Born at Aix, December 17, 1807
Taking of the habit at Billens, Switzerland, July 16, 1831
Ordained to the priesthood at Fribourg, December 17, 1831
Oblation at Billens, July 16, 1832 (no. 50)
Died at Notre-Dame de la Garde, September 7, 1870.
Jean Antoine Bernard was born in Aix on December 17, 1807. He made his classical studies at the minor seminary in Aix. At the time, it was under the direction of Mr. Abel. He studied philosophy and theology at the major seminary at Aix. At the seminary, he acted as infirmerian and, in this capacity, cared for until his death the superior of the seminary, Mr. Dalgas who was over eighty years old. During his seminary days, he taught catechism to children in the countryside. After the Ordinance of 1828, the political authorities forced the Jesuits to give up their college that had become the minor seminary. The future Oblates, Ambroise Vincens and Jean Antoine Bernard were appointed to teach there.
At the beginning of the summer of 1831, the Founder informed Father Mille, the superior of the novices and scholastic brothers at Billens, that he was sending him three postulants: Bernard, Sicard and Salluzzo. John, Anthony began his novitiate on July16, 1831. He was ordained to the priesthood at Fribourg by Bishop Yenni on December 17 of the same year and made his oblation on July 16 of 1832. It would seem that his conduct as a novice was not perfect. Father Mille informed the Founder of this and the Founder wrote to him November 3, 1831: “I am annoyed that Bernard is not more sensible of the value of the life and exercises of the novitiate. Lest he be deceived, it is is there that is being laid the foundation of all the good he is being called to do.” (Letters to the Oblates of France, 1831-1836, Oblate Writings I, vol. 8, no. 406, p. 41)
After the taking of Algeria by French troops in the summer of 1830, a few Oblates, Bernard among them, asked to go there as missionaries. In the course of his trip to Rome in 1833 to deal with the Icosie affair Bishop de Mazenod suggested to Bishop Angelo Mai, Secretary for the Congregation of the Propaganda Fidei to send some Oblates there and put forth the name of Father Bernard. But, in a letter to Father Tempier dated the 21st of the following November, he stated that “Bernard certainly could not be one of those chosen. This candidate’s preparation is by no means completed and the fact that he is not happy at Billens is not a sufficient reason to select him for a distant mission. ...” (Letters to the Oblates of France, 1831-1836, Oblate Writings I, vol. 8, no. 477, p. 117)
Missionary in Switzerland (1833-1837)
When the scholastic brothers left Billens at the beginning of 1833, a few priests stayed behind. They were Ricard, Martin and Bernard. They did a lot of preaching in the cantons of Fribourg and Geneva, the district of Ain, the area of Vaud, in the parishes of Gex in the diocese of Belley, etc. In Father Bernard’s obituary, Father Martin lists only a dozen parishes, but adds that the parish missions and retreats were numerous and were very successful.
In a May 27, 1835 letter to Father Guigues, Bishop de Mazenod wrote: “I had earmarked Bernard for you, the wonder-worker of Switzerland, but an over-riding necessity forced me to change my mind, I’m sorry to say.” (Letters to the Oblates of France, 1831-1836, Oblate Writings I, vol. 8, no. 516, p. 161)
At the beginning of 1837, Father Martin and Father Bernard himself informed Marseilles that Father Bernard was going through a vocation crisis. Bishop de Mazenod was concerned about this. January 9, he made some severe comments about those who entertain “thoughts contrary to one’s vocation.” On the 11th of January he wrote in his Diary concerning Bernard, “he is another pietra mossa (misplace building block).” On the 29th, he added that Bernard “is regularly wallowing in thoughts of apostasy.” And on February 23, he wrote: “What will become of this house in Billens if Father Bernard succumbs to his ridiculous temptations.” The same kind of reflection was occasioned by June 8 letter from Father Bernard. “He revealed the recesses of his heart to me, a heart in the grip of the most deadly illusion and ceaselessly entertaining thoughts contrary to his vocation.”
At the end of June and the beginning of July 1837, Bishop de Mazenod and Father Tempier went to Billens. They decided to close the house and sell it. Father Bernard arrived at Marseilles at the beginning of August. From that time on, the question of vocation crisis never came up again.
Subsequently, Father Bernard spent the greatest part of his life in Marseilles. He was in residence at Le Calvaire until 1850 and, that year, was appointed superior of the new chaplains’ residence at Notre-Dame de la Garde, halfway up the hill. His confessional at Le Calvaire as well as his confessional at Notre-Dame de la Garde would always have a large clientele. Especially from 1837 to 1850, he preached many retreats and parish missions in the diocese of Marseilles and Aix.
