St. Bernard’s 1906-2020
The purpose of this history, as we have stated before is not to glorify any individual priest or group of parishioners, but to acknowledge God’s richest blessings bestowed on the parish. The land, upon which St. Bernard’s Church stands today, was once a part of Buffalo Creek Reservation and was deeded by the Seneca Indians to Thomas L. Ogden, by treaty on January 15, 1838. Later, this land became owned by the Clinton and Ogden Street Land Company. A Mr. Arthur H. Williams bought this land from the land company and later sold it to St. Bernard’s Church.
At the turn of the century, Catholic farmers and workingmen began to settle in this section of the city and they had to travel far into the city to attend Sunday Mass. In 1883 St. Agnes Church was founded for the German Catholics and in 1890 St. Casimir’s for the Poles. However, St. Agnes Church was quite a distance away and many of the Germans in the Clinton Street section sometimes went to St. Casimir’s because it was more convenient. Then in the year 1905 a delegation of men went to the bishop and petitioned him to establish a church for the German Families in this section. Bishop Colton heard their plea and sent Father William Bernet to organize the new Parish. The name “St. Bernard” was chosen after the patron saint of the pastor’s father and was so incorporated on August 13,1906. Father Bernet’s first task was to find a suitable location. There were two favorable sites, one at Clinton Street and Weimer and the other at Clinton and Willett Streets.
The committee finally chose the present site and the land running 226 feet along Clinton Street and 279 feet along South Ogden and Willett Streets was deeded for the Church on August 20, 1906 for the sum of $6,100.
Building, however, did not begin until 1907 and during this time Father Bernet took up residence with Father Kasprzak and held the 9 o’clock mass on Sundays, in St. Casimir’s Church, for his new flock. A combination building designed by architects Schmill and Gould was erected. The Church was on the ground floor and the school and priest’s residence on the second floor. The first Mass was said in the new building at Midnight on Christmas 1907.
In the first years of the Parish, much of the work was done by the parishioners themselves. When the land was first acquired, it was rough and uneven. The men got together and held a landscaping “bee”. They graded the land and planted the trees and shrubs, many of which are still standing today. They held many “bees” for the purpose of sawing and splitting railroad ties acquired for fuel and year after the women got together for scrubbing “bees” to clean the building.
On February 8, 1908, St. Bernard’s school was opened. Sister Fideles and sister Amabilis came from the mother house on Pine St. to teach the sixty children. Later, that same year Sister Wilhelmina came to assist in teaching the increasing number of children.
At the annual trustees’ meeting on January 4, 1910, it was voted to build a rectory on Willet St. The sturdy building was erected at a cost of $4,923 and still is being used today. Towards the of the year 1910, the pastor moved into his new rectory and the nuns, who had been commuting from the mother house, took up residence on the second floor of the church building.
In April 1911, Father Bernet was appointed pastor of Sacred Heart Church and Father John Kiefer succeeded him as second pastor of St. Bernard’s. He was renowned for his personal piety and the classical structure of his sermons. Father John Kiefer began saying two masses on Sundays and he printed diagrams of the pews, showing where everyone rented his seating. During his tenure as pastor, the re paving of Clinton Street was paid for and concrete walks were laid to replace the old wooden ones. It was also during his pastorate that the St. Elizabeth Society and the Holy Name Society were established. On March 19, 1916, Fr Kiefer was appointed pastor of St. Agnes Church, where he died in 1926. Father Michael Anstett was appointed by the Bishop as third pastor of St. Bernard’s. He was a man known for his resourcefulness, persistence and steady effort on behalf of the Parish. In 1920, Fr. Ansett purchased a new home for the sisters. The property at 370 Willet St. had been a cottage, with a milk diary in the rear. This property was purchased at the cost of $3,625 and deeded to St. Bernard’s on March 31, 1920. When the sisters moved out of the school building, the janitor moved into the vacated quarters. In 1921, the school enrollment reached 300 and the land adjacent to the convent was purchased and a school annex erected at the cost of $4,951.
In 1923, Father Anstett introduced the Sunday envelope system and the zealous parishioners stood with their pastor in making use of these envelopes. In 1925 bowling alleys were installed in the basement and brought sufficient returns during the first year to pay for the cost of them. However, when the early enthusiasm was spent, the bowling alleys were no longer an outstanding financial success and were later abandoned. During Father Antsett’s time, the Parish enjoyed the aid of the first assistant in the person of Father Joseph Jerge.
Father Anstett was noted for his zeal for Catholic Charities and was very active in the City’s political life, insofar as it touched the neighborhood. In 1926, Bishop Turner appointed Father Anstett as pastor of St. Agnes Church and Father Wanenmacher succeeded him.
