Sister Mary Catharina Bereiter Marks 100th Birthday

Sister Christa Marsik, OP, wishes Sister Mary Catharina Bereiter, OP, a happy 100th birthday after a special Mass in Sister Catharina’s honor. 

April 21, 2022, Adrian, Michigan – In her 100 years of life, Sister Mary Catharina Bereiter has been a dedicated daughter, an Adrian Dominican Sister, a mathematics teacher, a college professor, a religious education coordinator, a parish pastoral minister, and a compassionate presence in inner-city Detroit and in Adrian, Michigan.

Adrian Dominican Sisters, Associates, and friends gathered to honor Sister Catharina and celebrate her 100th birthday during a special gathering April 20, 2022, at the Adrian Dominican Sisters Motherhouse. Sister Catharina celebrated with her family on her birthday, April 16, 2022.

The April 20 celebration began with Mass. “We celebrate together today not only Easter Wednesday, but also Sister Catharina’s 100th birthday,” said Sister Judy Friedel, OP, Chapter Prioress of Holy Rosary Mission Chapter. “And there’s a lot to celebrate, not just the quantity of years but mostly the quality of life of those years: 100 years of life; 79 years ministering as an Adrian Dominican; countless life-giving, life-enhancing encounters.”

Sister Sharon Spanbauer, OP, Mission Prioress of Holy Rosary Mission Chapter, displays the Papal Blessing bestowed on Sister Catharina by Pope Francis.

Sister Judy reflected on the day’s Gospel, the story of the risen Jesus’ encounter with two troubled disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35) and related the Gospel to Sister Catharina’s life. Sister Catharina had written about her desire to be present to people going through difficult times. Just as Jesus was present to the troubled disciples, “she was that presence to so many countless people, with whom she shared heart-to-heart walks, with those needing a breath of new life, heart-to-heart talks that brought healing and hope to many,” Sister Judy said.

The celebration continued with an informal afternoon party. Sister Sharon Spanbauer, OP, Mission Prioress of Holy Rosary Mission Chapter, presented Sister Catharina with proclamations from State Senator Dale W. Zorn and Adrian Mayor Angela Sword Heath, a Papal Blessing from Pope Francis, a basket of birthday cards, and flowers.

Sister Patricia Siemen, OP, Prioress of the Congregation, extended blessings and gratitude to Sister Catharina. She recalled living with Sister Catharina at St. Mary Parish in Adrian and the many friends that she had in the Adrian community. “You were a witness not only to the [Siena Heights] students and to us, but you had many, many friends – especially interfaith friends,” she told Sister Catharina.

Sister Catharina’s Life

Born in Chicago on April 16, 1922, Mary Barbara Bereiter was the second child and the oldest of the three daughters born to Edward J. and Mary (Orzali) Bereiter. She was 11 years old when her mother died, but Sister Catharina spoke of the great support that she and her siblings had always received from their father. “My dad was a mailman and he worked outside of the office near us, so he could come home for lunch and take care of us,” Sister Catharina recalled in her A Sister’s Story video interview. 

The Bereiter children were taught by Adrian Dominican Sisters at Queen of Angels School, very close to their home, Sister Catharina said. She attended Catholic high school for one year on scholarship but graduated in 1940 from Amundsen High School in Chicago. Three years later, with the encouragement of the Adrian Dominican Sisters at Queen of Angels School – and especially Sister Bernadine Marie Pohl – Mary Barbara entered the Adrian Dominican Congregation on September 8, 1943. She was received into the novitiate on August 17, 1944, taking on her religious name, Sister Mary Catharina, and professed her first vows in August 1945 and her final vows in August 1950.

Like many Adrian Dominican Sisters, Sister Catharina began as an elementary school teacher, first at Our Lady of Sorrows and Holy Name Schools in Detroit and then at St. Joseph School in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. 

Sister Catharina holds degrees in mathematics, earning a bachelor’s degree from Siena Heights College (University), Adrian, 1944; a master’s degree from the University of Detroit, 1954; and a doctorate from Wayne State University, Detroit, 1961.

Her first teaching assignment as a high school math teacher took her to Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California – her first and only ministry outside of Michigan. She then taught math at St. Theresa High School (1955-1958) and Dominican High School (1958-1964), both in Detroit, and taught at Siena Heights College (University) in Adrian until 1974. 

Sister Judy Friedel, OP, Chapter Prioress of Holy Rosary Mission Chapter, addresses those attending the birthday while Sisters Mary Catharina Bereiter, OP, and Rosalie Esquerra, OP, look on.

Ministry in Detroit

Sister Catharina switched her focus in 1974. “It was when the community thought we should find our own work,” she recalled. “So, I figured there were a lot of people who would like to teach in the college, so I didn’t do that.” 

After serving for two years as religious education coordinator at Holy Family Center in Adrian, she began nearly 40 years of service in inner-city Detroit, first as a pastoral minister at St. Leo Parish from 1976 to 1982. She remained as a parishioner of St. Leo until her retirement, becoming active in a variety of ministries in Detroit. “I guess it was right for me,” she said, noting the many opportunities to meet interesting people and to serve in whatever ways that were presented. 

Her ministries varied from visiting parishioners and working on the parish bulletin to picking up food for the parish soup kitchen. She also worked with the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance, begun about 30 years ago to build up the City of Detroit through services such as housing development, youth programming, anti-racism training, and senior services.

Through her years in Detroit, Sister Catharina said, she responded to the needs of the people, was a presence to them, and gave them love and support. She said she appreciated working with the people in Detroit. “I don’t think there was anybody I didn’t like,” she said in her interview.

Reflections on Sister Catharina

“Catharina was a joiner,” said Sister Joan Baustian, OP, who lived with Sister Catharina at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish. “She was involved in various things.” One of her favorite groups, Sister Joan said, was the Detroit Catholic Gospel Choir. “She had a beautiful soprano voice,” Sister Joan recalled. “She always went to practices, and every time [the choir] appeared anywhere, she was there. That was an important part of her life.” Sister Catharina was also active in a senior group of mostly African-American women. “She always enjoyed those groups,” Sister Joan added.

A genius in mathematics, Sister Catharina is also very relational, Sister Joan added. “She really did relate to people and was just so devoted to the people [in Detroit] – and they were devoted to her.”

That devotion showed itself when, about a month after Sister Catharina retired in 2014 and moved to the Motherhouse in Adrian, the people of Detroit brought her back for a retirement party. They gifted her with a quilt, signed by all the people who attended the party – testament to a life of prayerful presence and support for the people of inner-city Detroit. Sister Catharina offers that same prayerful presence to the Sisters who live with her at the Dominican Life Center.