Father Bernardine Ness, OSB
Monk of Saint John’s Abbey
Born: 16 February 1938
Professed: 15 August 1959
Ordained: 24 May 1964
Died: 26 August 2022
Alvin John Ness was the older of two children born to Alvin and Marian (Diegel) Ness in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on February 16, 1938. His father was the owner of the Minnetonka Oil Company and service station, and his mother was a registered dietitian. The family were members of Saint Bartholomew Parish in Wayzata. He attended Groveland Elementary School and then enrolled in Saint John’s Preparatory School in 1952, graduating in 1956. At the Prep School, he was the president of the Radio Club and earned his ham radio license. Following graduation, he completed one year at Saint John’s University as a pre-divinity student.
In the summer of 1957, John (he went by his middle name) began communicating on his radio with Father Timothy Sexton, OSB, (1908-1988) a founding monk of Blue Cloud Abbey in Marvin, South Dakota. Father Tim invited John to visit him at his mission at Fort Totten Indian Reservation and take him to Blue Cloud Abbey. John hitchhiked the four-hundred and fifty miles and radioed his parents that he was in South Dakota helping with construction of the monastery and wanted to become a Benedictine. In 1958, John entered the novitiate at the abbey, taking the name Bernardine, and professed vows as a monk on August 15, 1959. Continuing his priesthood studies at Blue Cloud Abbey, Bernardine was ordained on May 24, 1964.
In 1967, Father Bernardine began working at the Indian Mission in Belcourt and Michael, North Dakota. During this time he learned how to construct a TV translator and had a three-hundred foot tower built so that people on the reservation could have television. In 1971, he was assigned to the Blue Cloud Abbey priory in Guatemala (Resurrection Priory in Cobán, Alta Verapaz). “I had in mind from the very beginning to help establish a Guatemalan Benedictine community and return to the United States.” He did not know Spanish or the native Q’eqchi’ language. With his ham radio background, he built a shortwave radio station that broadcast news and music in the native language. The radio became the way to prepare people for the Sunday celebration in their own language in the dozens of little villages that had no Sunday Eucharist.
Father Bernardine helped establish a human development program at Resurrection Priory as part of a diocesan evangelization project. This enabled people to celebrate the liturgy of the Word in their communities. He sometimes would visit patients in the local hospital dressed as a clown named “Oso” to people who had never seen a clown. This brought smiles and comfort to children and adult patients.
After laboring for twenty years in Guatemala, Father Bernardine returned to South Dakota in 1991 and worked for two years in the American Indian Culture Research Center at Blue Cloud Abbey. After Father Thomas Hillenbrand, OSB, was elected abbot of the abbey, he asked Father Bernardine to return to Guatemala where he spent the next twenty years. He expanded his efforts on community-building in technology, in part by adopting a video on the life of Christ for people who had never watched television. In 2008, he was awarded the Lumen Gentium Award from Saint John’s Preparatory School, a revered prize for alumni who reach across diverse global cultures by significantly increasing the spread of knowledge, harmony, and hope in the world.
On May 29, 2012, the monks of Blue Cloud Abbey voted to close their monastery. Father Bernardine, along with his confrere, Father Michael Peterson, began the process to transfer their Benedictine vow of stability to Saint John’s Abbey. Father Bernardine arrived in Collegeville on February 18, 2013. After a probationary period, drawing on his Guatemalan background, he served the increasing call to ministry for Latino congregations locally, as well as in Minneapolis. He also worked with the Messenger Program based in Saint Cloud to send medical assistance and other humanitarian aid to the missions in Guatemala.
Father Bernardine had a generous spirit and welcoming heart, always eager to be helpful with a friendly smile and skillful hand. His ingrained sense of service was rooted in his curiosity and intuitive talent, thoughtful wisdom, good humor, and a lifetime of care for others.
Father Bernardine died on Friday, August 26, 2022, in the retirement center at Saint John’s Abbey. He is survived by his brother, Joseph (Sue), Brandenton, Florida, and the community at Saint John’s Abbey. The monks, family, and friends received the body on Wednesday, August 31 at 7:00 pm and celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for Father Bernardine at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 1, in the Saint John’s Abbey and University Church, with interment in the Abbey Cemetery. The service was live-streamed at www.saintjohnsabbey.org/live.
Abbot John Klassen OSB
and the monks of Saint John’s Abbey