On July 10, 1926 Father Wanenmacher was installed as fourth pastor of St. Bernard’s. Previously he had been pastor of St. Cecilia’s Church in Sheldon, NY and Dean of Wyoming County. During his stay at St. Bernard, he undertook the repair and refinishing of the church building, both inside and out, at a cost of over $4,000. The basement was repainted; the church refinished entirely, and the mural decorations were done by his own hand. The classrooms were repainted and on the top floor, entirely new stage setting were installed. In 1928 the convent was enlarged at a cost of $5,025.
In 1928, the convent was enlarged at cost of $5,025. A new chapel was created, and a second floor added. About this time, the teaching staff of the school was augmented by competent lay teachers. In spring of 1931, a 7-foot fence was erected around the property. In the fall of that year preparation were begun for the celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary. Various parishioners began to contribute money for the purchase of vestments and other sanctuary articles.
On June 26, 1932, the new organ, donated by the St. Elizabeth, was solemnly blessed and a sacred concert rendered by Professor Henry Zeinz. On August 20, 1932, the feast of St. Bernard, the new life-sized statue of the patron saint was unveiled. The statue was carved out of wood by Father Wanenmacher and now occupies a place of honor in St. Bernard’s new school. On all Saints Day, November 1, 1932, the parish attended a Jubilee High Mass sung by Father Szal. A festive sermon was delivered by Father Hildebrand and all former assistants were in the sanctuary. On December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a second Jubilee High Mass was sung my Father Anstett and the Sermon was preached by Msgr. Bernet. The diocesan priests choir sang the Mass, under the direction of Msgr. William Schreck. On the following Tuesday evening a public entertainment and supper was served by the St. Elizabeth Society in the school basement. In March 1943, Father Wanenmacher was appointed pastor of St. Mary of Sorrows Church and Father Herzing, who was the assistant at the time, acted as administrator of the Parish until a new pastor was appointed.
Perhaps the most important contubition that Father Wanenmacher made to St. Bernard’s parish was the starting of the “Building Fund” which made the present St. Bernard’s Church possible. So, we might say that Father Wanenmacher is the father of St. Bernard’s new church.
On May 25, 1943, Bishop Duffy appointed Father Charles Schreckenberger as the new Pastor of St. Bernard’s. Previously, he had been Pastor of St. Martin Church in Langford. On May 30, 1943, Memorial Day, Fr. Schreckenberger was installed by Msgr. William Schreck.
During Father Schreckenberger’s pastorate many repairs were made. In 1944, kneeling pads were installed in the Church and the following year the church was redecorated. New lights, sanctuary carpet, canopy and drapes were purchased at the cost of $2,500. In 1946, there was repair work to be done on the school roof. New copper gutters and flashing was installed. On Christmas Eve 1946, the new Hammond organ, donated by the St. Elizabeth Society, was played for the first time.
In the spring of 1949, a small fire caused damage to the school basement and after repairs were made, the basement was newly decorated.
On June 1949, Bishop O’Hara appointed Father Schreckenberger to the pastore of St. Mary Magdalene’s Church and Father Louis Kiefer came from Sacred Heart Church in Freindship, New York. On Sunday June 21, he was installed as sixth pastor of St. Bernard’s by Rt. Rev. Msgr. Albert Rung.
In 1950, the sanctuary was redecorated. A new tabernacle, new canopy and new lights were installed. During the years 1950-1953, much repair work was done. The school was repainted, a new furnace installed in the school and the furnaces in the annex, convent and rectory converted to gas and oil.
In the meantime, plans were discussed and drawn up by the Architect Mortimer J. Murphy for the building of St. Bernard’s new church.
In 1953, the system of pink envelopes for the building of the new church was started. On April 25, 1953, at 12:00 o’clock noon, the ground was broken for the building of the Church. Although there was a downpour during the ceremony, nevertheless it did not dampen our spirits, for now the parishioners knew that their dream would soon become a reality. The very next day work began on the new structure.
November 1, 1953, Bishop Leo Smith laid the cornerstone and the church was formally opened in December 1954. Although the construction of the Church took only 19 months, nevertheless to the anxious parishioners, it seemed years. Even though construction moved steadily forward, things did not always proceed smoothly. There was a threat of a builder’s strike and a few times, work had to be suspended for a few days at a time. Father Kiefer had promised the parishioners that we would be in the new church by Christmas 1954, and he worked hard towards that goal. After many meetings with contractors, many telephone calls (some long distance), etc, he succeeded in keeping his promise to the people. By December 24, 1954, we were ready to move into the new Church, only there was one big obstacle to overcome. Our marble altar had not arrived from Italy. But a promise made, must be kept. On the morning of December 24, 1954, as soon as the 8:15 Mass was finished, Father Kiefer and a group of men moved the altar from the old church to the new. That same evening, Christmas Eve, the Blessed Sacrament was bought in solemn procession to the church. Thus, Our Blessed Lord on His Birthday moved into His new home. A Solemn Midnight Mass was celebrated, attended by a full church of grateful parishioners, grateful to Almighty God for a dream come true.
