APPLETON — Appleton’s newest parish, St. Bernard, is marking its 50th anniversary with a celebration on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 10 and 11.
Bishop David Ricken will help parishioners kick off the anniversary with Mass at 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Celebrants will then move next door to Xavier High School for dinner and entertainment at 6:15 p.m. Music will be provided by the Touch of Class String Ensemble, followed by the Neenah Ambassadors Big Band at 8 p.m. Cost is $20 per person. Reservations are required and all parishioners received invitations, as did all of the living pastors, associate pastors and sisters who have served the parish over those 50 years.
On Sunday, the parish will host a tailgate party for families. The church dining hall will be the setting for a celebration with food, drinks and, of course, the Packers game will be shown.
The committee, headed by Donna Armstrong, is also offering a memory book showing the parish’s first 50 years in pictures. Cost is $20.
The committee of 10 was assisted by parish members who stepped forward to cover all the bases to make the celebration happen, Armstrong said. “We didn’t have to put out a plea for volunteers; they just came forward and offered help.”
“The message for our celebration is ‘Celebrating Our Past and Building Our Future’,” said Rhonda Uschan, a committee member and the parish’s director of liturgy.
“While we celebrate our history, we also are celebrating our path for our future,” Armstrong added. “It’s a way to make sure everyone feels welcome at our parish.”
The celebration “adds a new energy to the parish,” said Fr. Dennis Ryan, pastor.
St. Bernard Parish was established in 1966 with the first Mass in the Xavier High School Commons on Sept. 25, 1966. “So it is appropriate that we are holding the celebration at Xavier,” Uschan said.
The name, St. Bernard, was chosen at the request of the late Joseph Cavanaugh, who had left a bequest that his estate be used to establish a parish on Appleton’s southwest side. He died on July 25, 1961. The parish is named in honor of his deceased father. It became the second St. Bernard Parish in the Diocese of Green Bay. The Green Bay St. Bernard Parish had been established just 10 years earlier.
This was the 192nd parish established in the diocese and the eighth in Appleton. Fr. Orville Janssen was named pastor and the rectory was occupied for the first time on Oct. 8, 1966. In 1967, three Franciscan Sisters of Charity from Manitowoc arrived to begin a religious education program that had 175 grade school students and 40 high school students at the time. The program quickly grew and by 1991, when the parish celebrated its 25th anniversary, there were 860 participants.
A fund drive with a goal of $400,000 to build a new church began a year after that first parish meeting. From 1967 to 1970, the fund raised $409,000.
The cornerstone of the church, which was designed to carry out the new liturgy that had come out of the recently completed Second Vatican Council, was laid on Dec. 15, 1968 and the first Masses in the new church were celebrated on Dec. 22. Bishop Aloysius Wycislo formally dedicated the church on May 11, 1969.
The parish has always been known for its social justice work, which began under Fr. Janssen, Fr. Ryan said. “We can see this in the many ways it provided inspiration and contributed to the development of social works in Appleton,” he said, citing parishioners’ involvement in the city’s emergency and warming shelters and the St. Joseph Food Pantry.
Fr. Janssen also was involved in prison ministry, helping men when they were released from jail or prison. Many parishioners remain involved in these types of projects.
From the start, the parish welcomed diversity and lived a mission dedicated to social justice and Catholic tradition. Each year, the parish celebrates the Hmong-American New Year with festivities that begin with Mass.
In 1971, Wisconsin architects honored the parish with the Distinguished Building Award. Today, the parish is led by Fr. Dennis Ryan, pastor, and Deacons Maury Reed, Mike Eash, Bob Vincent and Shuying (Joe) Vang. The parish is home to about 1,100 families.
The parish never included its own elementary school and its students were always welcomed at neighboring Catholic parishes. When the Appleton Catholic schools joined to become what is now called the St. Francis Xavier Catholic School System, St. Bernard became a participating parish.
Looking ahead, Fr. Ryan said the parish is planning some renovations to the church. The hope is to give the church more light and beauty, while keeping it a place of prayer.