History of the start of the original St. Bernard Parish:
St. Bernard church was the first Catholic parish in northern Worcester country. The present church (closed on June 30,2010) was dedicated in 1880. The history of the Catholic community in Fitchburg is believed to have begun 35 years before that. Fitchburg authorities refused to allow Catholics to use the town hall or any other public buildings for Mass; so the railroad workers, mostly Irish celebrated Mass outside in June or July of 1845 on the east side of Water Street between 2nd and 4th streets.
Tradition gives Rev. James Strain of Waltham the honor of being celebrant; while others mentioned Rev. Matthew Gibson of Worcester. Father Gibson replaced Father Strain in Waltham and served the Catholics in Fitchburg from time to time after May 1845. Father Gibson was a tireless worker for the Catholic Church; he founded ten congregations and built nine churches in Worcester County. The first of those churches was St. Bernard. On February 15, 1848 Father Gibson bought land from Alvah Crocker, who helped bring the railroad to Fitchburg. A contractor James J. Kahill donated 2000 feet of lumber which had been used by Irish laborers to build shanties in which they lived while working on the railroad. The lumber was used to build a building 20 by 30 feet and it was called the shanty cathedral.
On March 12, 1848 Mass was celebrated in the first building Catholics could call their own. In October 1848 Father Gibson bought more land from Mr. Crocker on Leominster Road which is now First Street. Workers dug and built a foundation for a more permanent church. Father Gibson intended to build a church of granite but the money ran out and so they roofed over the basement and used it as a church and school. In 1852 high winds blew the roof off. Mr. Crocker and several other Protestants helped rebuild it and Bishop John B. Fitzpatrick of Boston dedicated the church to St.Bernard on September 12, 1852.
Some years later when the church could not hold the growing congregation, Pastor Reverend Cornelius Foley turned to Mr. Crocker again; he bought more land on Middle Street from him. Men of the congregation, when they finished their days work came to the site and dug the foundation of the church, 168 feet long and 68 feet wide. The cornerstone was dedicated by Bishop John J. Williams of Boston on August 22, 1869. The super structure was built, the basement was finished and services and Mass were celebrated the following Christmas. The new church, the one that stands there today was dedicated on the feast of St. Bernard in August 1880, by Bishop Patrick T. O'Reilly. Over the years St. Bernard continued to grow and the rectory was completed in 1883, a school was built and the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary came to the parish in 1886 to teach. A school for girls was constructed on Middle Street in 1891. St. Bernard High School was built in 1927 on Harvard Street and an athletic field was constructed on St. Bernard Street. The church was renovated in the 1940's under the direction of Rev. Michael J. Curran. The parish was the mother church to other parishes in Fitchburg. St. Bernard Parish served the catholic population of West Fitchburg until it grew large enough to warrant its own parish. The church was built at Vernon and Burke Streets and dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus (also suppressed on June 30, 2010). The French Canadian population had grown so large by 1885, that a separate service for them was started in the basement of St. Bernard and later land was bought for a church on Walnut Street and dedicated to the Immaculate Conception (also suppressed on June 30, 2010).
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