Faith is his guide through thick and thin

By Monica Sawyn | For The Compass | April 17, 2015

Berns, a WWII gunner, says prayer helped him through bombing runs

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]SISTER BAY — Like a golden thread, Phil Berns’ Catholic faith has been woven in a consistent strand through the fabric of his life.

Now, at age 91, he says, “I don’t know how I’d live without it.”

Your Catholic Neighbor: Phil Berns (Monica Sawyn | For The Compass)
Your Catholic Neighbor: Phil Berns (Monica Sawyn | For The Compass)

Berns, who has spent most of his life in Sister Bay, started serving Mass when he was 7 years old. As he grew up, graduated from high school, flew a bomber in World War II, and eventually married his high school sweetheart, the late Clarice Erickson, he “always prayed.”

“I exercise for 30 minutes every day. It takes me 20 minutes to say the rosary, and then I spend the last 10 minutes praying for my kids,” he said, sitting at a table in his Scandia Village apartment, a large complex for senior citizens.

He emphasizes that he doesn’t just repeat the Hail Mary mindlessly.

“My decades are so filled with religious stories…” was his way of describing his meditations on the mysteries. It’s such an important form of prayer for him that he’s in the process of dictating his meditations on tape to eventually give to each of his three children.

But that’s not all he does. Berns serves at the two weekly Masses at Stella Maris, where he is “always punctual and greets each person with a big smile as they come into church,” according to fellow parishioner Michelle Piatek.

He sets up for the monthly Mass at Scandia Village, and also helps other less mobile residents of Scandia Village stay involved in their parish community by bringing Communion and keeping the visitation list up-to-date for other parish ministers. He brings 25 bulletins back from church every week and he distributed blessed palms to residents on Palm Sunday. Last year, during the Stella Maris feast day celebration, he made sure Scandia residents received one of the rosaries blessed by Pope Francis that were made available to parishioners.

Berns’ reliance on his faith isn’t something that just happened, or that developed late in life. As he talks about life’s adventures, especially his stint as a top turret gunner during World War II, words here and there begin to paint a picture of a man for whom faith is such a natural part of life that he has to be nudged to recognize it.

Did he pray on those bombing runs, he is asked. With a what-do-you think tone of voice, he replies, simply, “I always prayed.”

Then he expands on that.

“We didn’t have any religious guys on our crew, and I was the only Catholic. When we were down on the ground, and Sundays came around, I insisted on going to Mass. I told them I would never miss Mass if I could possibly get there.

“Two Protestant guys in the crew said, ‘Boy, we don’t go to church very often,’ and I told them, ‘Well, it’s different with us.’ So overseas, on Sunday or whenever they were having Mass, I was there.”

Berns said it made him feel good to know that although some of the other guys “didn’t have much religion,” they looked up to him as being faithful to his own.

“Of course, I prayed for those guys as well as my own,” Berns said.

Perhaps it was that reliance on prayer that inspired Berns to make a decision during one bombing run that may have saved the plane and the lives of all the crew during their first mission. When they were over France, and were just about to start a bombing run, one of the engines blew, leaving an oil slick along the bottom of the plane which caught fire.

The pilot wanted everyone to bail out, but Berns remembered his Stateside training. He flipped a switch that moved the gasoline from one wing over to the other so the gas couldn’t be ignited. It kept the men from having to parachute into enemy territory, and they made it back to a safe base.

During his war years, Berns received daily letters from his high school sweetheart. As the war wound down, Berns suggested to her that they marry as soon he got home.

“Five days after my feet hit the shore, we were married,” he said.

Then his voice swells with pride as he talks about the woman who was wife for “67 years and two months,” who never turned Catholic, but who “was more Catholic in her practices than many Catholic women sitting in the pews.” She had met with the priest, on her own, before their marriage, she promised the children would be raised Catholic — and they were — and she agreed that they wouldn’t use artificial birth control.

“Clarice helped our kids with their catechism, she knitted mittens and caps for poor children, she tallied the grocery receipts for the religious education fund raisers, and when she went to church, she went to Mass with me,” Berns said.

That Berns misses his wife since her death two years ago is obvious. That his faith has sustained him, and has spilled over to prayer and action for others, is also obvious. That golden thread of faith continues to bind him to friends, family, and the world around him.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_message color=”alert-info” style=”rounded”]Your Catholic Neighbor

Name: Phil Berns

Parish: Stella Maris, Sister Bay

Age: 91

Favorite saint: Jude

Words to live by: “Today is another day God has given us to thank him for all his blessings.”[/vc_message][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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