It is Day Two of Rita Bernert’s retirement, as she greets me into her home, nestled into a humble Gloucester County neighborhood. Christmas cards and decorations still adorn the halls and tables on this early January day.
For 47 of the 82 years of the Diocese of Camden’s history, Bernert has diligently and tirelessly served South Jersey’s Catholic leaders, working for six bishops. Now, as her daily commute to diocesan chancery offices has ended, she is working on her own next chapter.
The Audubon native, the third of five children to Pauline and John Macey, was first hired by Msgr. Augustine Mozier, then-administrator of the diocese, to work with him in the diocesan offices at 721 Cooper Street in Camden. This was shortly after her graduation from Camden Catholic High School in 1957.
In between the paperwork, deadlines and busyness of the chancery atmosphere, Rita married Bill Bernert in 1962, and began a family — Bill, Jr., Jennifer and Rita Anne.
Like her parents before her, Rita and Bill were parents who shared the traditions of the Catholic Church with their children. “I thank God I have my faith,” she says.
Her husband’s work as a project and site manager took the family across the country for a few years —from Georgia, to Pittsburgh, to Los Angeles — but eventually they found their way back to South Jersey, and Rita found her way home to Camden.
During our time together, she happily pulled out an album packed with photos of her time in the diocese — warm memories of colleagues and friends such as Anna Summers and Dolores Orihel, current diocesan employees who worked with her in the chancery offices; then-Father (now Bishop of Metuchen) James Checchio; and the two best priests she’s ever known, Msgr. Richard Callahan and Msgr. Joseph Stoerling, since deceased.
“When you see a good priest, it’s wonderful. They give their life for God, and do well by their people,” she says, adding that she’s “met many good priests,” but that Msgrs. Callahan and Stoerlein, stand out.
Lest one think all of her life was wrapped up in the workings of family, faith and diocesan administration, a wooden drum sits at the bottom of her staircase, a reminder of her time as the dominant snare drummer of the 1950s in the Audubon Bon-Bons All Girl Drum and Bugle Corps. She won the Veterans of Foreign Wars national individual contest in 1957, and in 1976 began playing with the Olde City Fife and Drum Corps of Philadelphia, showcasing her talents for such individuals as Queen Elizabeth II and several U.S. presidents. Her expertise brought her induction into the World Drum Corps Hall of Fame, in 2013.
She continued entertaining the masses until only recently, due to wrist issues.
Throughout her decades of service, she has seen the ups and downs of the Catholic Church, but “even in the most turbulent moments, I have never lost my faith,” Bernert affirms, adding that she “felt honored to work for the church; I was very proud to work with many good and dedicated people.”
She still mourns the loss of her beloved husband, Bill, in 2012, but is looking forward to more days that include her children, grandchildren, family, and friends.
Still, a lifetime of memories, clergy and friends won’t soon be forgotten.