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St. Bernard Parish Celebrates 100 Years of Faith

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by Eileen Connelly, OSU

A small Place Where God’s Love is Made Big.” These are words to live by at St. Bernard Parish in Spring Grove Village, where parishioners are marking 100 years of faith. The parish, established in 1919, is small at approximately 140 households and has weathered much change over the years. Yet it remains a vital faith community committed to spirituality, collaboration, active lay involvement and ministries focused on social justice and charity.

Parishioners, neighbors and friends gathered for St. Bernard’s centennial Mass on Sept. 22, with Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr presiding. Concelebrating were Father Joseph Robinson, canonical pastor, and Jesuit Fathers Robert Thesing and Joseph Folzenlogen, sacramental ministers.

“It was so joyful and spiritual,” said longtime parishioner Betty Ventura. “I had a smile on my face the whole time.”

An Active Parish Life

Fellow parishioner Jim Jurgens, co-chairperson of the history committee, along with Ventura, has done extensive research on the faith community’s background and significant events.
He believes there are four deeply rooted characteristics of parish life at St. Bernard: an openness to change and diversity; formation through personal interaction; a commitment to lay leadership in the church; and dedication to serving the marginalized and attentiveness to the needs of the disadvantaged.

A History of Collaboration

The founding parishioners and their pastor, Father Martin Varley, celebrated the first Mass at St. Bernard on May 18, 1919, in the Town Hall (now Harmony Lodge). Father Varley was described as “young, enthusiastic and very spiritual,” Ventura said. “He really set the tone for the parish as a welcoming one.”

The early emphasis on collaboration and lay leadership took hold as St. Bernard Church and school, led by the Franciscan Sisters of Oldenburg, were constructed and parish groups, such as the Holy Name and Madonna societies, were formed. Parish and school events, from chicken dinners to festivals, built community and raised the necessary funds to reach out to neighbors in need. The St. Vincent de Paul Society, established in the 1950s, is still going strong today. In 1946, Mother of Christ, a pre-dominantly African-American parish, was established in neighboring Winton Terrace. Over the years, the faith communities have shared pastors, celebrated Holy Week liturgies at one parish or another, held joint retreat days, and been enriched by each other’s diversity.

Unique to St. Bernard’s history is its connection to New Jerusalem, a charismatic lay community that arrived at the parish in the 1970s under the direction of Franciscan Father Richard Rohr. St. Bernard’s campus became home to New Jerusalem, and throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, the two operated as separate, yet connected, communities.

Parishioners say St. Bernard has been blessed by dedicated, faith-filled pastors throughout its history. Among these beloved spiritual leaders was the late Father Jim Shappelle, whose pastorate spanned 1984-2012. Father Schappelle was particularly well known for his love of scripture, pastoral kindness and “bike ministry,” which involved repairing or providing bicycles for Winton Place children and leading the popular annual “bike hikes.”

A Community That Engages

Outreach has always been a focus at St. Bernard. “Whatever is going on in the neighborhood, St. Bernard’s is part of it,” Jurgens said.

Mary Cabrini Durkin noted that, in addition to formal parish outreach programs, many service efforts have developed organically at the initiative of parishioners, including the Winton Place Youth Center. Founded by parishioners, with many still tutoring and serving on the board of directors, the center provides Spring Grove Village children with after-school care, tutoring, homework supervision and a variety of activities.

“We’re a community that engages,” Durkin said. “We live our faith.”

That faith is nourished through relevant homilies, a prayerful community and inspirational music that make St. Bernard’s liturgies a deeply meaningful way for parishioners to connect with God and each other, Ventura said.

She has fond memories of her years at St. Bernard, including as a student at the parish school, which closed in 1972. “We were close to all of the sisters. They were sweet, funny and joyful and really made an impression on us,” she said.

While the parish’s small size has previously led to discussion regarding mergers or possible closure, Jurgens noted that St. Bernard embarked on a bright future blessed by the pastorate of Father Thesing, who shifted from pastor to sacramental minister in 2018. At that time, in keeping with the parish’s strength in lay leadership, Franciscan Sister Margie Niemer was appointed St. Bernard’s pastoral administrator. In addition, St. Bernard, Mother of Christ and St. Boniface in Northside have joined together as a pastoral region. And, members of the local Hispanic community who call St. Bernard home have brought new life to the parish.

“As we celebrate this one hundredth anniversary, we are overwhelmed with the many blessings we have received as a parish from our gracious God,” Sister Margie wrote in a letter to parishioners and friends. “May God continue to bless our St. Bernard community of faith!”

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