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Through the gift God in his goodness bestowed on me by the exercise of his power, I became a minister of the gospel. To me . . . was given the grace to preach . . . the unfathomable riches of Christ.
Joseph Bernardin, the gentlest of men, was born in the harshest of times.
In 1930 South Carolina, one entered Eden after the fall, overgrown and untended. Few could recall it as a state of grace, spendthrift of its beauty and its bounty, exulting in the crops of cotton and tobacco that flourished from the saddle of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the flotilla of wooded islands that guarded its coast.
The Great Depression deepened a pervasive sense of loss and exile in the land. South Carolina dangled like the triangle of iron that once clanged to summon hungry workers to dinner. Now it hung silent, for the economy had hardly recovered from the Civil War when the stock market crashed in October 1929. Young couples discovered their destiny in that of Adam and Eve, forced to dwell east of Eden and to scratch out their living by the sweat of their brows.
Among these were Joseph (Bepi, as he was known) and Maria Bernardin, Italian immigrants with little English, whose son, Joseph, had turned two in April. A daughter, Elaine, would arrive two years later in the little house on Wayne Street in Columbia, South Carolina, that they shared with Bepi's brother Severino and his family. By the time Elaine was born, the cancer from which Bepi had seemed to be delivered by surgery returned, transforming the house of laughter and light into one of muffled sounds and drawn-down shades.
Life was as hard as the marble Bepi and his brothers mined from the nearby quarries. As Michelangelo freed figures from great blocks of stone, the Bernardins wrested happiness out of their harsh surroundings, contentment from their simple gifts, love deepened by the sacrifices it demanded, consolation and strength from religious faith tested by illness and poverty.
Joseph learned as he grew that hardship was not softened by escape-by backing away from its fierce energy as from a blaze-but by entering it as his father did the quarry, becoming one with it, whitened from head to foot by the dust-showering seam whose pulse he felt and whose heart he laid open daily, wrenching beauty before sunset out of the unforgiving rock.
This bred a deep, spiritual sense into Joseph Bernardin's bones, I understood after we became friends; you could feel it in him as you could feel his bones in an embrace in the weeks before he died. He grasped, as did the father he resembled so closely, that life was a contrary mystery as well as a grace, and that the latter was yielded only to those who were unafraid of the former.
I think of Joseph in profile against the abandoned fields and empty streets of Depression-time South Carolina, dutifully aware of the suffering that had to be borne if one were to become a man, the work of which was never done in a day, and aware, in the most heroic of human callings, that one had to scale the rock face with bleeding hands to bring forth from it the beauty of a saintly life.
Copyright (c) 1997 by Eugene Kennedy. Published by St. Martin's Press, Inc., New York, New York