Sister Rosalie Bertell

Written on: June 14, 2012

Reflection given by Sister Julia Lanigan, GNSH at the Funeral Liturgy June 18, 2012

What can one say in a few minutes about a woman like Rosalie—Sister Rosalie Bertell, GNSH, Dr. Bertell, Ph.D., Doctor “B”, or simply Rosalie, our sister, Aunt, colleague, mentor and friend?

Last evening, those were at her wake service heard people describing Rosalie as a prophet and mystic who lived her life with compassion, humor, and enormous concern for the life and health of our planet and all its inhabitants. This morning we’ve just listened to the readings for today’s liturgy; readings that Rosalie herself chose for this occasion. They seem to summarize the vision that lay beneath her being and actions. The first reading from Corinthians (1 Cor. 12:12-26) described how we are all one body in Christ Jesus, with each part being distinct and having a different purpose but also being deserving of equal dignity because each part is absolutely essential to the well-being of the whole body. In the second reading from John’s Gospel (John 17:1-10) we heard Jesus praying for us all, that all might know the one true God and thus enjoy the gift of eternal life. And the third reading (John 6:51-58) focused on Jesus as the Bread of Life, offering his own life and flesh for the life of the world. This is surely the key to the extraordinary energy and dynamic concern for all that motivated Rosalie right to the moment of her death.

All who are here today knew Rosalie in different ways. She was a simple and gentle woman and also a brilliant and formidable force to be reckoned with if it seemed to her that anyone was being neglected, abused or treated without due reverence and respect. She was a dedicated Grey Nun with devotion to St. Marguerite d’Youville and Christ’s compassionate heart, yet she always retained the contemplative heart of her Carmelite formation and her great love and admiration for St. Teresa. She was the daughter of Paul and Helen Bertell, the sister of Paul, John and Mary who never forgot her family or her roots in her native city of Buffalo, NY, even as she grew into a renowned figure on the worldwide scene.
We Grey Nuns knew her as our sister and friend, just another member of the local community here, always pleasant, welcoming and willing to help, living each day with voracious interest in everyone and everything and with a gifted sense of balance. She worked tirelessly on her global concerns, keeping in touch with countless people around the world, yet she never missed any of the community functions and participated fully in the daily life and routines of the household and the congregation. Those who visited her in the hospital on the last day of her life were given instructions to be sure they went home to find her responses to the latest set of questions about our congregational plans so that her input didn’t get left out just because she happened to be in the hospital!

She truly understood the importance of ALL things to the grand scheme of the WHOLE.
Many in this house are being surprised since her death by the revelation of the far-reaching dimensions of her work and mission beyond our doors. Calls and emails are coming from all over the world to express feelings of loss and of great appreciation for good that she did for so many. Most here only knew her worldwide work in rather vague and general ways. She was a humanitarian, a scientist, an environmental epidemiologist, a biometrician, a cancer researcher, and one of the few experts in the world on the detrimental effects to health of depleted uranium and low dose radiation. Many of us stumble over the very words and I daresay none of us could get very far in describing the technical aspects of her research and scientific writings. Her mind was such that when she was young and studying biometrics she was invited with others to review some of NASA’s work in preparation for space flight. During her review she discovered an error in one of the calculations that resulted in their saving millions, if not billions of dollars. But this was not the kind of thing she would talk about around the house or at the dinner table.

Here she was simply “Rosalie”, our sister.
Those of you who knew her through her work will not be at all surprised at the outpouring of love and concern from around the world. A binder with many of the emails already received is available for review outside the Chapel. Between those and many phone calls, we’ve heard from people all around the globe, from the continental USA and Canada, of course, but also from Hawaii, France, Austria, India, Cuba, the Philippines, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Brazil, Japan, Fiji, Italy, Russia, Norway and more.

Rosalie’s focus and concern was for the life and health of our planet and its inhabitants. She saw the world as a global village and spoke often of the “global community.” She spent her life trying to change people’s perception or worldview so that the “common good” of all could be the goal rather than the advancement of a few segments over the others. She advocated for a positive approach to supporting endeavors that promoted life and health, clean air, water, food and healthy habitats. She vigorously opposed everything that promoted what she called nucleogenic and technogenic sickness—the ill effects of nuclear radiation produced by all types of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. She was intent on assisting all to “see the light” about these ill effects and to join her in working to demolish the nuclear energy industry and the world-control and domination by countries with nuclear power. Her particular focus was outreach to the poor and indigenous peoples of the world who were those most harmed by and helpless against these ill effects.

Some of the ways people who are writing in have described Rosalie in her tireless advocacy for these victims of injustice include:
•“an unassuming militant for peace, justice and a healthy environment,”
•“a small woman with so much compassion and energy” and
•“a diminutive GIANT.”

