacefully approached her death.

Preceding her in death were her parents and two of her brothers.

Surviving is a brother, Ralph Orscheln, of Holts Summit, a sister-in-law, Carol (Mrs. Herbert) Orscheln, and many devoted nieces, a nephew and cousins.

Burial was be in the Chatawa Cemetery, with members of Knights of Columbus Charles R. Brill Council 8054 in McComb serving as pallbearers.