Gothic church building designed to teach and inspireBy Laurie Kiefaber
WABASH — St. Bernard Church, Wabash, parishioners and faithful will celebrate the parish’s sesquicentennial Aug. 24. However, the Catholic community will always be known for the priests who served there, those who remember them and the buildings they called home.
Most current parishioners did not personally know the early church pastors, but they did hear about a few. Father Edmund Ley is well known in church history for opening the first Catholic school there in 1922. Current parishioner Ann Rowe said her mother, Elizabeth Rowe, and grandmother, Louisa Ratajc, cleaned his home.
“He had a farm and pet squirrels he fed,” Rowe recalls her relatives saying.
But Father Ley was not the only animal lover among St. Bernard’s pastors. Father Eugene Zimmerman kept parakeets in his home. The priest also enjoyed smoking cigars.
“When you think of him the first thing you think of is his cigars,” said parishioner Janet Shoemaker. “Occasionally he would leave his lit cigar on the (stone) window sill of the church. Before we had air conditioning if the windows were open, it would be nothing for cigar smoke to be wafting into the church.”
Shoemaker added Father Zimmerman was known for his singing. “I think he made St. Bernard a singing parish,” she said. “Father Zimmerman was going to sing all the verses to songs.”
Father William Kummer served as pastor after Father Zimmerman.
Parishioner Caroline Biltz said under Father Kummer’s direction the parish council became an elected body (no longer appointed) and the front doors of the church were restored.
Now administrator of St. Joseph-Hessen Cassel in Fort Wayne, Father Kummer remembers fondly the Wabash church being his first pastorate. He recalled Christmas in 1983.
“Someone had brought in a live Christmas tree that took up about one-third of the sanctuary,” Father Kummer laughed. “On Christmas Eve the temperature dropped to 15 below zero and Bishop William McManus exempted people from attending church that day. That evening, a trumpeter got her lips stuck (on her instrument’s mouthpiece). At 5 p.m. the temperature was about 13 below.”
Father Daniel E. Peil served as pastor following Father Kummer. Several parishioners remember Father Peil had acquired a simple wooden coffin, which he shipped from parish to parish when he was transferred. Parishioner Angel Shear had heard he was unafraid of death.
“He kept it in the garage,” said parishioner Richard White.
“He also was really extraordinarily good on visiting the sick,” White added. “Even when he was sick, he would go visit the sick. He visited my mother and she was not even a Catholic.”
Father Tim Wrozek, who served after Father Peil, also had a good sense of humor.
Father Wrozek initiated Christ Renews His Parish at St. Bernard, which increased parishioner involvement.
“You can’t imagine what it did,” Rowe said. “It was a real spiritual awakening (for the parish).”
Shoemaker appreciated Father Wrozek’s ability to connect with youth. “He was pastor when my children were teenagers,” she said. “He strengthened their faith, went with them to youth conferences and was there for the kids.”
St. Bernard’s current pastor, Father Sextus Don, also connects with youth. “I love seeing my kids serve at Mass and how he interacts with them,” Shear said. “He’s a good influence and someone they can talk to and be comfortable around.”
The late Bishop John M. D’Arcy assigned Father Don, an order priest from the Salesians of Don Bosco, to St. Bernard in 2001. Ordained in Sri Lanka in 1979, Father Don said he has enjoyed his time here and found the parishioners very welcoming.
“What impressed me when I arrived were the church’s stained glass windows,” he said. “They’re so catechetical. They go from Genesis to Revelation! … We can use these windows for catechesis.”
A great deal of thought went into designing the one-of-a-kind stained glass windows as well as the Gothic-style church and school. As new pastor in 1940, Father Leo Hoffmann saw the need for a new church and school and took on the building projects with help and direction from the parish council, Architect A.F. Moratz of Bloomington, Ill., and the James I. Barnes Construction Company in Logansport.