In January 1955, the new marble high altar and side altars arrived from Italy. They were installed and the Mass was said on the new high altar for the first time on palms Sunday. The new wood carved stations arrived from Italy in April, and on Sunday April 24th at 3PM the new church was dedicated by His Excellency, the Most Rev. Leo R. Smith, D.D., Auxiliary Bishop of Buffalo.
In February 1955, work has begun on the renovation of the school. The space formerly used as the church was made into classrooms, new stairwells, and lavatories were installed, and the old classrooms were modernized. Thus, St. Bernard’s acquired not only the new Church, but also a new school. The total cost of the new church was $350,000 and the renovation of the school $80,000. Despite the fact that our total expense for both buildings was $430,000, our present indebtedness is only $230,000. We think it is a job well done by Father Kiefer, who refused to take credit for anything. He said that the success was due to the graces received from the Almighty God and the good will and sacrifices of loyal parishioners. The work of renovating the old school building was completed September of 1955. Our Parish Community was growing very fast due to the building expansion program and the completion of the Niagara Thruway.
The enrollment for the 1955-56 school year was at 368 students. To accommodate the student’s classes were held on the first and second floors, a class was held on the third floor, another in the basement as well in the annex on Willet Street.
During 1956 St. Bernard celebrated its “Golden Jubilee” as well as Father Louis Kiefer’s “40th Anniversary in the Priesthood. A gala celebration was held at Plewacki Post with an overflowing crowd of friends and relatives attending.
By the end of 1958 our school was very crowded, and our Parish continued to grow. Our debt was down to $69,000.00. It was decided to build a two story 80 x 60 ft. addition to our school building, which would include a large kindergarten for our preschoolers. The third floor of the old school building was removed. The school basement included a new kitchen where the old coal furnaces had been located. Two restrooms, as well as adequate storage space, was provided.
The capacity of the school basement was brought up to 500 people which greatly helped develop our weekly Bingo games which, over the years, has helped pay off our church indebtedness. Naturally by increasing the size of our school, we also increased the size of our parish debt. At the opening of our new school year our debt had increased to $354,000.00.
The annex on Willet Street was turned over to the Holy Name Society.
In 1961, a “second collection” envelope was put into effect and during its first year, an additional $38,500.00 was collected and paid off to reduce our debt. Our Parish continued to grow and the parishioners responded so graciously that by the end of 1962, the Church debt was down to $266,000.00.
During the early part of 1963, our beloved Pastor Father Kiefer, took sick and after several months of treatments, the Good Lord called him to his final reward on August 15th, 1963.
His memory will linger long in the hearts of those who were privileged to know him. As a memorial, a beautiful portrait of Fr. Kiefer hangs in the main corridor of our school building. Father Kiefer was with us from 1949 to 1963.
On September 15th, 1963, Rev. Francis Hall was installed as our new Pastor. Father Hall immediately dedicated much of his time working towards reducing the Parish debt as quickly as possible. Thereby, saving the parish the large interest payments. Just about this time, the Diocese instituted the Diocesan Development Fund and St. Bernard’s was assessed at $141,000.00.
Late in 1963, our Church was painted at a cost of $8,500.00, and the parish purchased a home on South Ogden Street which was located behind the church. This lot was to provide space for parking and the “New Rectory”.
During the years 1964 through 1966, our debt was reduced from $266,000.00 to $146,292.00 which was paid off in early 1967. The parish also paid to the D.D.F. the amount of $35,000.00.
Our church and school property was kept in tip top shape and our parking facilities provided adequate.
We still owed the D.D.F. $106,529.25 and during the year 1967 we managed to pay $73,529.25, leaving a balance of $33,000.00.
In 1967, Father Hall accepted assignments to St. Mary’s Church in Lancaster, New York. Father Hall was with us from September 16, 1963 to October 16, 1967. On December 10, 1967, Rev. Michael Sekelsky was installed as Pastor of St. Bernard’s.
Early in 1968, our Diocesan Development Fund of $33,000.00 was paid off in full to the Diocese, leaving our parish free of any debt……But not for long. In the planning was the construction of a New Parish House which would include administration rooms. The appraised cost with furniture was close to $160.000.…so now the parish had a new debt to pay.
