This is part of a continuing series of profiles of the Province’s retired friars, providing a look back on their ministerial journey, and what they are doing now. The previous article profiled Romuald Chinetsky, OFM.
RINGWOOD, N.J. — A key responsibility at his first parish was balancing the financial ledger and reducing costs – which explains why Bernardine Kessing, OFM, is a stickler about keeping the lights off in his room at Holy Name Friary during daytime hours. Although more than a decade removed from active ministry, and even longer since he last crunched numbers, old habits are hard to shake.
“I had to pay the electric bills, so I have always been more tuned in than most to saving money,” Bernardine says of a pet peeve that he developed at his first pastoral assignment at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Butler, N.J., where he spent 13 years, the last six as pastor.
After teaching religion and algebra for two years at Bishop Timon High School in Buffalo, N.Y., neither his time spent in formation nor his academic studies could have prepared him for what awaited at St. Anthony when he arrived by bus on a crisp autumn morning in September 1963.
“I walked up to the first floor [of the friary], where the pastor handed me the parish financial records even before saying hello. I didn’t know a thing about accounting, but I learned on the fly how to be an accountant,” Bernardine said during an interview at the Ringwood friary, the Province’s skilled nursing care facility where he has lived since May 2017.
The monotony of spreadsheets and invoices was eased by Bernardine’s pastoral work, which included officiating at 53 nuptials in just one year. “That was before pre-Cana, when priests were responsible for preparing couples for marriage. I loved that part of ministry and will never forget those experiences,” he said.
To help pay off the mortgage on a new community center, Bernardine demonstrated his resourcefulness by initiating bingo night at the parish, packing the weekly event with parishioners and residents of surrounding communities.
His book-balancing activity these days involves only the kind he reads, which is far more relaxing than trying to find an error that throws off the checking account by a dollar or two. His peers say he was a perfectionist.
“Bernardine has always taken [every aspect of] his Franciscan ministry very seriously,” said Jerome Massimino, OFM, who lived and worked with him at Sacred Heart Parish in Rochelle Park, N.J. “He has always been mild-mannered and easy going, a symbol of Franciscan grace and charm.”
Cards and notes sent by former parishioners, especially during holidays, are evidence of Bernardine’s popularity. While he is well aware that virtually the entire world communicates via text and social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, he still prefers to respond to well-wishers and friends the old-fashioned way – typing notes and letters on his 1986 IBM electric typewriter, which he proudly displays on the desk in his room as though it were a vintage automobile.
He even recalls how he acquired his trusty typewriter more than 30 years ago. “It was either a typewriter or a computer – I was given the choice, so I chose the typewriter,” he said, “probably because I didn’t know how to work with a computer.”
Bernardine also enjoys receiving visitors at the Ringwood friary, some of them former parishioners with whom he has maintained friendships through the years.
After St. Anthony, he was transferred to Sacred Heart in Rochelle Park, where he served from 1976 to 1979 before his first of two assignments at St. Anne Parish in Fair Lawn, N.J. – the latter comprising 10,000 parishioners, at the time making it the Province’s largest parish.
All his assignments were at extremely active parishes, but that wasn’t the only common thread. They always all seemed in need of a strong and compassionate administrator, one who would be able to respond to challenging fiscal issues with practical strategies and tough decision-making – and, most importantly, by uniting parishioners.
‘The decisions weren’t always easy or popular, but they were necessary. I always joked that I was assigned to parishes because no one else wanted those jobs,” Bernardine said with a broad smile.
Jerome thinks those assignments were by design, noting, “Bernardine has always been highly regarded by friars and laypeople, and his work [and direction] has always been well-respected].”
In other words, the Provincial leadership knew they were choosing the right person to steer the ship.
At the Fair Lawn parish, Bernardine sold a vacant convent to reduce costs and generate revenue for much-needed upgrades to the grammar school and church that included the installation of new windows, entrance doors and air-conditioning. He implemented the ambitious project with the blessing of parishioners.
“I learned that you can’t do anything without the support, cooperation and participation of the people. Parishioners are still there after you move on to your next assignment. It’s their parish,” he said.
After six years at St. Anne, Bernardine was assigned in 1985 to Our Lady of Angels Parish in Allegany, N.Y., a small town environment compared to the larger parish in Fair Lawn.
His arrival in Western New York coincided with the parish-sponsored annual summer festival. Although he was accustomed to rolling up his sleeves and doing the dirty work, even he wasn’t prepared for this inauspicious introduction to his new parish.
“My car got stuck in the mud at the festival grounds. The tires were buried so deep into the mud that a group of parishioners who were volunteering at the festival had to push me out,” said Bernardine, who admits he had second thoughts about his new assignment.
But his battle with nature turned out to be a bonding experience with his new parishioners that began a wonderful 14-year run at Our Lady of Angels.
Of course, his tenure was filled with the usual challenges – he had to shutter the grammar school because of declining enrollment (the final graduating class had five students). He turned to the community for financial support to implement repairs and improvements to the church.
“Although he had ordinary assignments, Bernardine is quite an extraordinary person who always went about his daily work with passion, commitment and humility,” Jerome said.
Even with his time consumed by these constant challenges, Jerome says that Bernardine always found time to mentor young friars, imparting his wisdom and experience to help in their formation and development.
“I have been fortunate over the years to have great mentors, and Bernardine was among the best. I remember the chats we had, talking about life in general and what it means to be a friar,” Jerome said.
After leaving Our Lady of Angels in 1999, Bernardine returned for a second assignment at St Anne in Fair Lawn. Then in 2003, he was assigned as guardian of St. Anthony Residence in Boston, which was situated across from St. Anthony Shrine on Arch Street. He retired in 2006 and remained at the residence until 2012, when he moved to the St. Anthony Friary – the retirement house in Butler, where he lived until April 2017.
Bernardine had a health scare while living in Boston, having cancerous polyps removed from his esophagus. But Jerome said the illness didn’t deter Bernardine from his giving nature.
“Despite his own health travails, Bernardine remained faithful and generous, driving his brother friars to doctor appointments,” Jerome said.
Born in Cincinnati in 1933, Bernardine was three years old when his father moved the family to Elmira after his employer relocated the company to the Upstate New York town.
The influence of ordained extended family members kept religious vocation in his subconscious until high school, when Bernardine began to give serious thought to joining the Franciscans. He was received into the Order in 1953 at St. Bonaventure Friary, the novitiate in Paterson, N.J., where he made his first profession one year later. After professing his solemn vows in 1957, he was ordained on March 12, 1960.
He attributes the fullness of his ministries to the way Holy Name Province prepares friars when they are in formation. Bernardine also cherishes the fraternity that defines the Franciscans.
“I am happy to see the provinces getting together because it will make our fraternity even stronger,” he said, referring to the May 30 vote by Holy Name Province and five other provinces of the Order of Friars Minor to form one new province aimed at revitalizing Franciscan life in the U.S.
Although he spent decades making important decisions that impacted the lives of thousands of parishioners at four parishes, living at the Ringwood friary has meant having most decisions made for him. He acknowledges that it’s nice to have someone else balancing the financial ledger, paying the electric bills, and replacing boilers and windows.
“They are very good to us here. We have everything we need,” Bernardine said.
— Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y.
- “Holy Name Province to Unify with Five Other Franciscan Provinces” – May 30, 2018, HNP Today
- “Bishop Timon-St. Jude High School Launches Franciscan Fund” – Jan. 2, 2013, HNP Today
- “Province Announces Closing of Boston Retirement Friary” – March 14, 2012, HNP Today