Alpena’s oldest Catholic parish dates its founding to September of 1874 when Father Patrick Bernard Murray, the first pastor of St. Bernard’s, performed baptisms here. He acted on instruction of Bishop Frederic Baraga of Sault Ste. Marie, who had bought land for an Alpena parish in 1861. Father Murray returned the following summer, then came to stay as St. Bernard pastor in May of 1866, transferred from Beaver Island by Bishop Baraga.
Father Murray built a church situated directly opposite the present structure and said Mass there for the first time in November of 1866. By 1870 there were 100 pupils enrolled in the adjacent St. Bernard School. The Sisters of Charity began 65 years of service to the parish in 1875, to be followed by the Dominican Order upon their departure in 1939.
A succession of brief pastorates ensued beginning in 1871, pending the arrival of St. Bernard’s first Michigan-born pastor, Bay Cityan Robert Doman. Only 24 years old at this ordination, Father Doman came here immediately thereafter, in 1878. This young priest in 1880 launched a massive undertaking – construction of the church which serves St. Bernard today. Building was still in progress when he left.
Then came the giant in any historical review of the parish, the late Rt. Rev. Msgr. Thomas Dowd Flannery, whose pastorate of more than 37 years ended in his death January 4, 1921. This physically and spiritually powerful native of County Sligo, Ireland, was sent here by Bishop Richter of Grand Rapids to divide his congregation into three parishes. He as to lead the English speaking, primarily Irish, and two additional pastors were subsequently appointed to lead those of French and Polish extraction. Flannery retained the name St. Bernard and the property at the south corner of Fifth and Chisholm, including the unfinished church.
It was Msgr. Flannery’s redoubtable achievement to take the one-third remnant of a congregation, without a single parish building, and in just 20 years to provide it with four substantial masonry buildings, three of which continue to serve; the fourth (the school) was replaced in 1963.
His successor as pastor was a son of the parish, Father John J. McAllister who inaugurated the high school which served until Catholic Central opened in 1950.
The school was replaced by the present Parish Center in the tenure of Father I.L. O’Brien, who arrived in 1961 to begin a 13-year pastorate.