The History of St. Bernard: A Great Tradition of Faith and Trust
On October 1, 1907, Archbishop Sebastian Messmer appointed Fr. John Fisher to organize a parish on Madison's east side. In short time, Fisher sent out the call to all Catholics east of the Yahara River, Madison's unofficial eastern city limit. The meeting took place on the evening of October 2, in the store of John Blum, and attending were approximately 75 Irish and German families in Fair Oaks, its suburbs and the nearby area of Blooming Grove. The meeting brought about exciting plans for a dual-use building, housing a church to accommodate 400 people and a school to accommodate 200 pupils. The project's estimated cost was $25,000. Articles of Incorporation were filed by the end of October, and the parish officially consisted of 80 families. The building's construction costs were set at $18,000.
Records from the Wisconsin State Journal reveal that the land for the proposed building was to be donated by the JP Corry Real Estate Company. There were complications with the acquisition of the land, and the parish was left with a substantial mortgage on the property. The mortgage and buildings costs put a heavy financial burden on these new families.
During the building, Masses were held in a neighborhood house. The first Mass celebrated for parishioners was on November 10, 1907. On that same day, the parish welcomed John Costigan as its first member to be received through the Sacrament of Baptism. Masses continued in the neighborhood home until early 1908, when construction was completed on the Fair Oaks Town Hall. After the hall was built, the parish shifted its celebrations and activities to the second floor of the hall. [Picture: first parish and school building, circa 1909]
Fr. Fisher is credited for his faithful labors in the vineyard to bring the parish into existence. He remained pastor for only one year, and was succeeded by Fr. John Bach. Under Fr. Bach's administration, he oversaw the construction of the church and school building, along with the building of the first parish rectory, which took place in 1910. The school was truly blessed with the ministry of the Racine Dominicans, who assumed the school's administration and teaching duties. There was no convent for the sisters, however, and through the generosity of Martin Kelly, the sisters resided at his home on Dunning St. After the building of the rectory in 1910, the sisters were able to occupy the former rectory ... St. Bernard's first convent!
Fr. Bach remained pastor until 1916, when he was succeeded by Fr. Loughney. Under his administration, the parish was able to pay off its debts and enjoy financial stability for the first time. St. Bernard celebrated its 10th anniversary during Fr. Loughney's pastorate, and at the time, the parish reported 300 households. At the time of his departure in 1925, the parish was in a good position to begin construction on our current building.
The 1920's brought great economic challenges to everyone. Yet, despite the challenges, St. Bernard continued to grow steadily. The parish school was very well-known in the community, thanks to the dedication and hard-working charism of the sisters. Those children who did not attend school benefitted from a very well-administered CCD program, run by parishioners Catherine Goddertz and Cecilia Miller. Their work became known throughout the nation, as other parishes followed the models they established. [Picture: first convent for the sisters, circa 1910]
Rev. William Eggers succeeded Fr. Loughney in 1925, and he remained pastor at St. Bernard until his death on April 3, 1960. Fr. Eggers' pastorate spanned three decades! Under Fr. Eggers, the parish broke ground on our current church building, and oversaw its construction. The gothic church building was a staggering $175,000 to construct, and was the largest place of worship in the city.
Fr. Eggers was honored with the title of Monsignor in 1944. Shortly thereafter, the territory of the Diocese of Madison was taken from existing territory in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. At the time of the Diocese's founding, St. Bernard was the largest parish in the Diocese. The church underwent its first redecorating project in 1948.
As the number of Catholics continued to grow in the city of Madison, it was becoming clearly evident that a second parish was needed to accommodate the increased numbers of faithful. In 1950, a large contingency of the parish was formed into Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish. The parish's new home would be in Monona, a short distance from St. Bernard's location. Even with a second parish in existence, St. Bernard continued its growth, and the school was bursting at the seams. In order to accommodate the growing number of children and families seeking a Catholic education, a new, one-floor school building with 14 classrooms and a gymnasium was constructed.
On June 10, 1960, Msgr. Theodore Thome was named the next pastor at St. Bernard. Under his administration, a new convent and rectory were built for the parish. The church underwent its second remodeling to accommodate the changes which were set forth in the Second Vatican Council. As the parish moved through the late 1960's, it was becoming more difficult to sustain the school. Changing demographics resulted in a decline in student enrollment at the school. The difficult decision to close the school was made in 1970.
Following Msgr. Thome's death in 1974, Msgr. George Wirz assumed the duty of pastor. Then Fr. Wirz had served St. Bernard as parochial vicar from 1952-1954, so it was a joyful coming home!! While enjoying his time as pastor, Msgr. Wirz was named an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Madison by Pope John Paul II. Bishop Wirz celebrated his first Mass as bishop here at St. Bernard on March 12, 1978. He remained pastor until June, 1984.
Replacing Bishop Wirz was Msgr. John Hebl. Msgr. Hebl had a very decorated career with the military, serving as chaplain in the Air Force Reserves and achieving the rank of Brigadier General. Msgr. Hebl remained at St. Bernard until 1993. While there were no big projects or significant items of interest to report during Msgr. Hebl's time, Msgr. Hebl served the parishioners of St. Bernard with a faith-filled heart, and he helped the parish continue to grow in countless ways.
In 1993, Fr Michael Hippee succeeded Msgr. Hebl as pastor. During Fr. Hippee's time at St. Bernard, he undertook a variety of projects - most notably, to make the church completely accessible to those with handicaps. Fr. Hippee also moved the offices from the current rectory to the front portion of the school, repurposing the school building to become a parish center. Fr. Hippee also entered into an agreement with SSM Healthcare, which rents the back portion of the school for their respite care and adult daycare programs. Under his pastorate, St. Bernard Preschool enjoyed continued success in its enrollment and programming. During his time with us, Fr. Hippee also received the title of Monsignor, in recognition of his service to the Church here in Madison. Msgr. Hippee retired from active ministry in July, 2013.
Fr. Michael Radowicz is the current pastor at St. Bernard, appointed after Msgr. Hippee's retirement. Since coming to St. Bernard, Fr. Michael has helped oversee the installation of new computer and telephone systems for the entire campus. Additional wiring has been completed to make the campus Internet-friendly. Upgrades to the campus security system, repairs to the tower bells and small environmental changes to the church's sanctuary have taken place since Fr. Michael's coming.
Our parish has enjoyed tremendous leadership over the years. Together with many faith-filled priests, the people of St. Bernard have made this community of faith a place where all are welcomed and invited to daily experience the love of Christ in a life-changing way. We take our rich past and the many ways the Spirit has made Himself known to us into the future, giving thanks for all we have accomplished, and opening our hearts to the ways in which Christ uses us for His glory and honor as the current parish community of St. Bernard!!