About our Patron Saint
St. Bernard (pronounced Saint Ber'nerd) of Clairvaux (1090–1153) was known as an exceptional preacher and inspirational speaker. In the sixteenth century, Theophilus Reynauld wrote the book The Gallic Bee, in which he referred to St. Bernard as the “Mellifluous” or “Honey-Sweet” Preacher because his preaching was like “. . . the fragrant aroma of an incense burning in a heart on fire with the Holy Spirit” that flowed from his in-depth study of the Faith, which like “a diligent bee he has extracted the sweet essence from Scripture and the Fathers and refined it in loving meditation." Appropriately, St Bernard is the Patron Saint of Beekeepers and Candlemakers. St Bernard was canonized twenty-one years after his death and officially declared a Doctor of the Church in 1830 by Pope Pius VIII. His faith, holy life, and love of Christ and the Blessed Mother inspired not only the inhabitants of Christendom but continue to motivate modern Catholics. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, pray for us!
Here's a quiz for all you history buffs! QUESTION: what is the first parish to be established in what was to be the Diocese of Fall River? ANSWER: St. Lawrence, Martyr, Church in New Bedford (Originally called St. Mary Church). QUESTION: What is the first parish with a resident pastor in what was to be the Diocese of Fall River? ANSWER: Corpus Christi Church in Sandwich. Too easy? Try this one. QUESTION: Where is the first indication of a Catholic presence in what was to be the Diocese of Fall River? ANSWER: In St. Bernard Parish, Assonet.
According to Dr. Manuel Da Silva, in his classic 1971 study entitled "Portuguese Pilgrims and Dighton Rock", the first indication of a Catholic presence in the area is to be found among the layers of graffiti on a rock on the shores of the Assonet River. Dr. Da Silva makes a persuasive case that Dighton Rock is etched with the name of the Portuguese explorer Miguel Corte Real, three crosses in the style known as the Cross of Christ, the Coat of Arms of the king of Portugal, and the date 1511. It was the custom for early explorers to leave exactly these indications of their presence. Unfortunately Miguel Corte Real never returned to Portugal, so the truth may never be known. Nevertheless, St. Bernard parish, in which Dighton Rock is located, has adopted the slogan "Claimed for Christ in 1511" and incorporated the Cross of Christ in the parish emblem along with the beehive which is an ancient symbol both of church community in general and of St. Bernard. It is interesting to speculate that if the crew included a chaplain - as most expeditions did at that time - then the priest probably would have celebrated Mass somewhere in what is now St. Bernard's parish. It would surely have been the first Catholic Mass ever celebrated in New England!
Freetown's Village of Assonet was once geographically much larger. A significant part of what is now the City of Fall River was once the part of Assonet, an early shipbuilding and commercial shipping port. Many of the ancient homesteads still stand in the town's historic district. Long a campsite for Native Americans, the first English settler to live on the property now occupied by St. Bernard Church was Benjamin Chase, son of the Quaker housewright William Chase of Mattachesse (Yarmouth, Cape Cod), who purchased four miles of land in Assonet in the year 1685.
The history of St. Bernard Church actually begins with the Baptists. In the early 1700's, a Baptist congregation was gathered in Assonet. In 1781, they were organized as the First Baptist Church. In 1783, the congregation built a meetinghouse on a small rise called Ridge Hill at the southern end of the town between the shipping wharves and the military muster grounds (now Assonet Burial Grounds). In 1807, during the revival known as the "Great Awakening", the Baptist congregation reorganized as what was later called the First Christian Church. Those who decided to remain Baptist moved their community to Fall River. The original Baptist meeting house was shortly torn down as unstable and in 1833 the present structure was built at a cost of $3,000. An historic cemetery in the shadow of the church is, to this day, the final resting place of these early church members. In 1863, a 600-pound bell was hung in the church steeple. It is still in use. In 1867, the architecture of the building was significantly modified. The façade, windows, and interior were changed radically and a parsonage was built next to the church. The building retained, however, the look of a classic New England village church. In the Great Gale of 1868, part of the steeple and the new bell came crashing through the roof of the church, splintering the pews. No one was in the church at the time and there were no injuries. The bell was returned to its steeple and is still in use, apparently unscathed by it's fall. In 1886, a cottage on Water Street caught fire and blowing embers ignited the roof of the church. The building would have been engulfed had it not been for the quick action of a volunteer bucket brigade. After this narrow escape, the town voted to purchase its first fire equipment. The singed roof beams are still visible in the rafters of the church. This historic building, in 1979, became the home of the parishioners of St. Bernard faith community.
Soon after the establishment of the Diocese of Fall River, before Catholics had a permanent home in Assonet, the pastor of St. Joseph Church in Fall River, Fr. Bernard Boyland, would travel by horse and buggy to Assonet Village to say Mass for Catholics living there. He would celebrate Mass every two or three months in various homes in the village. Otherwise, Catholic families would travel to Fall River for Mass at St. Joseph Church, St. Matthew Church, or St. Michael Church.
