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The faithful at St. Bernardine had a little help culminating the celebration of the church’s centennial, over the weekend. Cardinal Francis George came to the Forest Park church, last Sunday, to deliver the homily in recognition of St. Bernardine’s 100th year as a parish in the Archdiocese of Chicago. 

The church went all out to welcome him. The procession to begin the Mass was led by altar boys and girls carrying a cross, banners, candles and an incense censer. They were followed by the Knights of Columbus, regaled in their plumed hats, tuxedos and red capes.

Eleven priests followed, among them: St. Bernardine Pastor George Velloorattil and Cardinal Francis George.

A flurry of music followed, as the rest of the Mass was led by the parish choir, which featured cantors, organ, hand bells, a flute and a brass quintet. 

“It’s sort of like when company comes to visit in your home,” explained Julia Doloszycki, who was responsible for preparing Sunday’s Mass for Cardinal George’s arrival.  “You put your house in order and put your best foot forward.”

Cardinal George, in his homily, attempted to interpret the 100-year history of St. Bernardine from the perspective of the Feast of Christ the King, which liturgical churches were celebrating last Sunday, looking ahead to the second coming of Christ.

He said that everyone gets bogged down with the day-to-day demands, but that “we are called to something much higher.”  He told the people in the pews that they were an “outpost of the Kingdom of God.”

For many Catholics, a visit by the Cardinal to their home parish is a big deal, as there’s an element of celebrity appeal. 

Elizabeth Carpenter, a St. Bernardine member since 2003, affirmed this. Carpenter received communion from Cardinal George once before and, when asked about it, she recalled excitedly: “It was the coolest thing.”

“But I would call myself something of a Catholic geek,” she added, jovially. 

She then became serious and said: “Having the Cardinal makes me, and probably everyone in the parish, feel special – like the special feeling we get when we know we are all important in God’s eyes. We are not just a small parish out in the ‘burbs but an important part of the Body of Christ.”

Rev. Velloorattil framed the importance of the Cardinal’s visit this way: “He is the supreme teacher of faith and morals for the 370 parishes in our archdiocese. He is our spiritual father.  Because he is so busy, his visits are rare.”

Cardinal George wasn’t the only visitor – the church was filled to standing-room-only capacity, as former members and friends in the community joined in what felt like a family reunion. 

After the Mass, many of the attendees greeted Rev. Pat Tucker, Velloorattil’s predecessor. And the festivities continued throughout much of the day, with a dinner dance at the Willowbrook Ballroom, in Willow Springs.

Doloszycki described that the goal of the last Sunday liturgy as such: “The people will leave with a sense of pride and community spirit and will feel spiritually fed by the Cardinal’s homily.” 

From the exuberant joy in the face and voice of Velloorattil, as he expressed gratitude, to a long list of individuals and groups at the end of the Mass, the mission, at least in the opinion of St. Bernardine’s pastor, had been accomplished. 

And St. Bernardine has come a long way. Carpenter said two women (a Mrs. White and a Mrs. Fromme) canvassed the Forest Park area in the fall of 1911 in an attempt to create what is now St. Bernardine Church, at 7246 Harrison St.

The two women got signatures from 75 families who were seeking a parish of their own and presented the petition to the Archbishop of Chicago. The first Mass was held in a meeting room of the Vogel’s Picnic Ground at the corner of Harrison Street and Harlem Avenue, on Dec. 24 of that year, with Rev. Timothy Burke presiding.

100 years later, Cardinal Geroge, for one, expressed his approval.

“The Church is proud of you,” he declared.  “Christ is proud of you.”