Share this story

 | By Barbara F. Zahner

Out of the Wilderness

Prophetic Minister for Those With Mental Illness

Standing ovations rarely occur at Sunday Lenten liturgies, especially Sunday Masses at 8:30 a.m. Yet, on Sunday, March 13, 2022, Father George Aranha, pastor of Santa Teresa Church in South San Jose, ended the liturgy announcing the return of Rich Berryessa.

A member of Santa Teresa Church since 1976 and founder of the Mental Health Ministry in the Diocese of San José, Rich’s generosity of spirit has touched many. With a broad smile, Fr. George gestured, “You can see Rich over there in the right-hand corner. Welcome back, Rich!” Necks craned, fingers pointed, smiles enveloped the relieved faces of Rich’s many friends in Santa Teresa Parish. The final gong of the Lenten bell sounded. Instead of heading home for Sunday breakfast, churchgoers surrounded Richard Berryessa.

A faith-filled advocate, Rich has dedicated his time and energy to those who suffer from mental illness and to those bereaved by the loss of a loved one from suicide. Rich married his wife Kristi in 1975. Before marriage, Rich entered the seminary to be a Jesuit. Then he paused from studying theology to join the Army in Korea. Rich ruefully commented that when he left the seminary, he headed from praying to bayonets. Returning from Korea, Rich re-entered the Jesuit seminary.

This second time he discerned that he had a strong vocation to serve others; however, his path lay outside a religious community.

Instead, Rich became an educator, teaching psychology and other subjects. Through teaching, Rich met Kristi, his wife of 47 years.

Kristi and Rich welcomed three children: Kathleen born in 1976, Amy in 1978, and Brian in 1979. The family reveled in school activities, camping near Yosemite, and trips to Hawaii. Kristi taught elementary and junior high. Rich found purpose in teaching high school psychology at Oakgrove High School in San José. Looking back, Rich says, “I thought I understood mental health until my son Brian was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Then my real learning began.” Kristi and Rich sought treatment for Brian. They also immersed themselves in education about mental health through NAMI’s Family to Family program. NAMI is the local non-profit that serves families and others with mental health education, resources, and peer support. While Kristi and Rich sought help, Brian’s mental illness manifested in erratic behavior, isolation, and distancing from friends, family, and church community. Rich described Brian as a happy-go-lucky kid who loved music, art, Halloween, and being with others. Sadly, while in his early 20’s, Brian’s mental health declined grievously. On February 14, 2006, Brian Berryessa died as a result of his mental illness. Looking back on that dark, shocking day when he learned Brian had died, Rich said, “My first call was to Fr. Chris Bennett,” then pastor of Santa Teresa Church. Fr. Chris “came immediately.” Rich and Kristi express deep gratitude to Fr. Chris and Lynda DeManti, Pastoral Associate at Santa Teresa Church, “for getting us through” those devastating days following Brian’s death.

As a legacy to Brian, Rich dedicated himself to educating others about mental illness. A committed NAMI volunteer, Rich spoke at hospitals, schools, and churches on the signs, symptoms, recovery, and hope for those distressed by mental illness. Former NAMI Executive Director Kathy Forward says, “Rich helped so many. He shared his pain and how to get through it.” At Santa Teresa Church, as a member of the Social Action Ministry, Rich became the “go-to” person in the parish for mental health. He also organized prayer vigils, NAMI presentations, and films on mental illness. In 2015, following three deaths by suicide in one month in one parish, Bishop PJ McGrath endorsed the Mental Health Ministry in the Chancery under Social Justice, now known as the Office for Life, Justice, and Peace. Rich Berryessa volunteered to serve on the founding task force. Rich and Kristi also participated in Out of the Wilderness, the first support group in the Diocese for those bereaved by the loss of a loved one from suicide. Today these early efforts have evolved into Mental Health Ministers of the Diocese of San José. To date, over 50 ministers are trained in ten different parishes. Challenged by health changes yet exuding gratitude and encouragement, Rich has passed on the leadership of the Diocesan Mental Health Ministry. Rev. Cindy McCalmont of NAMI FaithNet, another NAMI service that Rich sparked to life, says, “With gentle persistence, Rich lives the words of Mother Teresa, ‘Do small things with great love.’” Fr. George Aranha echoes Rev. McCalmont, “Rich is one of the holiest laypeople I have met … He is caring, gentle, and passionate about his faith and service to the community. He has made a miraculous recovery and will continue to be an inspiration to me and to countless others.”

For information:

Mental Health Ministry/Ministerio de Salud Mental: