About 400 people lined up Dec. 30 at Church of the Epiphany in Coon Rapids for the beginning of the 11 a.m. reviewal and 24-hour vigil of Father Bernard Reiser, 86, the founding pastor of the parish who served there from 1964 to 2001.
He died Dec. 27, just two days shy of his 87th birthday.
The vigil was a precursor to the packed church for the Dec. 31 funeral Mass with Archbishop John Nienstedt as the main presider and Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, as homilist, which he later said in a telephone interview was “a tremendous honor.”
After Father Snyder was ordained in 1988 for this archdiocese, he spent two years serving with Father Reiser.
“When I first got to Epiphany, his advice to me was, ‘Whatever you do, don’t try to keep up with me.’ It was the most compassionate advice he could have given me, because I never could have — nobody could keep up with Father Reiser,” Father Snyder said.
While at Epiphany, Father Reiser pushed the young associate to play the newly installed pipe organ, so Father Snyder was surprised when the pastor asked him to be the homilist for the funeral, rather than play the organ.
In the homily, Father Snyder said the Father Reiser was “a man of great devotion” to Mary and the saints; a “man of great faith” who believed that his job was to “get people to heaven” whatever their church affiliation; and “a man of vision.”
Father Reiser’s vision for Epiphany parish was to create a spiritual campus that served people from birth to death. During his pastorate, the parish built an elementary school, a convent for 20 sisters, a church that seats 1,900 and is connected to an assisted living facility and senior apartments, where Father Reiser lived after his retirement from full-time ministry.
The church complex also has several outdoor shrines, a cemetery, a perpetual adoration chapel, religious gift shop, library, meeting rooms, office space and a preschool and extended day program on its 72 acres.
Today, Father Dennis Zehren, pastor, oversees 5,000 families (20,000 parishioners), 600 students in the K-8 school, 1,000 students in faith formation, and many ministries started by his predecessors, Father Patrick Kennedy and Father Reiser.
Charity in his heart, hands
Father Reiser was the author of “Reiser’s Ramblings,” which helps support the charity he founded — Reiser Relief Inc. — to serve the people of Haiti, just one of several outreach missions that Epiphany supports.
Deb Pafko, whose son, Matthew, spent the last days of his 16 years helping to raise money for Sharing and Caring Hands in Minneapolis, said that “everyone loved Father Reiser,” especially the Pafko family.
“He came to our house every week, Thursday at 4:15, for two years, through every weather, through every holiday. He came down to the hospital for Matthew,” who died July 20, 2009, from spine and brain cancer, Pafko said. Just weeks before his death, Father Reiser also had surgery to address a rapidly growing cancer in his brain, which Pafko said was another connection between her son and the former pastor.
Mary Jo Copeland said that Father Reiser always supported Sharing and Caring Hands — the charity she founded in 1985 to serve homeless people — by inviting her to speak at Epiphany, by regularly visiting the Minneapolis site, himself, and by serving on the board.
“He did a great deal, not just for Sharing and Caring Hands, but for the church. He was a blessed man and a fine man and a wonderful servant and a presence of Jesus Christ to everybody,” Copeland said. He attended almost every board meeting and was active until just before he died, she added.
Father Snyder said that Father Reiser chose the challenging parable of the Last Judgment for his funeral Gospel reading.
“It starkly reminds us that in the end we will be asked to give an accounting of how we have responded to the poor, the needy and the marginalized,” he said. “The image that I have in hearing this Gospel, today, is that of Father Reiser passing through the gates of heaven to find throngs of welcoming faces to greet him, all of them witnesses that he took this mandate of charity to heart and helped them in their struggle and need.”
Father Reiser was born Dec. 29, 1924. He was ordained a priest June 4, 1949, and served at St. Mary of the Lake in White Bear Lake, before being named pastor of the new Coon Rapids parish. After his official retirement in 2001, Father Reiser served St. Nicholas in New Market, where he inspired parishioners to donate a truck and water tanks to Haiti.
After the funeral Mass, interment was at Epiphany Cemetery.