Our Parish History
Who We Are
Indiana County and, subsequently, the town of Indiana, were founded in the early 1800s. By 1832, the Catholics in town were under the care of the pastor from SS. Simon and Jude Parish in Blairsville. Fourteen years later, the Catholic population had grown, and Indiana needed a parish of its own.
The cornerstone for the first St. Bernard Church was laid on June 6, 1846, by Father J.A. Stillinger of Blairsville. Bishop Michael O’Connor of Pittsburgh dedicated the new house of worship in 1847. The building was small and simple, but was welcomed eagerly by the predominately German congregation. Benedictine Father Idilo van der Green served as the first resident pastor of St. Bernard. Benedictine Father Boniface Wimmer—founder of St. Vincent Benedictine Monastery—and Benedictine Father Leander Schnerr—third Archaboot of St. Vincent Archabbey—both served the parish in some capacity during its history.
The Catholic population in the area continued to grow throughout the 1800s, and another church had to be built in Saltsburg to serve all the members of the community. By 1869, the number of parishioners at St. Bernard were more than the seating capacity at the church. Bishop Domenic of Pittsburgh laid the cornerstone for the new church on Aug. 17, on land donated by Paul Vogel & Brothers. The Roman-style brick church with a 135 foot steeple was completed within a year, and was dedicated on Sept. 26, 1871. A new rectory was constructed four years later, and the old frame church burned down.
The Benedictine Order withdrew service of the congregation in 1876, and passed it into the hands of secular clergy. Father George Allman was appointed the first non-Benedictine pastor. He was succeeded by Father Adam F. Tonner in 1887. Under Father Tonner’s pastorate, the parish received many improvements, including: repainting and frescoing of the interior, building a stable and ordering a new phaeton, supplying running water to the church and rectory, installing new altars, and adding steam heat. In 1890, the parish purchased lots on the south side of East Oak Street, and began selling plots in what became known as the Old St. Bernard Cemetery. Those buried in a small cemetery next to the old frame church were disinterred and reburied in the Oak Street cemetery. Father Tonner made sure that upkeep was kept on the cemetery, by planting trees and flowers, building walls and a new arch, and making plans to install a fountain.
Father Tonner was transferred in May 1891, and was replaced by Father Thomas Kirner. During his tenure, a slate roof was installed on the church. However, this project created a rift between the pastor and the congregation. A lay group was commissioned to study the roof situation, but was bypassed by Father Kirner. The group resigned in protest, and was replaced by a committee of Father Kirner’s choosing. This caused parishioners to petition the bishop for Father Kirner’s removal. They cited extravagance, mismanagement of money, and uneasy relationships with neighboring churches as the grounds for removal. Father Kirner was transferred in 1896, and was replaced by Father Daniel Rutters.
Father Rutters only served the parish for 10 months before retiring from active ministry. Until a replacement could be found, the Benedictines provided temporary priests. In 1898, Father Neil McNelis, or Father Mac as he was known, was hired to take temporary charge of the parish. He stayed for 35 years, until his death in 1933. Father Mac headed up popular fundraisers during his tenure, such as sauerkraut and turtle soup suppers, and bingo. His efforts were not just about raising money, but also about bringing people to the church, and getting them to actively participate in the community. Msgr. James Brady succeeded Father Mac as pastor. He served the parish for almost 50 years.
In the late 1950s, the needs of Catholic students at then Indiana State College (now Indiana University of Pennsylvania) were addressed. The Newman Center opened in an old macaroni factory on the edge of campus. In 1968, St. Thomas More University Parish was established to serve the students and faculty of IUP, and took the responsibility from St. Bernard.
The 1950s and 1960s brought a number of remodels, repairs, and additions to the St. Bernard parish territory. In 1958, a shrine to Our Lady of Fatima was erected on the northern edge of the cemetery. In 1965, several bricks began to fall from the steeple of the church. Masses were moved to the recreation center until the problem could be repaired. The steeple did not have to be removed, thankfully; the masonry was repaired, and the louvered windows were replaced. In 1969, “The Lodge” was built by several men from the parish, and Catholic youth. This building was used for retreats, meetings, and socials.
Despite all the updates, the parish authorities couldn’t deny the need for a new church. A building drive was started in January 1976, to raise money for a new church. The fund collected over $400,000. Construction began on the new limestone-encased building in June 1977, and the first Mass was celebrated in the newly named St. Bernard of Clairvaux Church on Nov. 25, 1978. A formal dedication Mass with Bishop William G Connare was celebrated on April 22, 1979. The old church was razed a month later.
The new church may have been completed, but construction was not. In October 1982, planning began for the Clarivaux Commons Senior Citizens Complex. Groundbreaking took place on July 16, 1983, and the building was finished in May 1984. The complex was a six-story 85-unit high rise. It was opened to respond to the need of quality senior citizen housing in the area. Despite being funded by, and situated so close to, the church, the complex was non-denominational. Sisters from different orders managed the building, while residents worked the reception desk, as well as held monthly meetings, planned parties and celebrations, played games, and participated in craft projects.
In 1990, the parish completed a Learning Center that replaced the old school building.
Msgr. William Charnoki became pastor in 1994. During his tenure, a crucifix was installed above the altar, and a shrine of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was added. The shrine was dedicated in memory of Monsignors Brady and Doychak, and all the deceased priests, religious, and laity of the parish. The sound system was also updated, and the pews were replaced.
A year late, parishioners donated and installed an outdoor shrine to the Holy Family to celebrate Msgr. Charnoki’s 30th anniversary of ordination.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux Parish celebrated its 150th Anniversary on June 29, 1997. Bishop Anthony G. Bosco presided over the Mass, and dedicated the shrine of St. Bernard. An informal reception at the church social hall followed.
The cemetery began to undergo renovations in 2000, which included: paving the road, building a stone wall around the cemetery’s two main entrances, removal of old trees and planting of new ones, a new storage building, a new water pump, purchasing a truck, and adding six acres adjoining the cemetery.
By Sept. 1, 2002, the renovations were complete, and a special Labor Day Mass was celebrated at the cemetery to show off the hard work. Msgr. Charnoki said a blessing at the grotto of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and dedicated the new cemetery flagpole in honor of those who served and were serving in the military. He also dedicated a statue of St. Michael the Archangel, patron saint of soldiers and police officers. Another flagpole received a dedication and blessing, this one outside of the church entrance. It was dedicated to the victims and heroes of 9/11.
One more special item was blessed and dedicated following this Mass. A black, granite monument was placed on the site of a mass grave, where 13 unidentified miners were buried, following an explosion at the Ernest Mine in 1916.
The refurbished cemetery enjoyed just six short years of cleanliness. In February 2008, the cemetery was vandalized. Groundskeepers estimated thousands of dollars in damage. Sixty-three headstones were toppled, two statues were smashed and others damaged, along with lights and glass candle fixtures. Some headstones were destroyed beyond repair, and others were able to be righted again with minimal damage sustained.
In 2004, with the arrival of the fourth bishop of Greensburg, Lawrence E. Brandt, St. Bernard was chosen to host one of Bishop Brandt’s Deanery Masses. Services were followed by a social, and were open to all parishioners in each deanery.
Father Thomas A. Federline served as pastor of St. Bernard of Clairvaux Parish from 2013 -2020.
As of 2020, the parish was the spiritual home of 1,123 households, about 2,479 people.