Born at Auberives (Isère), April 12, 1823
Taking of the habit at N.-D. de l’Osier, March 6, 1843
Oblation at N.-D. de l’Osier, March 7, 1844 (No. 121)
Ordination to the priesthood at Marseilles, September 26, 1847
Died at Montreal, Canada, March 25, 1885.
Jean-Pierre Bernard was born in Auberives, son of Anne Decourt and Pierre Bernard, a farmer, on April 12, 1823. He entered the novitiate of Notre-Dame de l’Osier on March 6, 1843 and made his vows there on March 7, 1844. After three years of study at the major seminary of Marseilles, he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop de Mazenod on September 26, 1847.
Before his ordination, he received his obedience for Canada on September 14, 1847 and left immediately with Father Augustin Gaudet and scholastic brother Charles Arnaud. On September 29, the Founder communicated to Father Guigues their pending departure: “As always you are aware that I am sending very genial individuals picked from those men of good will who are always ready to support the views of a superior. They are leaving in a state of high fervour. People could not have been more cooperative than they with the graces God has granted them in order to make themselves fit for the great mission entrusted to them.”
Hardly had they arrived in Canada, where an epidemic of typhus was raging, when Father Bernard fell ill. The Founder confided his sentiments to his diary under the entry of March 6, 1848; “Our so worthy, so fervent Father Bernard is so ill that this very day he has received the last rites. I am truly devastated by this news. What might we not have hoped for from the dedication to God and to the salvation of souls of this fervent missionary with his firm hand, his beautiful voice, his strong health. My God, what a new trial! This dear son from the time of receiving the sub-diaconate he had only grown more rapidly in virtue. His generosity could stand any test. When he was travelling through Paris, he had stopped to venerate the tongue of the martyr Perboire and you can well understand why he wrote to me about it. He was so happy to be sacrificing himself for the salvation of the infidels. His heart was filled with gratitude for the love that I had for him.”
He soon regained his health and took up residence at Longueuil before joining Father Léonard at the end of 1848 to go found the residence of Saint-Pierre-Apôtre in Montreal. The priests inaugurated their ministry in this working class quarter of the city with a six weeks mission, which was very well attended. From July 1849 to the beginning of 1850, he took up residence once again at Longueuil then, in the springtime of that year, he accompanied Bishop Bourget on a pastoral visit. Right up until 1853, he worked in the future parish of Montreal and focused his attention as well on the construction of the rectory and church.
In 1853, along with Father Marie-Joseph Royer, he preached a mission in Plattsburgh (State of New York) and Father Jacques Santoni, the provincial, accepted to establish the Oblates there. It was Father Bernard who was appointed director and who supervised the construction of a church for the religious services of the immigrant French Canadians. In 1856, he wrote to the Founder and sent him one of his pictures. The Founder answered him in a September 2 letter: “Yes, my good Fr. Bernard, even your face, in spite of the effort made to make it surly, appears to my eyes to be just as you are in my heart, very good and very much loved.” (Oblate Writings, Vol. 2, No. 221, p. 123)
In 1857, what went on? We learn that Bishop Guigues, provincial once again, “had to withdraw Bernard” from Plattsburgh. Father Bernard asked to be allowed to go to Europe to rest. Initially, the Founder was going to refuse, but then recalled him to France. In October of 1858, he communicated to Bishop Guigues, “You must have received my orders for the subjects of whom I am relieving you (Fathers Rouge and Bernard).” (Oblate Writings, vol. 2, no. 255, p. 193) On August 1, 1858, he had already written to Father Vincens: “When he (Father Rouge) has arrived, I will also send Fr. Bernard the same order, and so we will weaken that centre of murmuring and opposition which is doing so much evil in Canada.” (Oblate Writings, vol. 2, footnote, p. 193)
Back in France, Father Bernard worked as parish priest at Notre-Dame de l’Osier from 1858 to 1863, then, he returned to America. He worked in Plattsburgh from 1863 to 1866, at Saint-Sauveur of Quebec from 1866 to 1878 where he oversaw the building of a church. He then returned to Montreal where he did preaching and served as prison chaplain.
Father Bernard was not without his faults. In 1866, he had to leave Plattsburgh because of a conflict that had arisen between the priests and a group of the faithful. The author of his obituary wrote: “Sometimes in Quebec, people were saddened by the fact that the worthy priest’s religious spirit did not always equal his priestly zeal. Mistaken in judgment and carried away by his impetuous nature, he did not sufficiently listen to what others had to tell him; at times, he listened neither to the voice of prudence, nor to the voice of his superiors. That got him into a lot of trouble.”
Nevertheless, he was a man of action and a zealous missionary who excelled in preaching. In his obituary, we read: “Endowed with an eloquence that could sweep his hearers along, having a good voice, a fine bearing, a natural delivery with expressive and easy gestures, he had all the qualities to enthral and carry away the crowds.”
Father Bernard’s health had always been a bit problematical. A sensitive stomach allowed him to foresee a hidden problem that would reveal itself in 1885. Until the end, wrote Father Joseph Lefebvre, who was superior in Montreal at the time, Father Bernard “displayed a calmness and an amiability which all of those allowed to visit him found striking. His death [which took place on March 25] was of the most gentle. He had been preparing himself for it for a long time.” His body was laid to rest in the Oblate cemetery of Richelieu.
Sources and Bibliography
G.A.: Oblation formula, March 7, 1844; five letters to Father Sardou
(1882-1884), one to Father Fabre (June 8, 1866) and one to Father Rey (March
12, 1884); several letters from Father Bernard’s mother and from Father Bernard’s
parish priest to Father Fabre asking for financial aid for his mother
“Le R. P. Jean Pierre Bernard”, in Notices nécrologiques O.M.I., Vol. VI, Bar-le-Duc, 1895, p. 149-170.
Carrière, Gaston., o.m.i., “Bernard, Jean-Pierre”, in Dictionnaire biographique des O.M.I. au Canada, Vol. I, Ottawa, 1976, p. 84-85.