The phenomenal Sister Mary Bernadette Little
WHAT is the importance of a strong educator? How does an inspiring principal affect the lives of students? There is no question about the answer as graduates of Convent of Mercy 'Alpha' Academy mourn the recent death of our retired principal and nation-builder, Sister Mary Bernadette Little, the recipient of both national and papal honours.
For us, this eloquent educator was our reference point for excellence and leadership. Dr Elizabeth Wilson (nee Hitchins), who attended and also taught at the school remembers: "Sister Bernadette was the first Jamaican principal I had, and that was tremendously important for me. She was young and dynamic. And, as a role model for us at an all-girls school... we felt there was nothing we could not do as girls and as women."
Born Carmen Dorothy Mercedes Little (known in early life as Dorothy), at Cassava River, St Catherine, in 1924, Sister Bernadette was the second of eight children of Gervaise Washington Little and his wife Melita, nee Thame. Gervaise Little was head teacher and his wife was an assistant teacher at St Mary's School in Above Rocks, where Dorothy and her two eldest siblings received their primary education. Dorothy won a scholarship to the then private high school for girls, Alpha Academy, in 1936.
Our brilliant science teacher, the late Isla Vickers, was interviewed by another excellent Alpha graduate, Berl Francis, about her classmate Sister Bernadette. Berl quotes Mrs Vickers as saying of young Dorothy Little: "She was physically the smallest girl in the class, bright-eyed and eager, surveying everyone and everything. It was not long before we all grew to recognise that within her small frame there existed an avid desire for knowledge, a quick comprehension and a memory for facts, people, places, and events that surpassed that of her contemporaries."
Mrs Vickers noted that it was Sister Bernadette, as a long-serving visionary principal, who saw to the upgrading and expansion of the school's facilities: "Truly innovative, she never adhered to obsolete systems, but always put her talent to use in pursuing modern solutions."
Our former principal welcomed the digital age, and we were chuffed to receive her affirming e-mail messages. Computer or not, Sister B turned to pen and ink to express her appreciation for gifts, and we marvelled that her penmanship remained copybook elegant.
After her retirement, Sister Bernadette decided to write a riveting history of Alpha and, just over a year ago, stood before hundreds of admirers to address us at the launch of the book: The Story of Alpha — You Did It Unto Me, which has had several best-seller days on Amazon.
The Alpha student, Alpha head girl, former principal and head of the Mercy Sisters in Jamaica told us that she began a journey from rural Jamaica over 70 years before "that ended with my life being inextricably bound with that of the Sisters of Mercy".
Alpha Academy Principal Mackran Singh lauded the "expansive wordscape of Sister Bernadette's history, covering almost 300 years, two world wars, the Morant Bay Rebellion, Independence, and the democratisation of education".
Loyal even in her own frailty, Sister Bernadette gave a stirring remembrance at the funeral of her classmate Isla Vickers last August, and was kind enough to e-mail it to me. The tribute displayed the breadth of Sister's intellect, matched by her deep empathy.
"I met Isla Pietrie in January 1936 at Alpha Academy," Sister Bernadette told us, "...that cradle that has nurtured thousands of relationships spanning generations traversing the landscape of time. She was of the city born...I was fresh from the country, and there began a friendship which marched with time for most of the twentieth century...together we experienced the colonial days with its inherent injustices...together we witnessed the response of a resilient people in the birth of trade unions and political parties... together we saw Independence and the birth of a new dawn.
"Isla, my precious friend," she said, "may you be borne aloft on the wings of angels...on a path of golden moonlight, to that abode from whence you came to enrich our lives... that abode which is your true home".
Sister Bernadette had a challenging but never lonely battle with cancer over recent years. Her sisters in the Mercy community and her "girls" — a veritable rainbow tribe — did all that they could to show appreciation for a woman who had set us firmly on a path to excellence. Pam Lowe Chang would cook tempting dishes every Sunday. Alethia Barker was told by one of the Mercy Sisters that her regular gifts to the Convent at Widcombe amounted to an entire grocery store. Florida-based Patsy Lee, who was her constant 'angel', is organising live-streaming of Sister B's funeral, in collaboration with Natalie Thompson, the celebrated film-maker and Musgrave medallist.
Sister Marie Chin, the internationally respected regional superior of the Mercy Sisters and also a former Alpha girl, is organising two events: A service of remembrance at the Alpha Chapel of Christ the King on Friday, February 21, and a mass of Christian burial on Saturday, February 22 at the Holy Trinity Cathedral. Of course, Sister Bernadette had asked that, instead of flowers, donations be made to a scholarship fund established in her honour some years ago.
At the remembrance service, yet another of Sister Bernadette's 'daughters', Dr L'Antoinette Stines Osunide, will be choreographing a tribute to be performed by members of her L'Acadco Dance Theatre. Here is L'Antoinette's memory of the principal who guided her: "She saw my talent and allowed me to choreograph to the Missa Luba, which is the mass sung by African boys. It was being done because a dignitary in the Catholic Church was visiting, and she allowed a little girl to choreograph this big dance, with girls entering the auditorium from every door.
"This was the moment I knew how humble I had to be," continued L'Antoinette, "as everything we do, every achievement, is the blessing of God. I became a choreographer guided by Sister Bernadette. I am humbled and honoured that God placed me in Alpha Academy. Who else, where else would I have been given that opportunity? She gave me strength, hope and faith to do what I was put here to do."
In L'Antoinette's words we hear how a dedicated and sensitive educator can throw open opportunities to a humble, talented child just waiting to be discovered. Of note, just a few months ago, L'Acadco performed at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, DC, where they received a standing ovation.
What a legacy Alpha graduates and Jamaica's educators have received from Sister Mary Bernadette Little. With our love and appreciation, we wish her eternal joy "in that abode which is her true home".