Work of the Spirit

Father Bernie Etienne said a prayer over the second-graders of Holy Rosary Catholic School in Evansville following the school Mass on April 11. Since 2006, Fr. Bernie has been the pastor for Holy Rosary Parish, which includes the elementary school. The Tell City native was ordained in 1993 and served as an associate pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Jasper. He was among 12 pastors chosen to receive the 2013 Distinguished Pastor Award from the National Catholic Education Association.

Story by John Seasly
Photos by Dave Weatherwax

When the students of Holy Rosary Catholic School in Evansville pass Father Bernie Etienne in the halls of the school or outside the church — anywhere, really — a subtle and seamless interaction takes place. In one continuous, spontaneous motion, Fr. Bernie outstretches his hand and the student, perhaps not even consciously, high-fives it.

It happens over and over again, with students in pre-kindergarten, eighth grade and every age in between. The gesture is over in a second, but it speaks directly to some of the many roles that Fr. Bernie has taken on, as a priest and a leader within the Catholic Diocese of Evansville.

On his way to prepare for the school Mass the morning of April 11, Fr. Bernie stopped to talk to a parishioner.

In eighth-grader Griffin Bitter’s words: “He’s a boss.” (Slang for “pretty cool,” he adds.)
At about 8 a.m. Thursday, April 11, before the school’s weekly morning Mass, Fr. Bernie stops Griffin in the hall. He tells him the same story he’ll be telling throughout the day, of meeting Indiana University guard Jordan Hulls at Mass on Sunday.

“I said, ”˜Tell (IU head basketball coach Tom) Crean that there’s an alumni priest in Evansville if you need a team chaplain,’” Fr. Bernie says. This gets a big grin from Griffin, just as it does from everyone else.

Fr. Bernie, who from 1993 to 1996 served as an associate pastor at St. Joseph Church in Jasper, is deeply committed to the Catholic Church. For nearly seven years, he has been parish pastor for Holy Rosary and its 3,500 members. He also works closely with the parish school, its 50 or so staff members, 316 elementary students and 120 pre-kindergartners.

Following the morning school Mass on April 11, Fr. Bernie greeted students with high-fives as they filed out of the church. Following the Mass, Fr. Bernie visited a couple of classrooms, including a stop to talk with the second-graders about their upcoming First Communion.

On a typical day, Fr. Bernie wakes up around 4 a.m., to pray, prepare, exercise and finish some basic chores before the sun rises. By the time he is finished — at 8:30 p.m. this Thursday — the sun will have set.

It is not much of a surprise, then, that Fr. Bernie walks faster than most people jog. He moves at a brisk clip through the hallways of the church and the school, dressed in a black, short-sleeve, button-down shirt, black pants, black shoes and a white clerical collar. He is 54 and balding, with closely cropped gray hair, a taut face and glasses. Students whisper excitedly that he is coming and teachers light up when he enters their classrooms.

As a priest, he regularly performs Mass and the sacramental ministries. He serves on the boards of the parish school and Reitz Memorial Catholic High School. He is the dean of the Evansville East Deanery, overseeing 13 parishes and holding quarterly meetings for its approximate 60 members.

He was director of vocations for the diocese from 1995 to 2010, recruiting and overseeing the development of candidates for the priesthood.

If that weren’t enough to handle, for the last year and a half he has been the vicar general for the diocese, working closely with Bishop Charles Thompson. He collaborates with the bishop in the diocese’s plans for the future and provides oversight in matters involving members of the clergy.

As vicar general, he plays a small role in reviewing claims of misconduct against priests in the diocese. It upsets him that the Catholic Church is facing such intense scrutiny, he says, because it is not the only organization in which abuse has occurred. However, he understands it too.

“That’s part of the sacred trust that people put in priests,” he says.

He works six days a week, and on Sunday nights he tries to make it to the 150 acres of land outside of Tell City that he owns with his brother Paul, who is bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyo. On Mondays, he manages the forest and dries timber for an ongoing series of woodworking projects.

The farm is where Fr. Bernie recharges his batteries.

Fr. Bernie got a laugh out of Holy Rosary eighth-grade teacher Bonnie Ambrose, bottom right, before the start of school April 11. Fr. Bernie popped in at the teachers’ morning meeting between conducting a morning Mass for the public and a school Mass.

“Though I love serving as a priest, oftentimes there are no tangible results to be seen at the end of a hard day. Like most folks it’s nice to see progress, and at the farm at the end of a hard day’s work I can go for a walk and see the tangible results of my efforts,” he writes in a description of his farm.

That is not to say that he does not see results in his other duties, but they are not as immediate. In fall 2011, for example, the parish school decided to change how it collected tuition.

Fr. Bernie simultaneously serves as pastor at Holy Rosary, dean of the Evansville East Deanery and vicar general of the diocese.

Any change is a major risk, and Fr. Bernie said that he studied the efforts and mistakes of other schools before proceeding.

“We try not to reinvent the wheel,” he said.

Previously, the school collected a small portion of tuition and asked parents to contribute a certain amount per week to the collection at Mass.

“But we felt that by doing that we lost control of collecting tuition,” Fr. Bernie said.

Instead, the school decided to collect all the tuition directly, so the tuition fee increased but the total amount remained the same. Fr. Bernie made it a point to meet with parents, comparing the old and new models and addressing their concerns.

