St. Bernard Parish Celebrate 140th AnniversarySeptember 13, 2004
The parish was established when Bishop Frederick Baraga sent Father Patrick Bernard Murray to minister to the people of Alpena in September 1864. St. Bernard became the first Catholic church between Cheboygan and Bay City. In 1883, the church split into three parishes: St. Bernard became home to the Irish parishioners and some English speaking German families; Polish descendants formed St. Mary Parish, and the French formed St. Anne Parish. Currently, the people of St. Bernard are from many different ethnic backgrounds and the parish has matured into a church for all.
Erected on what is now the parking lot across from the present church on Chisholm Street, the original St. Bernard Church was wood frame construction. There, Father Murray officiated at weddings, baptisms, funerals and Masses, and within five years presided over the construction of St. Bernard School. In 1870, its first year, 100 pupils were enrolled.
In November 1871, Father Murray turned over the pastorate to Father William Taaken, a stern Hollander. Father Taaken stayed only three years, but in that time, he acquired a lot east of the school and erected a small frame structure which would serve as a convent. A rough town of sawmills, lumberjacks, taverns and other enterprises, Alpena did not attract nuns to the area until several years later when the Sisters of Charity sent three women to teach at the school. The sisters remained part of the Alpena community until their order withdrew in 1939.
In the dozen years between the departure of its “Founding Father” Patrick Bernard Murray and the arrival of the next long-term pastor, Father Thomas Dowd Flannery, nine priests from a variety of communities and backgrounds ministered to the parish. In 1882, St. Bernard, originally part of the Sault Ste. Marie Diocese, then the Detroit Diocese, was transferred to the newly formed Grand Rapids Diocese.
The new Grand Rapids leader, Bishop Henry Joseph Richter, took a hard look at the Alpena church and reasoned that the diverse cultures of the area should remain with their own religious customs brought from Europe, and divided the parish into three congregations. Father Flannery became the pastor for the English-speaking peoples, primarily Irish, at St. Bernard Church. He remained there for 37 years, parting only in death.
In 1884, under Father Flannery’s supervision, the current Gothic-style church was built, with its first Mass being celebrated on November 9 of that year. Six years later, the cornerstone for a brick and stone school was laid, and, in July 1902, the parish began work on the rectory. In 1904, a new convent replaced the old wood-frame structure. In 20 years, Father Flannery and the parishioners of St. Bernard constructed four substantial buildings, three of which are still in service today. The school built in 1890 was demolished and replaced in 1962.
Over the next 100 years, many priests served St. Bernard Parish – some for decades and others for only a short while. Father David Greka, who began his pastorate in 1999, is the current parish leader. Others include Father Robert Bissot (1975 to 1985) and Father Joseph Graff (1992 to 1998), both of whom are still in active ministry for the Diocese of Gaylord.
Although the church building constructed in 1884 remains to this day, several remodeling projects, renovations and demolitions have taken place over the years. Among the most joyous were the restoration of the “tracker” pipe organ in 1982 and the redecorating of the sanctuary in 1999.
The most important asset of the parish, however, is its people and the good works they have established in the community. In conjunction with the 100th Anniversary of the parish, a collection was taken and sent to the Church of St. Martin dePorres of Cheek, Texas to help them build a new church home. About the same time, the parish purchased two pieces of property on Lockwood Street including homes leased to the diocese to be used as “Madonna House,” a place of friendship, listening and prayer and maintained by the Sisters of Madonna House of Combermere, Ontario. It was formally dedicated in March 1985.
Continuing its ministry to the poor and needy, a committee of parishioners, under the direction of Father William Fischer of the Oblates of St. Frances de Sales, established “Friendship Room,” a soup kitchen. Housed in the St. Bernard Parish Center and staffed by volunteers, Friendship Room serves a daily evening meal six days a week to all who come – an average of 64 people per day. Since its establishment in 1988, other local churches of varying denominations have joined in contributing both volunteers and cash donations to Friendship Room. Part of its mission statement says, “We will open our hearts and arms to all who seek our service...If people come, we will assume that they are hungry; and we will feed them.”
As St. Bernard of Clairvaux Parish approaches its 140th year, the people continue to focus their attention on social issues, global solidarity and Christian unity. They continue to tithe for the needs of the community and the world.
In a letter to the parishioners of St. Bernard regarding the upcoming celebration, Father David Greka stated, “I ask God for His blessings on this meaningful and historical event. We thank God for all the people, for their spiritual strength as they deposited their faith in this part of the United States and the influence that is still lived in the Parish of St. Bernard, and the faith that continues to build our future.”