In addition, relics from St. Donatus and St. Victoria are embedded in the marble altar.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux had a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, so a rose window depicting scenes from her life was built in the south church wall in the choir loft. Church history states Erhard Stoetner, who received training in Munich, designed all stained glass windows in the church including the 15 x 10 foot window. The windows were manufactured by T.C. Esser Company, Milwaukee, Wis.
In August, Father Hoffmann’s legacy will be celebrated by the current parish community as well as Fathers Kummer and Wrozek. Two former associate pastors also plan to attend the celebration: Father Adam Schmidt, now retired and residing at Saint Anne Home and Retirement Community and Msgr. John Suelzer, now pastor of St. Charles Borromeo in Fort Wayne.
Later this year, St. Bernard parishioner Mike Thompson will be publishing a book on church history. Other church members are planning a photo book showing the symbolism of the church and a cookbook is in the works.
St. Bernard School continues rigorous
education in academics and faith
WABASH — Religious Sisters no longer teach at St. Bernard School, but students are still challenged to do their best in a faith-filled environment.
“We try to take students where they are and push them to their maximum capabilities spiritually, emotionally, physically and socially,” said Theresa Carroll, who will start her ninth year as principal at St. Bernard. Before becoming principal, Carroll taught at the school beginning in 1995. She holds degrees from Indiana Wesleyan University and Ball State University.
Carroll said faith is just as important today in school as it was in 1900.
“God is being removed from so much,” she said. “Catholic schools keep Him present; He’s our focal point.”
St. Bernard School accepts all students, no matter what their faith background, Carroll said.
“We have educated children from Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, other Christian faiths and students who have no faith life,” she said. “All are welcome here. Our students come from Wabash, Huntington and Miami counties and a few Manchester College professors have sent their children here.
“Prayer is part of everything we do,” she continued. “We pray at the beginning of school, at the start of new classes, before and after we eat …”
Angel Shear, who taught at St. Bernard from 1988 to 1993, remembers the faith-filled atmosphere.
“We have a lot of kids go through who are not Catholic,” she said. “But they went to Mass and participated. Their parents wanted their kids to have an education from (St. Bernard) and that was part of it.”
While about half of students are not Catholic, all of them learn about the Catholic faith including the rosary, sacraments, Stations of the Cross, the creed and more, Carroll said. Morality, modeling good behavior and maintaining a family environment also are stressed.
“We tell students ‘You have to stand up for what’s right and set a good example for the younger ones,’” Carroll said. Oftentimes kindergartners will read books to fifth and sixth graders.
Carroll said the Knights of Columbus do a tremendous job of fundraising for numerous causes and charities, including the school. “They are awesome!” she said.
Students graduating from St. Bernard School tend to be confident, hard workers and hopefully “the kind of students who will get involved in sports, clubs or student government,” Carroll said. Alumni have moved on to become valedictorians, salutatorians and class and student council presidents.
St. Bernard School history:
• St. Bernard School opened for one year in 1900, but closed due to lack of support.
• St. Bernard School reopened Sept. 5, 1922 with the Sisters of St. Joseph in Tipton as teachers for 40 children in six grades.
• New school built and opened Sept. 4, 1951 with 141 students.
• Second floor added to school in 1961.
• Peak enrollment reached in 1965 with 251 students in eight grades.
• School was in danger of closing in 1969 as Sisters of St. Joseph announced they were leaving Wabash due to personnel shortages. After numerous letters written by parents and parishioners to the sisters and bishop’s offices, sisters agreed to continue teaching at St. Bernard.
• Enrollment is currently 75 students, pre-K through sixth grades. Previously grades 1-8 were taught and in the early 2000s pre-K through fourth grades were taught.
• Early childhood education or pre-K added in late 1980s or early 1990s.
• About 100 women religious and laywomen have taught students. Currently four full-time teachers, five part-time teachers and two aides or paraprofessionals are employed.
• More than 9,000 students educated.
• Curriculum includes Spanish for grades 1-6, language arts, math, science, social studies, religion and leadership classes, visual art, physical education and music with technology integrated into every subject. Participation in numerous local, state and national contests and competitions is encouraged.
• Average student/teacher ratio: 9/1.
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