The switch was a success, and enrollment was even up a few students the next year. The school became financially sound, and was able to add faculty, expand its technology and upgrade its facilities.

Because of his role in the tuition change and his ongoing involvement with parents, students and teachers, Fr. Bernie was chosen to receive the 2013 Distinguished Pastor Award from the National Catholic Education Association. More than 5,000 priests are eligible for the award, and Fr. Bernie was one of 12 to receive the honor this year. He accepted the award at the association’s annual convention in Houston last month.

He attributes the recognition to the school staff as a whole, “a bunch of really good people working together.”

The teachers and staff are not short of praise for him either.

Principal Joan Fredrich said that he is physically and emotionally present, listens actively and responds to people’s concerns.

“He truly is a pastoral leader,” she says.

He knows many of the students by name, and makes an effort to eat with them in the cafeteria when he has the time. When students are feeling sick or are suffering from the loss of a loved one, Fr. Bernie is there ready to pray with or for them, Fredrich says.

“When he listens to a person, and promises follow-up or prayer, you can count on it,” she wrote in her Nov. 12 letter nominating him for the distinguished pastor award. “When you just don’t quite feel like yourself, Fr. Bernie shows up, gets to the bottom of it and steers you back towards the light.”

With a chain saw in hand, Fr. Bernie trekked through a portion of the 150 acres of ground just outside of Tell City that he owns with his brother Paul on April 9. For the past 15 years, Fr. Bernie has spent much of his time off practicing timber management on the land. He said the time he spends there helps him to escape the challenges of the ministry.

On April 11, he shows his award to a group of kindergartners, who refer to it only as a “major award.” Afterward, he asks if they have any questions, and one girl says that she wants to know more about God.

“I hope you all want to know more about God. Do you know it all yet?” he asks. “No,” they all respond.

“Do you think I know it all yet?” he asks. “Yes!” they exclaim.

“You know what, I really don’t. I wish I did. It’s, it’s a whole lifetime of trying to learn about God,” he tells them.

Fr. Bernie’s lifetime did not take him in a direct path to the priesthood. He was born in Tell City in 1958, the oldest of six children. He studied marketing and management at Indiana University and sold medical surgical supplies and orthopedic implants in his 20s. Briefly, he was engaged to be married.

Although his career was flourishing, he found the greatest fulfillment from his involvement with youth ministry at St. John the Baptist Church in Newburgh. After injuring his knee in a basketball game and undergoing surgery, he started thinking about the direction his life was going and felt called to join the priesthood. Shortly after, he was accepted to Mundelein Seminary north of Chicago. He was ordained as a priest at St. John the Baptist in 1993.

Three of his siblings also followed religious vocations. Paul is a bishop. Mary Nicolette is a Benedictine sister at Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove. Zach is pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Evansville.

Rick, married with three children, has stayed active in the church through youth ministry in the Evansville Diocese. Angie Etienne and her three children also live in Evansville.

The Catholic Church was an important part of the Etiennes’ lives. St. Paul Catholic Church in Tell City “was at the center of our family life,” Fr. Bernie said. His namesake — Rev. Bernard Voges, his mother’s brother — was an archdiocesan priest in Indianapolis. His parents took on many responsibilities within the church and had many friends who were priests, seminarians and religious women.

Fr. Bernie put on his vestments in preparation for Mass the morning of April 11. The 54-year-old got a late start in the priesthood. In 1981, he graduated from Indiana University with a marketing degree and sold medical surgical supplies. He was interviewed to be accepted at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois on his 30th birthday

“This all had a significant impact on myself and my siblings,” Fr. Bernie said.

His first assignment after ordination was as associate pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Jasper, under Father Pat Foster. Fr. Bernie arrived a week early just to drop off some boxes, but he was quickly put to work.

Fr. Foster got a phone call that his sister’s husband had died.

“He gave me the keys and said, ”˜You can handle this,’” Fr. Bernie recalled. That weekend, Fr. Bernie presided over a wedding and a funeral.

“Pat taught me a lot about what’s entailed with being a pastor,” Fr. Bernie said of this mentor, who retired in 1999 and died in 2009. “That was a great learning experience, those first three years in Jasper.”

While in Jasper, Fr. Bernie helped found Dubois County Habitat for Humanity and build its first house.

In 1996, Fr. Bernie became the pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Princeton as well as pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Oakland City in 1999. He became pastor at Holy Rosary in 2006. A picture of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Jasper, a farewell gift from Fr. Foster, hangs in his office, and has a sentimental value for Fr. Bernie.

“Those years at St. Joe Jasper were very special years. They were years where I was first developing as a priest and learning how to minister as a priest,” he said.

He is able to work 15 or more hours a day, six days a week, he says, because what he does is a vocation, not a job.

“Did it have to be this busy? Not at all,” he says. But the less time he spends at it, the less he would be able to accomplish.

“It’s life-giving. This is what I’m called to do.”

In the early afternoon of April 11, he gets into his car and makes the short drive to St. Mary’s Medical Center, where two patients have requested his presence. He strides quickly to and from the elevator, and stops in each room, praying briefly with the patients. In no time, he is striding out again to the car, back to the parish and back to the rest of his work.

Contact John Seasly at

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