St. Bernard committed to keep iconic bell towers

| September 21, 2016 | 1 Comment

St. Bernard in St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

In spite of St. Bernard’s losses over the past six years, the St. Paul parish will invest in the one thing people can’t miss.

“The bells are important for the Church life,” St. Bernard pastor Father Ivan Sant said. “It is an image of the voice of God calling us, and it is a tradition of the Church.”

Father Sant, the staff and parishioners hope to keep the church’s two large iconic bell towers standing strong in a time when need for repairs has arisen. Particularly, the north bell tower has water damage in the upper floor and the metal beams below the bell. That damage resulted from exposure to the elements. Repairs will cost at minimum $250,000 for that tower alone, but the south bell tower doesn’t show as immediate a need.

“It’s structural stuff,” St. Bernard’s maintenance director Ron Gates said. “It’s not like they’re going to collapse in the next two years or anything like that, but they do need some work.”

Nonetheless, the damage warrants urgency for a parish that continues to face an uncertain future. St. Bernard draws about 600 people to weekend Masses, according to Father Sant, and the demographics don’t guarantee sudden growth, either.

“This neighborhood is about 7 percent Catholic,” St. Bernard business administrator Karen Cronin said.

Moreover, the parish doesn’t have a tenant yet for its school building after the 2016-2017 school year. After St. Bernard High School closed in 2010, the parish leased to a charter school. Rent helps fund parish ministries, including staff to help the Karenni community.

“If we cannot find some other sources of funding, we probably will have to diminish that outreach,” Cronin said.

Consequently, the parish looked to Lynch Development Associates for a feasibility study in order to start a capital campaign for the north bell tower and repairs on the school buildings. LDA, based in New York, helps Catholic parishes and institutions nationwide for various capital campaigns.

Father Sant and the parish community know the importance of the towers, built in 1905-1907 with the present church. Moreover, the National Register of Historic Places has St. Bernard on its list.

“I remember, too, it was a part of our life because you heard the bells for the Angelus, for the funerals, for everything,” long-time parishioner Rosemary Kassekert said.

Kassekert also recalled that the bell tolled a different number of times for funerals depending if the deceased was a man or a woman. Father Sant noted that St. Bernard’s three bells serve the purpose of making different tones, such as joyful ones at Easter and Christmas.

Situated near Rice Street in St. Paul’s North End neighborhood, the parish once served as an epicenter for community life, Kassekert said. Demographics shifted after World War II, and many of the people from the parish’s early families of German and Austrian decent left for the suburbs. In came a variety of nationalities, and the parish began to shrink.

“The parish has never recovered from that,” St. Bernard’s archivist Charlie Duetch said.

St. Bernard’s bell towers played a role in attracting more people after losing both the high school and grade school in a two-year span. A wave of new people began coming in 2010.

“That fall, the refugees started to come, and they told Father Mike [Anderson] that it was because they heard the church bells, so they went to where the church was,” Cronin said.

Myanmar refugees continue to worship at St. Bernard.

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