Amid change, a parish thrives

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In 1959, the Richmond Diocese covered the entire state of Virginia. The Arlington Diocese was still 15 years from its founding and the Annandale/Springfield area was served by one parish, St. Michael in Annandale, and it was getting crowded.

St. Bernadette Church in Springfield arose from the mid-century Catholic boom. About 500 St. Michael parishioners made up the fledgling parish when founding pastor, Father Francis Bradican, began celebrating Mass in April 1959 at Lee High School in Springfield.

Father Bradican was succeeded as pastor by Msgr. Edmund Browne in 1972. It wasn't long before Msgr. Browne began a building drive to get a permanent home for the parish.

Ground was broken for the new church in early 1980 and in the fall of 1981, the church was dedicated by the late Arlington Bishop Thomas J. Welsh.

In 1985, Father John Hughes became pastor and served for 17 years before retiring in 2002. Father Tom Ferguson served as administrator until Father Kevin Larsen took over as pastor in 2004.

During this time, the area population and church membership rose steadily. The federal government, the military and the companies that support them swelled the regional population.

In 1997, St. Raymond of Peñafort Church was founded in response to the population changes, taking members from several area parishes, including about one-third of the parishioners of St. Bernadette.

"(Before the split,) every Mass was packed," said Father Larsen.

Afterward, attendance dropped off. They had a big church, and it was not being filled.

Before becoming pastor, Father Larsen was parochial vicar of St. Bernadette from 1993-97.

When he returned in 2004, he began addressing the changing demographics of his church and the need to maintain the nearly 30-year-old parish structures.

Father Larsen added a Spanish Mass every Sunday, a Filipino Mass every third Saturday and various cultural activities for the many ethnic groups served.

He's replaced roofs, heating systems and windows, all the things needed to maintain aging structures.

"People have been very generous," he said of parishioners.

He's assisted by parochial vicars Fathers Marcus Pollard and Paul Richardson. Father Luis Fernando Franco Henao is in residence.

Parishioners now total more than 9,000, and Clare Berkovic, office manager, said that about 7,000 are active in parish life.

"The parishioners deeply love this parish," she said. "This parish (is a model) of deep-rooted kindness."

Father Pollard said the church is special, "because we make a wide spectrum of Catholics feel welcome. We cater to everybody."

Father Pollard was the founding pastor of St. Veronica Church in Chantilly, and he came to St. Bernadette in 2007.

Father Richardson came to St. Bernadette in 2009 and the parish has embraced him. Although his multiple sclerosis forces him to walk with a cane, he's managed to become a journeyman blacksmith, accomplished photographer, musician and quite the Warhammer (a tabletop war game) player. "I love it here," he said. "The people are wonderful and Father Kevin is as good a pastor as you can ask for."

Peggy Seegers, now 84, was the first parish secretary. She worked for Father Bradican and Msgr. Browne.

"I did it all," she said. "From bookkeeping to answering the phone" and acting as the buffer between the pastor and parishioners.

Seegers likes working in the office so much she still comes in once a month to help out.

David Wallace has been the director of religious education for three years. The Christendom graduate is responsible for 300 children and has about 60 volunteers who teach religious education. These are a stable core of teachers.

"A lot of the catechists have been here for decades," said Wallace, who lives in Front Royal and has a unique view of the parish.

"It's interesting to see the parish as an outsider," he said.

He likes the enthusiasm of all the volunteers.

Donna Feerst has been the business manager for seven years and is also a parishioner.

"It's a vibrant parish filled with wonderful people," she said.

Feerst said that Father Larsen is a good leader and a strong financial manager.

Khan Nguyen has been the facilities manager for 12 years. He was married in the church and loves implementing the physical renovations and installations that Father Larsen has planned.

He proudly tours the buildings pointing out new or renovated areas he helped put into service.

The parish celebrated its golden anniversary last year when Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde was joined by diocesan priests, parishioners and friends to celebrate its years of commitment to the Faith. Despite demographic and population changes, with strong clergy leadership and parishioner commitment, the parish's future is secure.

Next week's profile

St. Leo the Great in Fairfax

Quick facts

St. Bernadette Parish

7600 Old Keene Mill Rd.

Springfield, Va. 22152


Pastor: Fr. Kevin Larsen

Parochial Vicars: Fr. Marcus Pollard, Fr. Paul Richardson

In residence: Fr. Luis Fernando Franco Henao

Deacon: Ramon Tirado

DRE: David Wallace

Mass schedule:

Sat.: 8 a.m.; 5:30 p.m. (Vigil) Filipino Mass every third Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

Sun: 7:30 a.m., 9 a.m., 10:45 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 3 p.m. (Spanish), 5 p.m.,

Weekdays: 9 a.m.

Parishioners: 9,100

School: St. Bernadette School

7602 Old Keene Mill Rd.

Springfield, Va. 22152

Principal: Trish Beeks

Students: 485

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2010