Fr. Bernardine C. Kessing, OFM, 89, a professed friar for 68 years with the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province, including 62 years as an ordained priest, died on the morning of Saturday, October 15, 2022, at St. Catherine of Siena Nursing Home in Caldwell, New Jersey, where he had resided since March 2019. His death came just two-and-a-half-months short of his 90th birthday. Although he considered his pastoral assignments ordinary – he served for more than two-and-a-half-decades as pastor, administrator, parochial vicar, assistant, and guardian – parishioners, as well as the fraternities with which he lived, often spoke of him as an extraordinary friar who went about his daily work and ministry with great passion, commitment, and humility.
Since he spent the majority of his ministerial years tending to the faithful in northern New Jersey and upstate New York, wakes, viewings and Masses were held in both locations. A wake/viewing was held on Wednesday, Oct. 19, from 10-11 a.m., followed by an 11 a.m. Mass of Christian Burial, both at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Butler, where Bernardine had served as pastor. The second wake/viewing was held on Tuesday, Oct. 25, from 10-11 a.m., followed by an 11 a.m. Memorial Mass, both at St. Bonaventure Church in Allegany, New York. After the Memorial Mass, burial took place at the nearby St. Bonaventure Cemetery.
Bernardine was beloved by parishioners – evidenced by hundreds of greeting cards and notes that poured in over the years, especially during the holidays. Far from being a technology enthusiast, he continued through his retirement years to respond and write to well-wishers and friends, and his numerous nieces and nephews, the old-fashioned way – pounding the keys of his 1986 IBM electric typewriter, which he proudly displayed on his desk as though it were a vintage automobile. It was an important communication vehicle for Bernardine, who lost his voice after a medical condition caused permanent damage to his larynx.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on January 1, 1933, one of two children of Frank and Rose (Wanstrath) Kessing, he was baptized Donald George on Jan. 15, and was three years old when his family moved to Elmira, New York, in Chemung County, where the company that employed his father had relocated. Bernardine received his grade school education at St. Mary’s grammar school, and graduated in 1950 from Elmira Catholic High School. During his years in high school, thoughts of religious vocation with the Franciscans swirled in his head – driven by the influence of extended family members who were ordained priests.
He entered St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, New York, and after completing his studies there in 1953, he was received into the novitiate at St. Bonaventure Friary in Paterson, New Jersey, on August 12 of that year with the religious name of Bernardine. He professed his first vows of the Order of Friars Minor on August 13, 1954 at St. Bonaventure Church and went on to study philosophy at St. Francis College in Rye Beach, New Hampshire, and St. Anthony’s in Butler, New Jersey – receiving a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy in 1957 from St. Bonaventure University. He professed his solemn vows on August 20, 1957 at St. Bonaventure Church in Allegany, and went on to study theology at Holy Name College in Washington, D.C., from 1957 to 1960. He was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Egidio Vagnozzi at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington.
After teaching religion and algebra for two years (1961 to 1963) at Bishop Timon High School in Buffalo, New York, Bernardine began pastoral ministry in 1963 at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Butler, serving there for 13 years, the last six as pastor and vicar. In 1976, he was assigned to Sacred Heart Church in Rochelle Park, New Jersey. Three years later, he moved to St. Anne Church in Fair Lawn, New Jersey – at the time, the largest parish in Holy Name Province, with 10,000 parishioners. His pastoral assignments were always at extremely active parishes that called for a strong and compassionate administrator capable of responding to challenging fiscal issues.
After six years at St. Anne Parish, he left there in 1985 and headed for upstate New York to Our Lady of Angels Church in Allegany, which began 14 years of pastoral ministry at the small-town parish. He returned to St. Anne in Fair Lawn in 1999 to serve four years as parochial vicar. In 2003, he was assigned as guardian of St. Anthony Residence at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, Massachusetts. He retired from active ministry in 2006 and continued to live at the residence on Arch Street until 2012, when he moved to St. Anthony Friary, the Province retirement house in Butler. During retirement, Bernardine served in fraternal ministry to his brothers.
In 2017, his health needs required him to move to Holy Name Friary in Ringwood, New Jersey, the then-skilled nursing facility of Holy Name Province, where he lived until March 2019, when he moved to St. Catherine of Siena Nursing Home in Caldwell.
Bernardine is survived by his Franciscan confreres of Holy Name Province as well as many extended family members, among them 10 nephews and nieces, including Stephen Kessing of Roanoke, Virginia; Virginia Sheehe of Elmira, New York; Mary Jo “Jodi” (Jack) Quigley of Clarence Center, New York, and a niece-in-law, Rita Kessing of Lebanon, Connecticut, to name a few. He was predeceased by his parents, brother Frank, and sister-in-law Helen.