St. Bernard’s Church was founded in January, 1843 in Watertown, Wisconsin by Irish emigrants. Among the founders were Bernard and Henry Crangle, James and Patrick Rogan, Daniel Crowley, William Barrett and Father Martin Kundig. They named the church St. Bernard, as a compliment to one of the founders, Bernard Crangle.
The first church building was built during the years 1843-1844 very near to the present church location on land donated by Patrick Rogan. Rev. Patrick McKernan was its first resident pastor. The church was expanded in 1850 to accommodate growth in the parish. In 1857, a new two story school house was built on Montgomery Street on the parish grounds.
In 1871, the administration of St Bernard’s parish was transferred from the Diocese of Milwaukee to the Fathers of the Holy Cross, then under the direction of Father William Corby, Provincial of Indiana of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana. This was a result of the purchase of 51 acres on West Main Street in Watertown on which was to be built a college prep seminary.
Simultaneous care of both the seminary and St. Bernard’s was offered to the Fathers of the Holy Cross. Father Corby became the pastor of St.Bernard’s in September 1872 after a brief 9 month pastorate of Rev. Peter Cooney, who was the first Holy Cross priest to be pastor. Father Corby served for 5 years until 1877.
During Corby’s pastorate, two significant accomplishments were achieved. First, a new brick church was built that replaced the original wooden structure. Secondly, Fr. Corby began work on the seminary buildings on the grounds of what is now Maranatha Baptist Bible University. The seminary was known as the College of our Lady of the Sacred Heart and it was comparable to a high school or prep academy. The new church was designed by Patrick Keely, a widely recognized architect of Catholic churches in the country. The cornerstone, a piece of the Rock of Cashel from Ireland, was laid on September 14th, 1873. The building was finished and dedicated on November 12th, 1876. After two other priests served the parish as pastor from 1877 to 1881, Father Corby returned for a second pastorate of five years from August 1881 to September 1886.
In September 1886, Rev. Patrick W. Condon became pastor in his first pastorate with St. Bernard’s for a 9 year period until 1895. It was under his direction that a new school was built on the south east corner of West Main and Montgomery streets in 1892. During the summer of 1892, a highly regarded, German born Milwaukee artist, Herman Michalowski, began the process of painting four murals within the church. The project extended on and off over three years. The murals continue to be enjoyed to this day. They are the St. Francis mural above the south altar, the St. Bernard mural above the north altar, the mural of St. Patrick on the south sanctuary wall and the mural of St. Elizabeth on the north sanctuary wall.
In 1929, the school was remodeled and expanded. From May, 1950 to August, 1961, Rev. Patrick Dolan served as pastor. It was under his direction that the building now known as the Parish Center at 114 S. Church Street was purchased (1958). It had formally been the home of Dr. A.F. Solliday. It served as a convent for the sisters of the parish school. Father Dolan also oversaw the building of a new addition to the school. Groundbreaking was on St. Patrick’s Day in 1960. The school addition was completed in December, 1960.
In 1974, a fire in the church steeple caused considerable damage to the church and the steeple. The cause of the fire is uncertain, but a fire marshal investigation speculated that it was caused by a pigeon which picked up a lighted cigarette butt from the street and then flew up where pigeons often roosted and dropped it. Clean up and repairs from the fire took an extended time to complete. This included the organ and it was many months before it was back in working order.
Rev. Robert Epping became the pastor of St. Bernard’s from July 1978 to June 1985, the last Holy Cross priest to serve as pastor. In 1978, a dedication was held to celebrate the newly restored organ. This had been a two year project begun in 1976 that repaired the fire damage of 1974. In May, 1979, the largest renovation ever of the interior of the church began. It was completed by year end. The scope of project was far-reaching and included removal of the baroque altars, removal of the communion rail, moving the confessionals from the back of church to the chapel, adding rest rooms, adding a vesting room, installing new pews, adding carpeting and painting the interior. And, in 1981, Jeff Allen became the first lay principal of St. Bernard’s School.
Administration of the parish became the responsibility of the Diocese of Madison in 1985. Rev. Thomas P. Marr served as pastor from June 1985 to June 2009. Among the many accomplishments during Father Marr’s pastorate were the 1986 renovation of the rectory into a convent for the teaching sisters, the 1986 renovation of the convent into the Parish Center and Rectory, the 1987 and 1997 renovation of the church’s stained glass windows, the 1990 creation of a Parish Educational Endowment Fund, the 1993 accreditation of St. Bernard’s School (one of the first 25 nonpublic schools in the state), and the 1995 establishment of a pre-school program and “computerization” of the school and parish office.
In July 2009, Rev. Brain Wilke was named as Pastor of St. Bernard’s, in addition to his duties as pastor of St. Henry’s Parish, Watertown. This marked a new period of close interaction, cooperation and community between the two parishes.
In January 2010, Monsignor Daniel Ganshert was named Pastor of both St. Bernard’s and St. Henry’s parishes. In 2010, Monsignor Ganshert led the Aspire campaign which raised over $1.7 million dollars for the improvements to the church’s steeple, clock and roof. This work was completed in 2011.
In June 2014, Father Patrick Wendler was named Pastor with Father Scott Jablonski named as Parochial Vicar of both St. Bernard’s and St. Henry’s parishes. In April, 2015, under Father Wendler’s direction, the two parochial schools agreed to operate together as one school at two campuses. Jeff Allen, principal of St. Bernard’s School for 34 years, also announced his retirement at the end of the 2014-2015 school year.
(Updated June, 2015 by John Ebert. History is based in large part upon the book “Built on Irish Faith” by Charles J. Wallman, published in 1994.)