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Dominican Sister Anne Bertain retires at St. Dominic

January 16, 2015
Christina Gray

Twelve days into her retirement, Dominican Sister of San Rafael Anne Bertain muses about “slowing down,” reading, swimming, spending time with family and taking a real vacation. 

But as she talked with Catholic San Francisco on Jan. 12 in the sunny Dominican convent on Pine Street across the street from the parish she’s served for 50 years, it seemed obvious that her life is and always will be, centered on her life’s work – serving the disadvantaged.

In 2011, Sister Anne received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontiface Award from the Vatican for her long history of ministry to the people of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

“I’ve always loved what I do,” Sister Anne, 76, said. “It’s what gives me energy.” 

Floral remnants of a retirement Mass and reception held at St. Dominic in her honor two days earlier sprout from vases around the table where we sit. Nearly 700 guests from throughout the state came to show their appreciation for the legacy of Sister Anne, including four former pastors, 30 former students and her third-grade teacher, retired Dominican Sister Bernadette.

Dominican Sister of San Rafael Colleen McDermott assumed the role of director of community services on Jan. 1.

Sister Anne said she learned the meaning of a life of service from her parents, Ellen and Jean Bertain. She was educated by the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael at St. John the Baptist School in Napa and at St. Vincent Ferrer High School in Vallejo. She was drawn to the order, and entered the novitiate in 1957, telling her family, however, that she might be back in three months.

“And here it is, almost 58 years later,” she laughed.

After teaching first grade at St. Dominic School in the early-1960s and retiring as school principal in 1979, Sister Anne started the parish’s first community service department. She had learned firsthand about the urban poor after working with school families in the 1960s and 1970s. At the time the school was 90 percent African American.

“That was where I was introduced to struggling families, to the needs of the local community,” she said.

Since then she’s run a robust roster of programs for the parish including a community assistance ministry which last year spent $60,000 – funds raised by the financial gifts of parishioners – to help struggling local families meet their rent. St. Dominic also helps with food, medical and utility bills.

Sister Anne has also started and led a prison ministry, a consolation ministry, a seniors program, an HIV/AIDS support group, a sandwich program for recovery centers, annual holiday food and toy programs, a social justice ministry.

In 2005, Sister Anne opened the Lima Center, a drop-in day shelter for the homeless operated from the church basement. The center is named after three Dominican saints with ties to Lima, Peru and a devotion to the poor – St. Martin de Porres, St. Rose of Lima and St. Juan Macias.

Run with donated food, funds and parish volunteers, the Lima Center provides registered “guests” with breakfasts and lunch, Tuesday through Friday. Shower and laundry facilities are available and clean, donated clothing is too. Books, movies and a television are on hand, as is a “quiet room.”

“I wanted to open a place where homeless men and women could come in and sit and relax and not have to look over their shoulders,” Sister Anne said.

Many Lima Center guests are educated, but have hit a rough spot in life, she said, and go on to find work and stability in their lives again. Others continue to struggle with drug and alcohol problems.

“We may not be able to change them, but we can let our guests know that they are children of God,” she said.

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