At the same time, all are repeating phrases that describe her as charming, gracious, happy, attentive to each person and a wonderful ambassador of good will with twinkling eyes and ready humor. She was instrumental in initiating and/or supporting countless organizations founded to foster the various dimensions of global concern and good health for all. The legacy she leaves, I think, is mainly in the astounding number of others whom she has inspired to join in and expand this worldwide movement for justice and peace for the entire global village we call planet earth.
From leaders among them we are hearing countless comments.

A few that are representative include the following:
•“My initial contact with her was while writing my very first presentation [in opposition to the nuclear industry]. As I knew virtually nothing about nuclear science at the time, I sent her an e-mail asking her about a specific technical issue. She replied within fifteen minutes and informed me I didn’t have time to learn about it before I appeared in front of council. She’d written a ten line paragraph on the issue and directed me to: ‘drop this into your presentation and attribute it to me. No one will know what you’re talking about and they will not ask you any questions.’ She was right.” Pat Mcnamara

•“We will always remember her work, dedication, her smiles, her very people friendly personality—most of all, her commitment to a safe planet.” Meena Raman

•“Sister Bertell was a pioneer and a selfless warrior. We remember her long and stalwart battle to warn the world about the dangers of radiation. She invariably stood on the side of justice. During the terrible bombing of Yugoslavia by the NATO countries we deeply valued her presence in our Canadian coalition against that war. She spoke clearly and publicly about the depleted uranium that NATO’s weapons were leaving on the beleaguered population and the probably consequences. Rosalie lived and spoke simply and powerfully and her words made a difference in the world. She stood up against powerful interests and did so for a lifetime. Her example was an influence for many, many of us across this continent and beyond. Just knowing that her quiet voice and solid research were here was a great relief and encouragement to those battling for a better world. Her passing leaves a lonelier planet.” David Orchard, Saskatoon, SK

•“Sister is like a necessary and kind storm…people like Rosalie never die. She continues to be alive in written words, in recorded voices, in successful achievements, in the broken silence of suffering people….” Dr. Raul A. Montenegro

Before closing I think it would be most appropriate to include a quote from Rosalie herself—one that a number of people chose to include in their remembrance of her:
“We have to be part of something larger than ourselves, because our dreams are often bigger than our lifetimes. Religion has a profound effect on our staying power.”
So in closing I say for all of us, “Thank you, Rosalie, for the life you shared with us and for all that you have left with us. May you, indeed, enjoy now the blessings of eternal life with God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”


Sr. Rosalie Bertell, GNSH, Ph. D, an internationally recognized environmental epidemiologist, cancer researcher and public health advocate, died June 14, 2012, at age 83 in Saint Mary Medical Center, Langhorne, PA, in the 54th year of her religious life.

Dr. Bertell entered the field of cancer research at Roswell Park Memorial Institute, Buffalo in the 1970s. What started there grew into a lifetime devoted to research, writing, public speaking and advocacy work on the effects of low-level radiation on human health. Prior to founding the International Institute of Concern for Public Health in Toronto, Canada in 1984, she was an Energy/Public Health specialist at the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice in Toronto for four years. Sister traveled the globe, researching and advising ways of dealing with the chemical and nuclear hazards which endanger the environment and erode the health of people worldwide until shortly before her death.

Sister Rosalie authored two books, No Immediate Danger (1985) and Planet Earth: The Latest Weapon of War (2000) ) and more than a hundred articles. She was named to the Global 500 Roll of Honour 1993 (United Nations Environment Programme), and was the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, December, 1986. Among other accolades, Sister received numerous honorary doctorates in recognition of her scholarly and professional work and her efforts as a social justice advocate.

Born and educated in Buffalo, New York, she earned her BA in Math/Physics/Education from D’Youville College. She was in the Buffalo Carmelite Community 1951-1956, leaving for health reasons. Before entering the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart in 1958, she served on the faculty of Catholic University, Washington, DC for a year. From Catholic University, she received a Masters in Mathematics/Philosophy and a Doctorate in Mathematics/Biology/ Biometrics.

Sister was in administration and on the faculty of Sacred Heart Junior College in Yardley, PA for ten years. She taught at D’Youville Academy in Chamblee, GA and was an Associate Professor of Mathematics for four years at D’Youville College.

In addition to her religious family, Sister Rosalie is survived by nieces and nephews. In lieu of flowers contributions may be made to the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, 1750 Quarry Rd., Yardley, PA 19067-3998.

Wake Service at 7 PM on Sunday, June 17 and the funeral Mass at 10 AM on Monday, June 18 in Sacred Heart Chapel at the Grey Nuns’ Motherhouse in Yardley, PA. Burial will be in Resurrection Cemetery in Bensalem, PA. Funeral arrangements by Beck Givnish Funeral Homes.

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