This is a resurrection story.
It is about Kaitlyn Bernhardt, a teenage girl from Brooklyn, who became sick with a severe form of bone cancer, just before she was about to enter Bishop Kearney High School in September 2016.
She fought the disease valiantly for 22 months before succumbing at age 15 last June 15.
If her story ended there, however, I wouldn’t be telling it here. While she was sick, Kaitlyn inspired an army of prayer warriors who lifted her up to the Lord and kept in touch with her medical progress and setbacks thanks to email updates from her great-uncle Bob Fallon, who may be familiar to some readers for his longtime service to the Knights of Columbus.
Several of her prayerful supporters, including Auxiliary Bishop John O’Hara and retired Deacon James Stahlnecker, a longtime pro-life leader on Staten Island, contacted me to ask if I would bring Kaitlyn’s story to Catholic New York’s audience. I can’t recall receiving as much supporting information for a story in a long time, maybe ever.
Her mother, Jennifer Bernhardt, told me the rest of Kaitlyn’s amazing story when we spoke recently.
She said her daughter was a normal teenage girl who enjoyed listening to music, singing and playing the piano, swimming in the ocean, trying on makeup, and laughing and smiling.
Her health struggles were epic. A quick review of a timeline provided by her mom would go like this: In September 2016, she underwent a 22-hour surgery removing most of her tibia and receiving a muscle transplant from her thigh to calf. The surgery, which was successful, meant she would have to learn to walk again. Less than two months later, she was back in the hospital for a staph infection, which had turned septic. In February 2017, she developed cellulitis. She cut off and donated her hair before beginning rounds of chemotherapy, which resulted in a partial loss of hearing.
In January 2018, the cancer spread to her brain. The next month she had brain surgery. In early March of last year, she began radiation treatments. There was much more to her medical chart, but you can see Kaitlyn endured an incredible amount.
As Kaitlyn was undergoing various treatments, her bright personality rarely dimmed. She would frequently tell her mom that she was going to be OK, even when the medical evidence mounted in the other direction. “She worried more about me,” Jennifer Bernhardt said.
Her daughter also found comfort in her Catholic faith, rarely going anywhere without her Rosary. When the relics of St. Padre Pio toured the archdiocese in September 2017, she had the opportunity to meet with Cardinal Dolan at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Just before Thanksgiving that year, Jennifer received a phone call from a representative of the Order of Malta inviting Kaitlyn and her parents on a pilgrimage to the famous Marian shrine in Lourdes, France, the following May.
She was looking forward to going, her mom recalled. When her condition worsened and she was unable to travel, she was disappointed.
Kaitlyn may not have made it to the world’s most famous Marian shrine, but she did play a major role in the construction of a grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes in an entirely different part of the world.
Deacon Stahlnecker had a role, too. He asked his friend, Father Benjamin Chinnappan, with whom he had served at St. Mary of the Assumption parish many years ago, to ask the children in his home parish in India to pray for Kaitlyn. They were so inspired by the stories of her faith, and the courage and trust she showed in the face of her illness, that they held a candlelight vigil for her.
Father Benjamin said she became “a role model for the children” of St. Theresa’s parish in Kakkanour in the Archdiocese of Pondicherry-Cuddalore. The young people there struggle with poverty, and their Christian faith is looked down upon by many.
“She was a reminder of how we can do the will of God. She did so in spite of her own pain and suffering,” said Father Benjamin, who is now a chaplain at the Department of Veterans Affairs in San Diego, Calif.
With personal financial assistance from Deacon Stahlnecker, the parishioners of St. Theresa’s were able to construct a grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes in memory of Kaitlyn. The bishop of a neighboring diocese blessed it last month.
Father Benjamin told me that the grotto has become a spiritual wellness center for Christians and members of other faiths. The parish is also constructing four new classrooms to expand its school, again in Kaitlyn’s memory. “Safety is a huge issue,” and being able to attend school closer to home will make a big difference, he said.
Losing a child is every parent’s worst nightmare. My sincere prayer is that Kaitlyn’s parents, Jennifer and Robert, and younger siblings, Robert and Ella, are consoled that she is not forgotten and that her faith continues to inspire people in New York and abroad.
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