On April 20th, 1968, Father Sekelsky, along with our former Pastor, Father Hall, broke ground for the new rectory, at the same time the formalities included the dedication of our new main Altar in the Church. The property located next to the old rectory was purchased to be eventually used for parking.
In 1969, the second floor of the “old school building” was remolded. Classrooms were painted and the high ceilings were lowered.
The new rectory was completed and ready for occupancy in 1970. Parishioners and friends were invited to an “Open House” to see what had been accomplished. Shortly afterward, the old rectory and the property next door was torn down to make additional parking.
During the year 1971, the Diocese changed the Financial Statements to end on August 31st of each year to coincide with school accounting system.
In 1972, the Church was repainted, and the pews refinished. Outside, the trees were removed from the parking lot and a new black top was applied. The iron fence was extended along Willet Street making a new lot entrance. At the end of 1972, our Church debt was reduced to $51,303.85.
In the latter part of February 1973, the Mother House of the teaching order of Sisters of St. Francis at Holy Angles Convent recalled the teaching staff of our new school. Father Sekelsky was successful in acquiring Sister Solane of the Felician Order to help organize a lay teaching staff.
Our Home School Association agreed to run twenty-eight Sunday Bingo games to help with the additional salaries.
On June 16, 1973, Father Michael Sekelsky celebrated the “40th anniversary” of his ordination in the priesthood. A Mass of Thanksgiving was celebrated and was followed by a dinner held in the school hall.
During the summer months, determined to succeed, Fr. Sekelsky worked zealously to obtain a principle for the school. In order to demonstrate confidence in the future of the school and faith in the Lay faculty, he permitted Miss Lempke and Mr. Rasza to begin the organization of the pre-school program. Before the school doors opened in September, Sister Solane assumed the position of school principle and the pre-school sessions were scheduled to begin. St. Bernard’s Parish was the first in the diocese to initiate a pre-school program in the city.
Sadness entered our parish for on December 17, 1973, Father Sekelsky was taken from us to his eternal reward.
Father William Lamphear was selected to be the Administrator until a new Pastor could be named. The mortgage balance of $15,298.76 was paid off in the early part of 1974. The mortgage burning took place at a reception in the school hall.
On February 23, 1974, Father Wilbur J. Yaeger became the 9th pastor of St. Bernard’s. In the beginning of his administration there was a general renovation of the school. New windows were installed in the old building, new ceilings in the basement, two new science rooms, repaving of the school grounds, new fencing on the back lot and the baptistry in church was converted into a reconciliation room. In addition to the science labs equipment was implemented into sewing and typing rooms to provide greater educational opportunities for the young people of the parish.
Also, under Father Yaeger, we saw the formation of the Senior Citizen Club, the Concern Office to aid those in need, and the Parish Council. The council meets semi-monthly and provides for the needs of the parish.
On June 5, 1977, the Parish Council gave a testimonial dinner at the Pellamwood House honoring Father Yaeger on his thirtieth year of priestly ordination.
During the Blizzard of 1977, when the government was distributing food stamps, Father Yaeger felt the need for a local distribution center. Therefore, he arranged to have St. Bernard’s School become a local distribution center in order to help people of the neighborhood conveniently obtain their food stamps in this area.
In 1979, with the energy crisis and the high fuel bills, Father Yaeger converted one of the classrooms into a chapel which is used during the cold months. This has been a tremendous saving on fuel consumption. The first Mass was said on November 5, 1979.
Regardless of the high inflation and the increase cost of operating the school, the bright side of the ledger shows a comfortable savings as of today.
With the onset of Father Yaeger’s illness, Bishop Edward D. Head appointed Father James M. Augustyn as temporary administrator in November of 1980.
To insure a little privacy for the priests of the parish a small enclosure was added to the rectory, may it be known as “St. Bernard’s Rose Garden”.
Anticipating the celebration of the 75th anniversary, the church was painted inside, the pews varnished, new carpeting in the sanctuary, drapes on the confessionals and medallions on the side altars purchased. Entrances were sand blasted to restore the new look. The entire school was painted inside. A Mass of Thanksgiving on Saturday, October 3, 1981 at 4:00 p.m. with Bishop Edward D. Head as the main celebrant and a banquet in the school hall climaxed the celebration.
On February 20th, 1982, Bishop Edward D. Head appointed Msgr. Francis B. Juchnowski as the 12th pastor of St. Bernard. During his tenure, the side confessionals were removed and in, their place erected was a shrine to St. Joseph and a shrine to Jesus. In 1988 he was appointed moderator for the Diocesan Union of Holy Name Societies, and in 2004 Moderator for the National Association of Holy Name Societies. He retired July 1st, 2001 and remained at St. Bernard’s and served the parish as much as he could. He died June 12, 2005.
