by Peter Bodley
The Rev. Bernard Reiser, founding pastor of Church of the Epiphany, Coon Rapids, was laid to rest in Epiphany Cemetery Saturday, Dec. 31 following a funeral service that drew thousands to the church.
Reiser died Dec. 27, two days shy of his 87th birthday.
The service took place following a 24-hour vigil/wake service in the church that began at 11 a.m. yesterday (Friday, Dec. 30) with vigil prayers in the church that evening.
The Rev. Tony Przybilla, who grew up in Coon Rapids, attended Epiphany Catholic School and the church and is now director of vocations for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, spoke at the vigil prayers yesterday evening (Dec. 30).
Archbishop John Nienstedt of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis presided at the service, while the Rev. Larry Snyder, a former associate pastor at Epiphany and now president of Catholic Charities USA, gave the homily and the Rev. Dennis Zehren, pastor at Epiphany, presided at the graveside prayers.
The church sanctuary, which holds 1,900 people, was full with standing room only, and live feeds of the service were provided to the school cafeteria and gymnasium, which were also full of people.
In addition, the church chapel and meeting rooms were open to accommodate the overflow crowd attending the funeral.
According to Nienstedt, Reiser came to see him six weeks ago to tell him he was ready to go back to work – Reiser had retired from Epiphany at the age of 77, but had remained active filling in where needed at other parishes in the archdiocese.
“I told him I would get right on it, but God had a different place for him,” Nienstedt said.
And when Nienstedt visited Reiser just before Christmas, he said he asked Reiser to bless him, which Reiser did in Latin.
“I was deeply touched that I would receive that last blessing from him when he had been a blessing to so many others,” Nienstedt said.
“Jesus worked through this wonderful man.”
In his life, Reiser showed what a difference a priest can make through the numbers of people he serves, Nienstedt said.
In his homily, Snyder, who was associate pastor at Epiphany in the late 1980s and early 1990s, spoke of Reiser’s vision, devotion and faith.
“He would settle for nothing less,” Snyder said.
“When he took up a cause, he did so with passion and energy, and put his entire being into the effort.”
Reiser’s vision is evident in the Epiphany complex – the church, the school, the senior housing, the assisted living facility and the cemetery, plus the fact that the church is one of the largest Catholic parishes in the state and Epiphany is the largest Catholic grade school in the state, Snyder said.
Reiser’s vision was that the church should be a “fundamental and powerful presence in the local community,” he said.
Epiphany is testament to Reiser’s vision that the church meets the needs of people’s lives from birth to death, he said.
“He frequently said that God makes all things possible,” Snyder said.
“His handshake is legendary and he could work a crowd with the best of them.”
Reiser’s devotion is shown by the fact that he never took a day off and he would always begin and end each day in the chapel, according to Snyder.
“And all Bernie’s actions were rooted in a very deep faith,” he said.
Reiser constantly said when asked how his day was going, that it was never better and he never regretted being a priest, Snyder said.
His job, Reiser would say, was to get people to heaven, he said.
Recalling his days as associate pastor at Epiphany, Snyder said when he sat down to dinner in the evening with Reiser, there was always a phone by his side and he would be talking to someone on the phone between bites to eat.
Reiser would always be ready to help someone in need, whether they were a parishioner or not, he said.
Snyder closed his homily with a phrase that Reiser always like to use when greeting people, “How is everyone doing today.”
And he asked the congregation to give the response that Reiser would expect and would give himself when asked how he was doing, “Excellent.”
“Bernie is smiling down on all of us,” Snyder said.
Joyce Getchell, Reiser’s niece, gave the eulogy on behalf of Reiser’s family.
She presented the four principles of Reiser’s life.
• Find something you like to do, put your heart into it and do it.
• Treat people with kindness and respect.
• Ask what you can do for others and live to serve others.
• Thank God you are here to start each day with joy.
Reiser was ordained into the priesthood June 4, 1949.
He was a priest in a parish in White Bear Lake for 15 years when he was called on by Archbishop Leo Binz of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in April 1964 to start a Catholic parish in Coon Rapids.
In May 1964, he was named the first pastor of Epiphany. A 70-acre farm on Hanson Boulevard was purchased.
There were some 125 people attending services at Epiphany in those early days; now more than 5,000 families are members of the parish.
In the years following his official retirement, Reiser was deeply involved in relief and humanitarian efforts in the Caribbean country of Haiti.
He first visited Haiti in 1996 and on his return, over a period of time, he established Reiser Relief Inc., which provides fresh water and feeds the hungry in Haiti, but also had built an orphanage and eldercare facilities and funded primary schools in the impoverished country.
Since 2008, Reiser Relief Inc. has hosted an annual community fund-raiser, Keep the Wheels Turning Gala, for its projects in Haiti.
Earlier this year, Reiser was named by KARE TV as one of its “Eleven Who Care” program recipients for his and Reiser Relief’s work in Haiti.
Peter Bodley is at email@example.com