During the Mormon years (1851-57) in the city of San Bernardino, local Catholics were served by San Salvador de Jurupa parish from Aqua Mansa. Bishop Thaddeus Amat, Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles came to San Bernardino on June 6, 1858 and celebrated Mass in the former Mormon council house at the invitation of Senator William A. Conn. After the Mass, a large meeting of citizens was held where it was decided to build a church. The initial enthusiasm did not immediately result in a new church.
Bishop Amat returned in 1862 and saw the changes in the growing city of San Bernardino.
He announced the founding of a new parish for San Bernardino on July 7, 1862. It would be called St. Bernardine of Siena. The first church was finally built in 1865 at the corner of Fifth Street and “F” Street. The first pastor was Rev. Patrick Birmingham.
There were three significant pioneers in the early history of St. Bernardine Parish that must be noted: Sen. Conn, Mrs. Catherine Quinn and Rev. P.J. Stockman. Although Senator Conn was a member of the Anglican church, he helped the local Catholic church on several occasions. Sen. Conn donated land to the Catholic community on three occasions. In 1858, he donated a central tract in the city to the new parish. In 1869, he donated a plot of land for a cemetery, near the city’s Pioneer Cemetery. Later, he donated a piece of property at 27th Street and “E” Street for another cemetery.
Mrs. Catherine Quinn was a major contributor to the building of the 1870 church at St. Bernardine. She later was the driving force and main benefactor to the St. Catherine Convent School in 1880. Mrs. Quinn also used the income from several properties in town to support the operation of the school.
The last early pioneer was Rev. P.J. Stockman who served as the pastor of St. Bernardine from 1874-1884 and 1885-1895. His missionary zeal and pastoral energy made him the church leader that the parish needed. During his 20 years as pastor, Fr. Stockman opened the St. Catherine Convent School (1880), began a new cemetery (1875) and started a Catholic hospital (1891). But his tireless efforts did not stop in San Bernardino, he began ten new Church and chapels along with a new outreach to Native Americans at several reservations.
The history of the churches at St. Bernardine parish matches the rough and tumble history of the city’s early days. It took three years after the parish was founded in 1862 to build the first church. This first church and its replacement, both wooden structures, burned within one year of each other (1866-67). A temporary church (third) was hastily built. After another three years of slow fundraising, the first brick church (fourth) was built in 1871. Rev. John Brady built a larger, brick church (fifth) in 1910 to accommodate the growing community in the city of San Bernardino.
The church’s commitment to Catholic education is very evident in the early years of St. Bernardine. With the financial assistance of Mrs. Quinn, St. Catherine Convent School opened in 1880, staffed by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary from Los Angeles. By 1886, there were 120 pupils receiving instruction from seven sisters. Bishop Thomas James Conaty urged Rev. John Brady to build a parochial school to accommodate the new growth in the city. By 1907, the two story brick building was completed, adequate for two hundred students.
During World War I, the railroad and the citrus industry in San Bernardino hired many new workers. As a result, the Catholic population grew significantly. It was up to Rev. Nicholas Conneally, pastor at St. Bernardine from 1918-1924, who expanded the physical plant at the parish.
He tore down the 1870 church to make way for a larger rectory and parish center. Fr. Conneally
started an ambitious building plan to develop a new grade school and new high school. The construction was completed in 1922. In addition, a second elementary school was started nearby at Fifth Street and Mt. Vernon Avenue; this was the beginning of Our Lady of Guadalupe School in 1919.
During the 1920’s, the city of San Bernardino continued to grow. The enrollment in the grade school and the high school was 500. Two new parishes were opened; Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1925 and Holy Rosary in 1927.
There have been only twenty pastors during the 150 years of St. Bernardine’ s history. Five of those pastors served over 10 years: Rev. P.J. Stockman (1874-1894), Rev. John Brady (1903-1918), Rev. Patrick Dunne (1927-1939), Msgr. Daniel Ryan (1947-1961) and Msgr. John Bradley (1961-1993).
The dominant force at St. Bernardine’s Parish during the last third of its history was Msgr. John Bradley (1961-1993). Even though the parish would experience many changes during his pastorate, it was the strong and determined leadership of Msgr. Bradley that guided the parish.
The grade school closed in 1962, and the high school closed in 1971. The girls from St. Bernardine High School joined the boys at Aquinas High School to form a coed Catholic high school.
In 1979, the remaining portions of the high school complex and rectory were torn down to make way for the construction of St. Bernardine Plaza, a senior citizens housing complex.
The empty convent on “F” Street became the new rectory. The Pioneer building was acquired for the parish hall. With the changing demographics in the city, St. Bernardine found itself as a “downtown parish.”
In 1987, Msgr. Bradley oversaw the 125th Anniversary of the parish. The theme was “Passing of the Torch of Leadership.” Bishop Phillip Straling celebrated the Mass; concelebrating was Bishop Gilbert Chavez, Auxiliary Bishop of San Diego, who mother was a member of St. Bernardine Parish. In one of his final projects, Msgr. Bradley embarked on a fundraising campaign to retrofit the church in order to meet new earthquake standards.
In 1993, the oldest parish in the Diocese met one of the newest ministries in the Church when Sister Eileen Raferty, RSM became the first Pastoral Coordinator for the parish. Sr. Eileen and then Sister Marita Beumer, CPPS, guided the parish through the Millenium.
The honor of leading the parish community to its 150th Anniversary belongs to Rev. Leonard De Pasquale, IMC, from the Consolata religious community. It is most appropriate to write this article during the Easter season. St. Bernardine is a “parish of many resurrections” over 150 years. Yet the faith of the Risen Lord is evident in the people who gather there for the Eucharist and the Sacraments. It is a blessing to the rest of the diocese. We are proud to call St. Bernardine the “mother church” of the Diocese.
Peter Bradley is Archivist in the Diocese of San Bernardino.