July 1, 2001 Fr. Francis Chmielewski who was a residence at St. Bernard, Chaplain at Veterans Hospital and week-end assistant at St. Bernard was appointed pastor. Fr. Francis established an Advisory Board to help and advise him on matters of the Church. In preparation for the 100th Anniversary, the gutters on the Church were repaired, and the Church was painted on the inside.
The celebration kicked off in October 2005, running through the culmination Polka Mass in September 2006. Included among the many activities through the year were a Living Rosary and an excursion to Niagara on the Lake. An anniversary banquet was held at Beginnings by Kiebzak following the Celebratory Polka Mass. It was an eventful year.
By 2007, due to attrition, a dwindling membership and a shortage of available priests, the Diocese of Buffalo through their Strategic Planning Commission deemed it necessary to unify the Kaisertown parishes of St. Bernard’s and St. Casimir’s churches. In this move, Rev. Frank Chmielewski shared pastoral duties between the two parishes with Rev. Gary Szczepankiewicz.
Fr. Chmielewski was established as the Senior Parochial Vicar for the united parishes in 2008, with Fr. Szczepankiewicz assuming the role of pastor for the dual houses of worship.
Rev. Gary Szczepankiewicz was reassigned to Our Lady of Czestochowa church in North Tonawanda in 2010. On his departure, Father Frank resumed the post of pastor and given the title of Temporary Administrator of both St. Bernard’s and St. Casimir’s parishes.
2011 saw the experiment of the united churches reversed with St. Casimir’s Church becoming an oratory under the direction of Rev. Czeslaw Krysa. Father Chmielewski continued on as the pastor of St. Bernard’s, celebrating the 40th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood in 2013. He served as pastor until his passing after an extended battle with cancer. He went to his Heavenly Father on August 7, 2014.
During this time, Rev. William J. (Jud) Weiksnar became the temporary administrator at St. Bernard’s. The initiative called “Journey in Faith & Grace” necessitated the Diocese to again link neighborhood churches on October 1, 2015, with St. Bernard’s and Our Lady of Czestochowa (Cheektowaga) beginning their association. Both parishes retained their identities but shared a Pastor Rev. Krzysztof Frost of the Pallotine Order was brought in as the ‘permanent’ Administrator of St. Bernard’s and OLC. He was forced to leave the position due to Visa issues at the end of July, 2017.
Many priests celebrated mass at St. Bernard’s throughout this span of time. Fr. Weiksnar, former Administrator Rev. James Augustyn, Rev. Walter Matuszak and Father Paul Sabo have been reliable and faithful servants to the St. Bernard’s parishioners.
On Fr. Frost’s departure, the Diocese selected Rev. Marcin Porada, who had served as parochial vicar at St. John Gualbert Parish in Cheektowaga, to assume the positions of Administrator and Pastor of the linked parishes in August of 2017. Father Porada took an active approach on this assignment having a youthful focus and setting a positive direction for the two congregations, bringing them ‘back to the future’ with a view on the more traditional functions of the church. He had taken up residency in the St. Bernard’s Rectory with his dog, Cooper.
Fr. Marcin had directed the purposeful closure of the rear (Willet Street) entrance into the St. Bernard’s parking lot and the installation of a security gate on the South Ogden entrance. The sanctuary of the church was given a fresh facelift with the original marble floors being exposed once again and shined to their natural beauty. Even the smallest detail was given major attention as exhibited in the resealing of the parking lot or the refurbishing of the ramp giving access to our elderly and disabled parishioners. Both have added much to the appearance and operation of St. Bernard’s. Rev. Porada had also since introduced a monthly Exposition and Adoration of the Holy Eucharist on every first Sunday of the month.
Being technically savvy, Father Marcin has served the parishes well during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. He had brought the celebration of our faith into the digital age by establishing live-feed services during the mandated shut-down of churches during the Easter Season and through the crisis. Parishioners were able to remain connected to their church through these transmitted masses that originated from the Rectory Chapel and eventually made their way into church proper itself.
Another initiative has been seen to fruition as Rev. Porada has designed an interactive internet website to serve both St. Bernard’s and Our Lady of Czestochowa Parishes. Theoretically through this online presence, people around the globe can keep tabs on the workings of our parishes, even in his native Poland. It is a changing world in which we live, and we are unsure what our future holds. But St. Bernard’s parishioners have been given a more solid foothold to face it in faith and community. We remain here for each other in Jesus Christ.