On the feast day of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and coinciding with the beginning of the school year, it was fitting that St. Bernard Parish in Wabash celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of its school. Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades celebrated Mass with the people of the parish, with Father Jay Horning installed as their new pastor at the same Mass.
In his book “History of St. Bernard Church: 1864-2020,” Wabash historian Michael Thompson relayed some of the early history of the first and only Catholic school in Wabash County. St. Bernard School opened in St. Bernard’s Hall on Sept. 5, 1922, under the direction of Father Edmund Ley, with 40 children in attendance that year. It was staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Tipton. Post-World War II brought expansion to the parish and the need for a new school building, constructed at the corner of Cass and Maple Streets and completed in 1951 when Father Leo Hoffman was pastor. Bishop John F. Noll came to bless the school on Nov. 4 of that year. In 1961, a second story was added.
The parish received terrible news in 1969, when the Sisters of St. Joseph of Tipton stated that they could no longer help staff the school, which at the time “was comprised of half lay teachers and half religious,” Thompson wrote. “The parish was unable to support a full lay teacher system,” and faced closure.
The people of St. Bernard Parish were tenacious, though, about holding onto their school. They petitioned the motherhouse, Bishop Gallagher of the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana where the motherhouse was located, and Bishop Leo Pursley of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend to keep their teachers and their school in operation. Of the 11 schools that the sisters had announced their departure from and the subsequent closure of, St. Bernard alone survived through its determined letter-writing campaign. A couple of sisters remained for additional years. The parish board, however, did vote to reduce the school to six grades in order to afford the hiring of additional lay teachers to fill the sisters’ former roles.
Changes and renovations were made to the school building through the years, but the same walls still house schoolchildren in kindergarten through sixth grade to this day.
In his homily for the celebratory Mass, Bishop Rhoades spoke to a packed church, recognizing and thanking all those who taught in the school for the past 100 years, educating more than 10,000 students throughout its long history. He then spoke about the importance of education, particularly in a Catholic school. “Ultimately, the purpose of a Catholic school is to educate our children in the Gospel of Jesus, the Catholic faith, and to help them to get to heaven.”
The Gospel reading for the day centered on the story of the narrow gateway into heaven, and Bishop Rhoades expounded on the message of salvation that goes along with it. “Today’s Gospel is quite strong. It goes against the attitude of many Christians today who just presume their salvation, for example, thinking that all we need to do is accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, and that’s it – we’re saved. This, what we can call ‘easy salvationism,’ is dangerous. The idea that the path to salvation is an easy matter of believing without growth in holiness or without carrying the cross is really a denial of Jesus’ teaching.”
He continued: “Jesus told the people that in order to be His disciples, they had to deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow Him. That’s the Christian life; that’s the way to salvation: embracing the cross of Jesus, following in His footsteps, striving to love one another as He has loved us. He gives us the grace to do so. When we cooperate with His grace, then we will be strong enough to enter through the narrow gate.”
In addition to celebrating the 100th anniversary of the school, Bishop Rhoades installed Father Jay Horning as the parish’s new pastor, joking that he might be the youngest pastor in its history, to which Father Horning replied that he is actually the second-youngest.
At the end of the Mass, Father Horning expressed his gratitude to the bishop for his presence at the event and spoke of how he looked forward to the direction the parish would go in the future, particularly the school, calling it the “lifeblood” of a parish.
His goals for his tenure as pastor are simple: “To grow the school, grow the city of Wabash.”
He has great hopes for the school, saying that while he may not have a large population, he looks forward to future growth. “What we have to offer, especially the city of Wabash, is unlike what anyone else has to offer. We can give them Jesus in the sacraments and in everything else.”
Being new to the parish, he relies heavily on knowledge of principal Abigail Stanley, who is in her second year in the position. “I’m very excited! To be able to be the principal when the school turns 100 is a very special blessing,” she commented.
She views last year as a period of learning and is ready to spring forward with plans for potential new curricula and technology, working closely with Father Horning to advance the school’s potential. Though the school only has around 50 students, Stanley says that the families appreciate the small class size and personal attention.
“We’re small class sizes, we’re Christ-centered, we work to develop the entire child, mind, body, and soul. We’re working on, obviously, creating strong students. Academics are important, but we also want to make sure we’re developing their spirituality and their relationship with God.”
That is what Jessie Whiteman loves about the school. She currently has one child attending, with her older son having just aged out of St. Bernard and her two younger children not yet school age. “We really love it. It’s been really great to see the kids grow at school through their faith,” she remarked. “The one-on-one with the teachers … is worth everything. It’s great; I just like the interaction. The teachers are all wonderful. I’ve not had one bad experience here.”
In this new school year, Stanley intends to focus on service projects in the parish and city community, “so we can show them what we do at St. Bernard.”
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