Restored bells ring in new era for St. Bernard

| May 24, 2019 | 0 Comments

St. Bernard in St. Paul will celebrate the recent restoration of its iconic twin bell towers June 1 with the 4 p.m. Mass and a reception to follow. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Bells chiming in St. Bernard’s renovated bell towers since Easter Sunday signal more than sacred times in St. Paul’s North End neighborhood.

Completion of a nearly $1 million project to repair the iconic twin bell towers signifies a resurgence of a parish community once on the brink of closure. Arrival of Latino and Karenni immigrants has helped fuel forward momentum over the past five years that includes contributions from those parishioners and others to the bell work.

St. Bernard’s pastor, Father Ivan Sant, said the Latino community chipped in with food sales and the Karenni community “contributed very much“ to the campaign. The parish raised $872,098 for the project, including a $15,000 neighborhood improvement grant through the city of St. Paul.

The bell towers date to 1906, when the current church — which is on the National Register of Historic Places — was being built. The three bells, now with new clappers as part of the renovation, have names: Virgin Mary, Help of Christians is in the north tower, and St. Bernard and St. Joseph are in the south tower.

St. Bernard members and friends will celebrate the completion of the bells towers at the 4 p.m. Mass June 1. Celebrating will continue at a reception after Mass at the parish.

Founded in 1890, St. Bernard became a fixture in its neighborhood as a primarily German parish. St. Bernard gradually shrank after World War II after many parish families moved to the suburbs, according to parish archivist Charlie Deutsch. The parish’s K-8 school and high school closed in 2009 and 2010, respectively. In 2010, former pastor Father Mike Anderson told The Catholic Spirit that the number of registered households in the parish had dipped below 400.

But around that time, a Karenni family, attracted by the bells of St. Bernard, started attending Mass there, Father Anderson said. That started an influx of Karenni immigrants to the parish.

Karennis came to the U.S. over the past 30 years from Myanmar, formerly Burma. Locally, more Karennis joined St. Bernard over the past nine years, including many converts through the parish’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. The community grew large enough to bring in a Karenni priest, Father Joseph Kureh, in 2013 to minister to the community as an assistant to Father Sant.

The parish also attracted members of St. Paul’s Karen community, also from Myanmar but culturally distinct from the Karenni community.

Julia Marksue, 31, a Karenni member of the parish since 2012, said Father Kureh works tirelessly, spending his weekends reaching out to parishioners.

“We’re growing every year,” Marksue said about the community.

Latino immigrants moving to the neighborhood also have alleviated St. Bernard’s struggles, many joining the parish in the past three years. In 2017, Father Sant said, he met a Latino family after Mass, and they requested a Spanish Mass.

The first Spanish Mass at St. Bernard that same year drew 75 people. Now, the regular 2 p.m. Sunday Spanish Mass draws more than 250 people, Father Sant said.

About 600 people attended weekend Masses in 2016. Today, the parish averages 930 people at weekend Masses. Participation in faith formation has doubled in the last four years, from 60 students in 2015 to 120 students this year, he said.

When Father Sant arrived in 2015, he noticed the large bell in St. Bernard’s north bell tower didn’t ring. The parish tried to repair the bell in 2016 but found more damage in the north tower, with water damage on the top floor and rusted metal beams beneath the bell. Staff also found damage to bricks in both towers.

Parishioners found ways to raise the money to make repairs.

“They stepped up and they helped,” Father Sant said.

Tags: , , , ,

Category: Featured, Local News