In Father Bernard’s obituary, Bishop Jeancard wrote that, in his conversations and in his preaching, Father Bernard “had acquired a kind of genial style that was fluent and attractive, the kind of thing that the people of Marseilles would find pleasant. He liked to use certain proverbial sayings used by men looked up to in the community. This geniality, these sayings, his unstinting dedication soon won for him an immense popularity. [...] Either as the man in charge or the second in command, he evangelized a great number of parishes in the dioceses of Marseilles and Aix. He was very much at ease in French and handled the Provençal dialect with even greater success. In the pulpit, he had adopted a rather wordy style which incorporated the forms and fashions of a kind of popular eloquence. [...] In general, it can be said that his preaching was short on content. He had lived too long relying on his basic education and by meditating on sermons that were rather out of date, without renewing the content of his preaching by further study. He was a man of action, of zeal and dedication much more than a man of words... “
Father Bernard was especially known as the man of “our Good Mother.” (Missions OMI 1876, p. 112) Initially, the little chapel at the summit of the hill which overlooked Marseilles was open only on Saturdays and Sundays for Mass. In 1833, Bishop de Mazenod saw to it that daily Mass was celebrated there by an Oblate from Le Calvaire. Shortly after 1837, Father Bernard was especially designated for this ministry. He heard confessions, organized pilgrimages, and, in a short space of time, the number of pilgrims grew. Some priests came to help him out. That is why, in 1850, a residence was bought halfway up the hill to house the chaplains. In the years that followed, this house was expanded.
Father Bernard contributed a great deal to making of Notre-Dame de la Garde a pilgrimage site worthy of Marseilles, first of all by spiritual renewal. Bishop Jeancard wrote: “He was known throughout the city and throughout the diocese. Along with his confreres, he had evangelized all the suburban parishes and, everywhere he preached, by building up the people’s trust, he had contributed in a powerful way to instilling in them that religious spirit that for a long time characterized them in a remarkable way. As a result, he was strategically placed in the shrine where it seemed his strength redoubled in the measure that he dedicated himself more keenly to all the shrine concerns. Indeed, one would be at a loss to find words to describe with what untiring zeal he dedicated himself ever more to encouraging the growth of devotion to Notre-Dame de la Garde. Whether he exercised his ministry in the chapel where he preached from time to time or whether he came to the city several days a week to hear confessions, his thoughts always turned toward the holy hill. To save souls by devotion to the Good Mother was an instinct that never left him...”
At the same time, he did a lot of work to improve material conditions at the shrine. He worked in close collaboration with Bishop de Mazenod in this regard: a silver statue in 1837-1838, large bells at a cost of 50 thousand francs blessed October 5, 1845, new church, a colossal work which cost a lot of money and which Bishop de Mazenod did not finish before his death. The church would be solemnly opened for service by Bishop Cruice in June of 1864. Father Bernard along with his lay administrators went to a great deal of trouble to find financing for their projects and even organized a national lottery. In 1861, the sum of 732, 498 francs had been amassed.
In 1861, Bishop Cruice, Bishop de Mazenod’s successor, appointed the new administrators and asked Father Bernard to leave. To replace him, he accepted Father Toussaint Dassy who was appointed superior of the Oblate community and director of the pilgrimages. Father Bernard was sent to Notre-Dame de Bon Secours. His departure cut the people of Marseilles to the heart. They demanded his return. Bishop Cruice wrote several letters to Father Fabre about this issue. After the new shrine was blessed in 1864, Father Bernard was recalled to Marseilles and continued to hear confessions at Le Calvaire and at Notre-Dame de la Garde. He remained in residence in the chaplains’ community until his death, September 7, 1870 at 63 years of age.
In the Missions OMI of 1869, p. 439, an article was dedicated to the apostolate of the Oblates at Notre-Dame de la Garde. After laying out the ministry done there, it is stated that the chaplains also prayed for the entire congregation. We read: “For us, this is too gratifying a mission for us to neglect it. Even though the ever failing state of his health inevitably hampered his zeal, the outstanding Father Bernard dedicated himself especially to this and he edified us greatly by his display of patience and an admirable serenity.”
Father Bernard was above all an apostle; administrative work was not his strong point. In 1854, he was appointed second ordinary consultor for the province of the Midi and first consultor in 1856. He was chosen by the community at Le Calvaire as delegate to the General Chapter of 1843, received a personal invitation to attend the Chapter of 1850 and a member of the 1861 Chapter as superior of the house Notre-Dame de la Garde and one of the four former provincial superiors of the Midi.
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.
Sources and bibliography
His dossier in the Oblate General Archives in Rome contains his Oblate formula, a letter to Father Casimir Aubert (July 26, 1846) and another to Father Fabre (December 14, 1863), as well as a speech delivered to a group of workers for Notre-Dame de la Garde, November 10, 1850. His name appears occasionally in the correspondence of some twenty Oblates, his confreres.
Circular letter no. 55 of February 5, 1872 by Father Joseph Fabre contains the obituary written by Bishop Jacques Jeancard. Cf. Notices nécrologiques, II, pp. 213-231.