Parish History

Parish History

Welcome to St. Bernardine of Siena Parish. Through our words and actions we strive to emulate St. Bernardine, our patron saint, who demonstrated compassion, humility, and a great love of Jesus. He understood the people to whom he spoke because he loved them. As we welcome visitors and new parishioners to our parish, we seek to understand, love, and embrace all in the manner of our patron saint and our savior.

Led by Fr. Francisco M. Tovar since July 2011, St. Bernardine of Siena is a vibrant parish community devoted to serving the spiritual needs of more than 450 families. In the past 17 years St. Bernardine’s has evolved into a multicultural parish with parishioners from many countries. Parishioners participate in and support all aspects of parish life—from the liturgy, sacraments, religious education, and prayer life to the various ministries and organizations, such as the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry, Social Concerns and Bereavement Ministries, and Comite Guadalupano.

The Parish is Established 

In 2016 St Bernadine of Siena will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Formed out of St. Phillip the Apostle and Mt. Calvary parishes, St. Bernardine was established May 28, 1966, by decree of the Archbishop of Washington, Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle. At the time, nearly 800 families were registered in the parish. The first Mass was celebrated May 29, 1966, by Fr. Andrew J. Cassin in the auditorium of Suitland Senior High School. A month later Mass was moved to Suitland Junior High School until the church was built in 1968. A house across the street from the church served as the rectory until 1973 when the present rectory was built. The architectural plan for St Bernardine of Siena is known as cruciform, characterized by an east end with an altar and a west end with a baptismal font north. The style of the structure is a contemporary adaptation of the Provincial French Gothic type. At the time the church was built the spire was purported to be the second tallest church spire in the metropolitan area.

The Church is Dedicated

The new church was dedicated September 29, 1968. Cardinal O’Boyle officiated at the dedication ceremony; Msgr. Andrew J. Cassin celebrated Mass. Msgr. Cassin served as St. Bernardine’s pastor until 1977. He was assisted by associate pastors Fr. Donald Worch and Fr. Joseph Pagone. Fr. John Higgins assumed the pastorate in 1977 and served until 1983. He was assisted by associate pastors Fr. Paul Barry and Fr. John Muffler. Fr. Roderick D. McKee, who served from 1983 to 1986, had no appointed associates but was assisted by Fr. John Mattingly, a priest in residence. Fr. Robert J. Petrella followed Fr. McKee, serving the parish from 1986 to 1989. Fr. Gerald Horgan served as associate pastor during Fr. Petrella’s pastorate. Sister Catherine Mary Manley, IHM, joined St. Bernardine’s pastoral team in 1987. Fr. Joseph S. Rossi and Fr. Thomas M. Hart were also part of the pastoral team in 1988. During the Marian Year—Pentecost 1987 to Feast of the Assumption 1988—a statute of Our Lady of Fatima, which now sits on the church’s front lawn, was blessed by Bishop Thomas Lyons and crowned by Bishop Francis Xavier Roque from the Military Ordinariate.

The Church in the 1990s: Transition and Renewal

The 1990s were a time of transition in the parish. The number of registered families declined slightly. A fundraising drive begun in 1987 to build a parish hall culminated in the construction of the beautiful Siena Hall in 1994. Designed as a central meeting place for parish activities, the hall comfortably seated 200 for a dinner or 400 for auditorium events. Only one priest, Fr. Alphonsus Smith (1989-1995), served the parish during this period. From January 1995 to December 1995, Fr. Robert Buchmeier served as interim pastor until Fr. John Dakes (1995-1997) arrived, bringing a sense of renewal to the parish community. Fr. Peter Williams, an Australian graduate student seeking a Master’s degree in liturgical studies at Catholic University, assisted Fr. Dakes while in residence at St. Bernardine’s. He returned to Australia on completion of his studies.

Fr. Arnold W. De Porter was appointed to St. Bernardine’s in 1997. He was assisted by Deacon Levester Jones, who was later ordained in 2004 and celebrated his first Mass at St. Bernardine’s. During Fr. De Porter’s pastorate a Mass in Spanish was added at 12:00 noon on Sunday, and parishioners from Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, among other countries, were welcomed into the parish community. Mass attendance increased, and for a time the flags of the new parishioners’ countries were displayed at the Spanish Mass. The Music Ministry expanded to include a Spanish choir, and English as a second language (ESOL) classes were offered. The increasing number of children in the parish led to a permanent Religious Education program under the direction of Mrs. Juanita Marsh.

A number of Catholics from Africa moved into the parish in the late 1990s. To accommodate the Igbo Catholic Community, two priests from the IGBO Nigerian Community, Fr. Nicholas Nnabuaku and Fr. Clifford Aniefuna, celebrated Mass in the Igbo language for a short period.

The Church Enters the New Century

The Archdiocese’s pilot Stewardship Initiative, “Our Joyful Return to the Lord,” begun in St. Bernardine’s parish in 2001, was the highlight of this period. The parish’s vision: “To return to the Lord with a renewed commitment to the parish, each parishioner giving generously of his time, talent, and treasure in gratitude to God for His many blessings and reaching out to volunteers to expand our parish ministries. “ As a result of the pilot Stewardship Initiative, parishioners became more active in ministries, and offertory income increased.

The parish held a Ministry Fair in 2002, and three new ministries were established: the Bereavement Support Group, Living Stones Prayer Group, and Rosary Making. Enthusiasm among ministry volunteers was at an all-time high. Though a small parish by comparison, St. Bernardine of Siena was the first parish to reach its financial goal in the Archdiocese’s 2004 Forward in Faith Capital Campaign to raise funds to support the long-term goals of the diocese.

When Fr. De Porter left St. Bernardine of Siena in 2005, Fr. Kevin O’Reilly (2005-2008) assumed the pastorate. He was assisted by Fr. Peter Ajibola, a priest in residence from 2005 to 2011. A number of bilingual clergy from the Archdiocese celebrated the Sunday noon Mass in Spanish. Fr. Jaime Hernandez (2008-2011) succeeded Fr. O’Reilly. Deacon Rodolfo Salinas and Deacon Agustin Lopez Espinosa assisted Fr. Hernandez during his pastorate. The number of Hispanic parishioners continued to grow during in this period, and religious education classes increased accordingly. To augment its traditional religious education classes, St. Bernardine introduced a unique catechetical program—the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a Mass-centered liturgy and scripture-based approach to the religious formation of children. This approach helped to prepare children for meaningful participation in the Eucharist Celebration.

By the time the parish held its second Ministry Fair in 2009, additional ministries, organizations, and prayer groups were active, including the Pro-Life Ministry. Since 2009, Prayer Life has always been and continues to be an integral part of worship at St. Bernardine’s.

When Fr. Hernandez left St. Bernardine’s in July 2011, Fr. Francisco M. Tovar was appointed pastor, and he continues to the present. During the nearly 3 years since his appointment, membership in Cursillos de cristiandad, Legion of Mary, Precious Blood Devotion, and the Prayer Group has increased. With the support of parents and coaches, Fr. Tovar created the Children’s Soccer Program and organized other activities for parish youth that have attracted large numbers of young parishioners. At the same time our Religious Education Program has increased nearly threefold. In addition to the English and Spanish Adult choirs, we have a Children’s Choir—Los Niños de Jesus (Jesus’ Children)—under the leadership of Mrs. Miriam Villatoro. This choir is very active, practicing with instruments and singing in quinceañeras and weddings.

These are exciting times in our parish. By the end of March Fr. Tovar will present St Bernardine’s Weekly Mass Bulletin in digital format. For the first time you will be able to read online or download the Bulletin in English or Spanish.

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