ST. BENEDICT — A Benedictine monk who pioneered lay spirituality died peacefully Monday at 89.

Father Bernard Sander, lauded as a visionary and a mentor, was reaching out to Catholic families and youths as early as the 1940s. By the 1980s, he had helped establish a summer spirituality conference for families. Three years ago, he was the guide of a group that founded a Catholic youth center in Mount Angel that would be named for him.

“This is the age of the laity,” he told the Sentinel in 2004.

Vigils for the Dead will be held at 7:30 p.m. Monday, June 9 and the Mass of Christian Burial will be held on at 10 a.m. Tuesday, June 10 — both in the abbey church.

Bernard Sander was born in 1918 in Tillamook and grew up on a dairy farm. His uncle was Father Louis Sander, a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland. Father Bernard made his simple profession in 1939 and was ordained a priest at age 25 by Archbishop Edward Howard on May 18, 1944.

In 1946, he became vice-rector of Mount Angel Seminary and was rector from 1952 to 1954, when the seminary was reorganized into major and minor seminaries. At that time he was appointed rector of the minor seminary, where he served from 1954 to 1967. For the following three years, Father Bernard served as rector of Mount Angel Seminary High School. He was also the abbey vocation director for a time.
In 1970 Father Bernard became guest master and retreat master of Mount Angel Abbey Guest House, where he served 13 years. In 1981 he became director of the Oblates of Mount Angel Abbey, lay people who commit themselves to live the Benedictine life in the world. He continued to serve in that position for 22 years and influenced hundreds of lay people.

The amiable monk saw that monastic spirituality could not stay in the monastery, but should spread to the rest of society.

“It’s natural for husbands and wives to learn to apply the Rule of St. Benedict to their family lives,” he told the Sentinel in 2001. “I’m personally convinced that it’s such a source of beautiful and simple spirituality that it’s very useful.”

He taught Oblates the way monks learn to pray with scripture. Reflecting on the bible, especially the psalms, make people more joyful, he once said.

In recognition of his service to the seminary, Father Bernard received the first Lumen Gentium Award in 1988, the highest honor granted by the institution.

Throughout his career, Father Bernard had a forward-looking concern for Catholic families and youths. As part of that effort, he led a resurgence of Catholic retreats. In the 1960s, he invited the Young Christian Students teen group to the abbey’s guesthouse and inspired youths to begin a new social and spiritual movement called Catholic Action.

“If you notice at church on Sunday, there’s a big group missing — those age 17 to 22,” Father Bernard told the Sentinel in 2004. “They are afraid to go to confession, so they don’t go to church.”

He hoped the retreat center that bears his name would provide confessors who take real time with young Catholics to help them make peace with the faith and continue discovering its treasures.

When the center opened, Father Bernard himself spent two hours straight hearing confessions. He predicted the center would develop into a “very strong spiritual power.”

Even into his 80s, he was considered a youth priest. Up until he was too ill to work, he ran a group for 30- and 40-somethings who wanted to learn more about the Second Vatican Council.

He was optimistic about young Catholics.

“When they take time to listen and they realize you are not trying to give them a bad time, they will hear you,” he said in 2004. “Most of them realize there is good reason to be friends with the church.”

Until recently, he led retreats on marriage and family life.

From a large and prominent Catholic family himself, Father Bernard would host large reunions in Mount Angel, welcoming as many as 500 from the clan.
People across the country looked to him as an inspiration. Margie Hoglund, a flight attendant from Minnesota, met him at a retreat and afterward saved her vacation hours to get in as many trips to the abbey as she could.

Marilu Hitchcock of San Mateo, Calif. met Father Bernard in 1952 when she was a student at St. Mary’s Academy in Portland and attended a Young Christian Students retreat at the abbey. Because of the monk’s encouragement, she became a union organizer.

When she got engaged in 1957, Hitchcock brought her fiance home to meet her parents first and to Mount Angel to meet Father Bernard second.
When the priest would visit the Hitchcock family in California, he would sleep in a bunk bed and wash the dishes while the parents gave baths and read bedtime stories to the children.

Marilyn Kruse, Father Bernard’s office aide for 18 years, says working with him at the guest house led her to an infusion of contemplative prayer. The monk eventually asked Kruse to lead retreats.

Auxiliary Bishop Kenneth Steiner met Father Bernard in 1954 as a freshman at Mount Angel. That began decades of friendship and support. “He has played an important role in the formation of countless priests and been involved in retreats for thousands of people,” Bishop Steiner said when the Father Bernard Youth Center opened in 2004.

In 1991, one Sentinel reporter closed a story with an image that seems to sum up the much-loved monk: “Father Bernard, quietly greeting, arranging, making things happen.”

Father Bernard had a quick wit even until the end of his life. Several months ago, after he got a haircut, a fellow Benedictine commented that he looked so handsome that he might be a temptation to women.

“We all take that risk,” the aged monk quipped.

By Ed Langlois

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