In honor of National Catholic Sisters Week, we remember the work of Sister Mary Bernadette Szymczak (1921-1998) who spent nearly 30 years serving the poor of the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn.
In September 1971, she was one of five Daughters of Charity who arrived in Brooklyn to work in St. John the Baptist Parish in conjunction with the Vincentian Fathers. At St. John’s, Sr. Mary Bernadette was coordinator of the parish Thrift Shop and Food Pantry, working with neighborhood volunteers to distribute food and clothing to the many needy who come every day. As assistant coordinator of the soup kitchen she managed the preparation of meals, working with the volunteers and serving the 350 to 400 poor, many of them homeless who come daily to be fed. She was also involved in parish life as a Eucharistic minister, CCD teacher, moderator of the Ladies’ Sodality, home visitor, and held flea markets to raise money for the parish. Through all these works she became a well-known figure as an advocate for the poor.
In an article written at the time of her death, the New York Times wrote:
“ … When the Sisters first came to Brooklyn at the request of the Vincentian priests who ran St. John’s parish, there seemed little need for a soup kitchen. Then came the governmental cutbacks to the poor of 1981, and as the need for food began to soar, Sister Bernadette, who had already established a thrift shop and an adult education program, started the soup kitchen, initially serving 15 or so meals a day. Over the next decade and a half, as the slender woman in the plain blue habit grew frail in her work, she became a neighborhood heroine …”