In 1918, a multi-family house on South Main Street, Assonet, near the Fall River city line, was obtained. The interior walls were opened up to allow for a larger space for worship. The first Mass in the new building was celebrated on August 15, 1918. Mass was thereafter celebrated weekly in the chapel by Fr. John Ferez and then, beginning in 1927, by Fr. Charles Donovan of St. Vincent Home. The family living on the second floor, over the worship area, helped maintain the "house-church". This house is not longer extant.
Fr. Donovan purchased land and a dwelling (the former Pierce estate) closer to the central four corners of the village. The mansion was determined to be unsalvageable and was razed. In 1930, Fr. Donovan's successor, Father William Harrington, began preparing for the construction of a church on the site. The popular church architectural team of Maginnis and Walsh of Boston were hired. The construction began in July of 1937. Bishop James Cassidy, on February 6, 1938, dedicated the new church, naming it in honor of the patron Saint of Fr. Bernard Boyland. Neo-Colonial in design, but with a seating capacity of only 192, it was smallest church ever built by the Boston firm. It is said that at the full capacity dedication ceremony, Fr. Harrington remarked to Bishop Cassidy: "It seems we have built too small."
Father John Boyd succeeded Fr. Harrington in 1950. The Catholic population of the village continued to increase. St. Bernard community was unique in being a mission not of some larger mother church, but of a children's' home. Since the chaplains of St. Vincent Home in Fall River were serving the new mission church, there was no rectory and no resident pastor. Fr. Boyd purchased a former restaurant and a former garage to provide for parish activities. Fr. John Cronin, Fr. John Boyd's successor at St. Vincent Home, renovated the two buildings, doing much of the work with his own hands. In 1974, Fr. Armando Annunziato succeeded Fr. Cronin as chaplain of St. Vincent Home and priest for the mission church of St. Bernard.
In 1977, Bishop Daniel Cronin elevated St. Bernard Church to the status of a parish church and named Fr. Luciano Phillipino as the first pastor. While still living at St. Vincent Home, Fr. Phillipino began planning for the construction of a new church/rectory/parish center complex to replace the overcrowded facilities. The parish boundaries were vaguely established as "Assonet and the Assonet Neck section of the Town of Berkley".
The following year, Fr. Leonard Mullaney, in residence at Cathedral Camp in East Freetown, was named the second pastor. Fr. Mullaney purchased a house some distance from the church to serve as a temporary rectory and thereby became the first resident pastor. There was lively discussion on how to address the overcrowding. In the end, the church, the lands, the parish halls, and the rectory were all sold. The former First Christian Church and parsonage, which had been vacant for some years, were purchased on 30 November 1979. The First Christian Church of Assonet had merged with the Congregational Church to become a new entity - the United Church of Assonet. The United Church voted to use the Congregational Church building, constructed in 1809, and to abandon the First Christian Church facility. When Catholics purchased the former First Christian Church, the interior of the church was gutted and totally renovated. On December 20, 1981, Bishop Cronin dedicated the newly renovated building - now the home of St. Bernard parishioners.
In the spring of 1986, Bishop Cronin, concerned that the church was still too small, encouraged the construction of a two-storied addition that would increase the size of the sanctuary and add much-needed meeting space for parish activities. In August of 1988, under Fr. Edward Correia, the next pastor, construction of a somewhat smaller addition began. On August 20, 1989, Bishop Cronin blessed the new addition.
In 1991, Fr. John Andrews succeeded Fr. Correia. Fr. Andrews had grown up in the Town of Berkley and his family still resided there. Sadly, the first Mass the newly named pastor celebrated in St. Bernard Church was the Funeral Mass of his own father. Fr. Timothy Goldrick, succeeded Fr. Andrews in 1994 and by odd coincidence, Fr. Goldrick happens to be a direct descendant of William Chase, whose son Benjamin first lived on the very same land. History really does repeat itself.
In 2007, Fr. Michael Racine succeeded Fr. Goldrick. The church steeple was damaged from Hurricane Irene (75 mph wind gusts) in 2011 requiring major repairs. Parishioner Andy DiGiammo designed the new steeple and managed the restoration project. Click here to learn about the beautiful symbolism incorporated into the new steeple. The 20th annual Harvest Festival was organized in 2018 - one of the church's largest fundraising events. A laser light show illuminated the sky over the festival grounds and Bishop Edgar da Cunha celebrated outdoor mass. Major capital improvements included restored pews, interior painting, new carpets and hardwood floors for the altar, church hall kitchen renovations, new rectory garage and resurfaced parking lot. Fr. Mike oversaw unprecedented growth celebrating 1,050 baptisms, 606 first communions and 197 weddings.
The parish community welcomed our current pastor, Fr. James Fitzpatrick in 2019.
St. Bernard parish has a long and convoluted history. Located in this semi-rural suburb on the shores of the Assonet River, the parish now numbers almost 1,700 families and continues to grow. Parish families tend to be young - there are just under 500 children in the religious education program. The area business sector continues to grow and the town government and school system anticipate additional population increases in the near future. Work continues on the MBTA commuter rail expansion through Assonet into Fall River and is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2023. Maybe we have built too small and history is repeating itself!
As a People of Word and Sacrament, this vibrant faith community shares a commitment to worship God, to minister to one another, and to deepen both a sense of belonging and a spirit of outreach. The Church of St. Bernard, as befits its history, has pledged itself to work with all people of faith to extend the Kingdom of God.