Bernadette Geller

Bernadette Geller

Get arrested for civil disobedience

I met Bernadette Geller, a former nun who has been arrested more than twenty times for civil disobedience in Baltimore train station.  Her neice had introduced us and she was happy to spend a few hours with me talking about some of the most remarkable turns in her life.  Below is a transcript of some of the conversation we had.

After a year of delay by my family (they thought that number one I was too young and number two I was such a hell raiser that they were sure that the convent would throw me out) I entered the convent when I was nineteen.

When you’re training to be a nun they just use you to do the housework, so, we were doing the washing or the vacuuming or whatever, but I’d already have young people responding to me in my little grey habit.  I’d think “Oh my God, this is so good. I’m God’s instrument now.”  I’d get all caught up in this “It’s so wonderful that I had this calling.”  I just loved that thought of being an American missionary.  I didn’t want to do foreign stuff but this community of nuns did parish social work and were always forming lay apostle groups.

My first mission as a nun was as a teacher. I taught school in Phoenix City, Alabama.  Reverend mother came for a visit and told me that she thought I would be good working with families.  So that’s when she assigned me to Catholic Charities in the diocese of Greensburg in Western Pennsylvania.  And I was there for three years, and then I was moved to the diocese of Trenton which had me in Red Bank, New Jersey.  And I was there for three years.  By then I was getting more awakened to the need for professionally trained social workers.

I was becoming more critical of the fact that the superiors in the house didn’t have Masters.  They were making decisions about adoptive homes and where babies went.  One of the families that I served were so happy to tell me they named their adopted baby after me, but I could see that the child was severely retarded and they didn’t seem to know that or have any information about that.  So I started to question it, challenge it, feel I had to advocate on behalf of the couple.  The nun who did the placement was telling me I wasn’t to say anything and I just thought that that was too unfair to them.  So I called the couple and said “I want you take that child to a paediatrician immediately and have her tested, and I think that if they weren’t honest with you you need to think about returning her.”  And that then of course started a level of trouble that had my superior report me to the mother house.  Tough times.  I remember the reverend mother saying to me “Fr Judge (who was the founder of our order), would be very proud of you, but we can’t have you rocking the boat.”  I began to try and organise the nuns and I started to have meetings to try and see if the other social workers, sisters, had the same concerns and I guess some of them also reported that.

So the next thing I know is that I was on punishment mission to Philadelphia.  It’s a big huge agency there, Catholic Charities.  We had a visitation from the same reverend mother that had shipped me there. I said to her, “Hey I can’t go on anymore without my degree, I need to get my masters”, and she said to me, “Well sister if I let you go for your masters will you promise to be humble”.  And I said to her, “You could send me to plumbing school and I can’t guarantee you that”.

I had heard that the Penn School of social work had the “Functional Approach” that was a very different experience.  So I said I wanted that, and they said “we’ve never let a nun go” and so I said “Whatever you need to do, let’s do it”.  So they had to write to the vicar for religious, I had to be interviewed that I’d still be good and holy and whatever, and I got to go to the Penn School of social work.

After I finished school and I was just kind of coming to grips with what my degree meant and what the whole place of racism meant, they ended up making me the chair of a task force on institutional racism.  So we started to do some very radical things about institutional racism.  On my own then I joined a group called Resist and I think I was really on a big roll, I did the Poor People’s March.  I look back at my 1970 calendar and my God, I was at the Black Panthers, I was with the Resist group, I was all over, plus I was in Catholic Peace Fellowship and then we formed a social action group. I mean I was in everything.  I was supervising staff, very nice young people, and I got them to do a questionnaire on institutional racism.  They were starting to learn to question. I was doing draft sit-ins.  I’d been to the communities council to say “We’ve got to live more poorly.  We’re not living poorly enough.  We’re not doing enough about the racism in the church” and they’re all saying to me, “Oh well, you know, you know, yes we believe these things but..”.

All of it conspired to have the diocese decide that they needed to get rid of me. I didn’t really know it, but I could tell things were not, you know.  I wasn’t sleeping at night, and I realised I was getting into a clinical depression.  I’m living with forty women, everybody kind of knows I’m going to be let go and nobody has said it to me.  Finally one said, “Reverend mother’s been down here talking to the bishop, they’re going to move you.  You’re going to be put out of here”.  So, I went up and I said “I’m hearing that I’m being sent, and I cannot, this is my holy place, I cannot leave Philadelphia”, and she said “Well what can I tell you? They want you out”. I said “They needn’t tell me they need me out.  You don’t have to support them.”  Then the Monsignor called me into his office and said “Catholic Charities will do very well without Sister Bernadette Cronin”, and I remember thinking, he couldn’t even say “you”.

