Saint Bernard's has been the name of our parish since the consecration of the church building in the late 1890s.
Early architectural drawings reveal that we might have become a patronage of Saint Mark the Evangelist, using the name of the older Episcopal mission in Basking Ridge (1850s). This plan was changed, however, and the title was adopted that matched the wider community. So Bernardsville itself seems to have swayed the new church in the direction of the great saint of France whose influence on western Christianity has been so profound.
The Early Days @ St. Bernard's
On October 22, 1896 Saint Bernard’s Church was born. The Episcopal Church was slow to take hold in the Somerset Hills area, it being a stronghold of Calvinism since the 18th century. In 1850 a small mission, Saint Mark’s in Basking Ridge was established by Saint Peter’s Church in Morristown. By the 1890’s, great estates began appearing on the Bernardsville mountain and with them, the need for an Episcopal chapel in closer proximity. On that October evening, subscribers to finance a new parish, trustees to run it, and a building committee to build a church met.
Within a year, the prestigious New York firm of Le Brun & Sons had designed the edifice, the cornerstone was laid, and the Rev. J.C. Hall, then rector of Saint Mark’s, left that parish to become Saint Bernard’s new rector. On June 29, 1898 the church was formally opened and on November 3, 1898 it was consecrated by the Bishop of New Jersey.
The Church Building @ St. Bernard's
When the plans were first drawn by Le Brun for the church, America was entering an age of great prosperity and the love for things European. The simplicity of New England wooden churches had been replaced with Victorian adaptations of Gothic and Baroque splendor. This style is beautifully expressed by the steeply pitched slate roof, square stone tower, pointed and arched stained glass windows, stone masonry construction, and a fine collection of decorative interior finishes, including wood, mosaics, marble, molded plaster, and Cahn stone. Originally, the church was to be situated with the altar facing north, its entrance east in what is the baptistery, and its length two bays short of the present structure. Records show in 1905 the entrance door was replaced with a window and also enlarged yet there is no evidence in the masonry structure or in the crawl space beneath the church that it was ever shorter than it is today. The puzzle remains—records indicate 2 bays were added in 1905, but the building itself defies it!
Historic rendering of St. Bernard’s Church
Charles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907) was solidly in the high church movement of Victorian Anglicanism; his decorations and stained glass reflected his piety. What is breathtaking about Kempe’s glass at Saint Bernard’s, not his most spectacular or most elaborate work, but one of the few examples in the world which nearly the entire church was planned by his firm and executed within a decade or so.
The real inspiration of the windows came from the trustees who founded the church.
They formed a “Committee on Windows,” developed the theme, and in their 1912 letter to Kempe and Co. stated “The windows on the south side of the nave (should) represent the events of the Life of our Lord up to His Passion; …the chancel represents scenes of our Lord’s Passion and resurrection (the window of the alter of Ascension being already filled)…(and) the windows on the north side represent, in general, the goodly fellowship of the prophet taking their vision from the west window (already placed) of the Prophet of Galilee in the Sermon on the Mount.” When the old entrance became the baptistery, glass was added by Kempe on the childhood of Jesus and his mother, and the magnificent central window of the resurrected Lord with the souls of children in heaven, playing music!