Joseph Bernardin was born on April 2, 1928, to Joseph and Maria Bernardin, who had immigrated to South Carolina from Italy in 1927. Four years later, while Maria was pregnant with their daughter Elaine, the elder Joseph Bernardin died. Young Joseph began his life of duty caring for his mother and his younger sister.
In the early 1950s, Bernardin entered the seminary to study for the priesthood. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1952 and served as an Auxiliary Bishop of Atlanta (1966-1968), general secretary of the U.S. Bishops' conference in Washington, D.C. (1968-1972), Archbishop of Cincinnati (1972-1982), president of the Bishops' conference (1974-1977). He was installed as seventh Archbishop of Chicago on August 25, 1982 and quietly revitalized what had become a dispirited Catholic diocese. He became a cardinal in 1983.
In 1993 a young man who claimed "recovered memory" filed sexual abuse charges, which proved to be false, against Bernardin. Bernardin met these charges calmly and with dignity. The young man, who was dying of AIDS, recanted the charge and the Cardinal traveled to celebrate Mass for him and to extend his complete forgiveness. Those who witnessed the event described it as spiritually electrifying.
Just days before his death from pancreatic cancer on November 14, 1996, the Cardinal completed a book, The Gift of Peace.