So, my peace friends all wanted to march around the building and protest, but believe me, I was on Valium barely keeping my head up, you know after 16 years in religious community.  So I was fired in July of 70, but the reverend mother said that if I could find a job, I could stay in the convent. With the help of a couple of friends, I got to write a resume and go for job interviews. I was hired by the Children’s Hospital.  I would leave the convent in the morning and go to work and no depression, happy, really glad, loved the place, come back home at night, feel down.

I had a cross that said, “Even Unto Death” on the back because that’s the words of your vows “I take them even unto death” and one day I looked at it and said, “I guess God there’s more than one kind of death and I don’t think this is where I need to be anymore.”

I wrote my letter and I still remember the opening, “I wish to be a minister of the word with optional celibacy and since you don’t offer that to the men of your church I’m sure you won’t offer it to the women of your church.”

I remember the superior saying to me, “Well you know what, you never bought the structures of religious life Sister”, and I said to her, “See how little you knew, I bought them lock, stock and barrel. I believe we are supposed to live the Gospel and you know it just didn’t feel like it happened here.”  So, I left the convent.

I started getting arrested for civil disobedience when I turned fifty.  It was like “Hey, if I don’t stand up and get counted now, by putting my body on the line, when will I?”.  In 1976 my soon-to-be-husband (Bernadette married Laur Geller a Jewish Journalist in 1979) and I came upon the Brandywine Peace Community, when they were just forming and we’ve stayed with them.  They’re the ones that I do my actions with.  Civil disobedience on Martin Luther King Juniors day, Good Friday, and Hiroshima day.  Those are the days that we walk on the property of Lockheed Martin at King of Prussia and say “Stop making nuclear arms”, and they arrest us every time and just process us for walking on property. They try to fine us and I say that I don’t care if they put me in jail or not I’m not going to pay the fine, and sometimes in that local place they just give you community service to do.

Bernadette Geller
Bernadette Geller

It was the Brandywine Peace Community that also formed the Iraq Pledge to Resistance, and I signed on that.  So I was one of 107 that got arrested at the Federal Building in Philadelphia the day the Iraq war started. Subsequently, I did end up seven days in a federal detention centre.  And I made the most of that, you know it was like, “Make believe it’s Cape May”.  You’ve got to stand up and do what you do, and be faithful to it, and it was amazing to me that it was so easy to do that.  I was with good folks and our spirit was great.  I think I came to really understand that we were the freest in there; out here we are all captives of the systems that oppress us.  The first time I got arrested in 72 when I was with my Laur, and they arrested me and they put me in jail it was like I couldn’t take it and I had to knock on the jail and say “get Laurence Geller and pay my fine”.  So I now know I’m braver and stronger and I have less to lose.

I stayed in social work, working mainly for the City of Philadelphia until I retired in the October of 2000 and after essentially forty plus years in the field. I just noticed that I’m a good goodbyer.  That’s to say I could leave religious life and not look back and I could leave social work and not look back and what I have taken to now is teaching in an adult ed programme.

Now I say, “I teach, I exercise and I get arrested”.  You know that’s kind of like what my life’s come down to.  I don’t have work to worry about. I don’t have other people that I have to worry about their health all the time, like my own children or grand children. I love that my free time now allows me a lot more prayer time.  I find the more that I try to be centered in prayer the more I feel called to contribute to the healing of humanity.

I need a strong faith-base from which to do my actions.  I do it from a biblical basis, the bible says “serve the poor” over forty times.  It doesn’t talk about abortion, or it doesn’t talk about homosexuality, it talks about serving the poor.  So my sense is that every action I do is my effort to move to make the world a more equal place.

Laur and I, every other week, stand on a corner in Philadelphia with our sign that says “Get out of Iraq!” and before that we called ourselves Jews for Justice, and I’m fifty percent of Jews for Justice, where we said “Get out of occupied Palestine” because we feel strongly about that whole issue. We’re a couple that prays every day together, that our lives continue to contribute to the healing of humanity and we know that that includes that we be joyful people that we be happy people.

We don’t pray in order to protest, we protest in order to pray.  I want the luxury of prayer and play and drink and laughter for everybody and somehow the world has not been evenly distributed and we need to keep working to having that happen.  About ten years ago my therapist helped me see that I really was not basically an activist, I was really a contemplative, so now I’m back to daily mass and that’s been a lot of years, enough for my husband to say, “Jeez why don’t you become a nun?”, and I say “Oh well that wasn’t helping me be holy Laur, you’re helping me be holy, you’re better at that.”