As he stood in front of the now closed St. Bernard School in Oakland on Aug. 19, Rev. Paul Schmidt took a quick stroll down memory lane.
In those days, he recalled, the community had been mostly made up of Portuguese Catholics. They had begun moving out of the neighborhood and African American families were moving in. The Tongans were not there at the time. Now the parish ministers to three communities — those who are Latino, those who speak English and those of Tongan heritage.
About 500 people — current and former parishioners and well as anyone else who taught or attended the parish school or belonged to parish groups — packed the East Oakland church to attend a Mass of celebration and thanksgiving for the parish's 100th anniversary. Emeritus Bishop John Cummins concelebrated the liturgy with about a dozen priests.
St. Bernard Church began in 1909 as a mission church of Oakland's St. Louis Bertrand Church. It achieved parish status in 1912 and served a predominately Portuguese community. Today the parish is mostly Latino and is also home to an international community that includes African American, European and Tongan families.
The Aug. 19 Mass included vibrant music, joy-filled singing and colorful attire that reflected the multiethnic community. In his homily, Msgr. Valdivia traced the parish's religious leaders from the founding pastor, Rev. Edward J. Nolan, to the current pastor, Father Roberto Flores, SVD, and Sister Josita to Sister Sebastian.
The parish developed an outreach to youth under the leadership of Sister Sebastian. "Sister Sebastian opened the parish hall and got it started," recalled Msgr. Valdivia. Youngsters performed all the current dances like The "Philly Dog." The excitement was contagious. "I even learned to dance," he noted with a laugh.
Msgr. Valdivia also mentioned the contributions of the Divine Word Missionaries who have served the parish for more than 30 years. During the tumultuous years of the 1960s St. Bernard, along with other "flatland parishes" committed themselves to the fight for social justice and became involved in the community at large. They helped organize programs to keep the youth off the streets and affordable housing for senior citizens and low-income people. Efforts to address issues involving the community continue with the parish's involvement in the Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), a federation of congregations, schools and various community groups that takes on various issues such as street violence, immigration reform and economic inequality.
Many members of the parish indicated that the parish's ethnic and cultural diversity is among its greatest strengths. "The people at St. Bernard are close — despite the diversity," said David Baglein, a parishioner. "People look out for each other."
Blanca Perez, a member of the parish's centennial celebration committee, noted that each culture or tradition that people have brought to St. Bernard "enriches the community."
Coralia Rodriguez, a member at St. Bernard Parish for 25 years, said that the parish's 100th anniversary meant a lot to her because "we all came from different countries, different places." Everyone is represented in the church, she added. "That's something I really like."
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