Friary blessed with veteran priest’s cheerful presence

Joseph Kenny |

The Franciscan Friary on Meramec Street in south St. Louis is a happy place, perhaps due in part to the smiles and wise observations of a priest with 72 years of experience, having served as a pastor, pastoral assistant and chaplain in Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and Texas.

Father Bernardine Hahn, who'll be 100 on Dec. 13, has only good things to say about those assignments and the people he met, including his last one as chaplain at the Monastery of St. Clare in Oakville. Today, he continues to serve by hearing confessions of archdiocesan priests and others, celebrating Mass twice a day (binate), praying the Divine Office with his brethren, meditating daily, praying the Rosary, reading Catholic periodicals and keeping up with correspondence.

The oldest Franciscan in the Sacred Heart Province, which serves 15 U.S. dioceses and in foreign missions, Father Hahn said "most of all I enjoy the Mass. I have had over 25,000 Masses in my life."

On the move

In 2012, Father Hahn fell in San Antonio and, as the former baseball player puts it, has been on the disabled list ever since. He uses a walker but moves quite fast down the hallway, though not quick enough to beat out a bunt single.

He served from 1999 to 2012 at the Poor Clares.

"They are a delight," he said. "They are the salt of the earth. They are the most popular people in south St. Louis."

He was asked once to write about the Poor Clares.

"They are an inspiring group of contemplatives, and while the reason for this is not immediately obvious, it is relatively simple," he wrote. "They are inflexibly faithful to the Church and the directives she gives in canon law." They are joyful, relaxed and well-informed on current events, popular culture and political developments gleamed from Catholic journals, the priest noted.

While serving as Poor Clares chaplain, Father Hahn also celebrated Mass at the Bethesda Nursing Home in Oakville and at Father Dempsey's in St. Louis.

He attended the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., for about 10 years, riding the bus and enjoying the expression of the belief in the sanctity of life. His last trip was in 2011 at age 95.

Omaha native

Father Hahn was born at his parents' home in 1915 in Omaha, Neb., and named Leonard. The family of five boys and one girl lived in a Franciscan parish. His father worked first in a packaging house and then in the fire department, where he retired as a captain.

In the Great Depression, the family struggled, as did most people then. He wanted to go into the seminary, but his family couldn't afford it, so he attended public high school. Later, he made an offhand comment to his parish pastor that he wanted to be a priest, but his parents couldn't come up with the funds. "He said, 'You send your father and mother to me.'" Father Hahn recalled. "I did, and that fall I was in the seminary."

He had another interest as well:. "I loved baseball. Whenever I could, I played baseball. When I was told I couldn't go to the seminary, I decided I was going to be a major leaguer. I made the baseball team my second year of high school."

The former infielder follows the Cardinals and was happy the Kansas City Royals made the World Series again, because Omaha is where their farm club is located, and Father Hahn's youngest brother lives there.

"They were simply delighted the Royals won again this year," Father Hahn said. "It's kind of a Cinderella story. They were always a doormat, but they finally got a general manager who decided they were going to be patient and build up their farm system. Now, they've got talent."

In the seminary, Father Hahn's studies included six years of Latin, five of Greek, two of Hebrew, two of German and English every year. He was ordained a priest in 1943. He began working with the Newman Club at the University of Nebraska during his first assignment and began a fondness for evangelization work. At other assignments, he supervised a number of parish construction projects.

An inspiration

People have asked Father Hahn how he's managed to live long, but he is reluctant to give advice. He does note that he's always walked a lot and eats sparingly. It helps to keep your faith, too.

His mother lived to 92. After she raised the children, she went to two Masses a day, walking a mile and a half, crossing a bridge in a deep valley, even in the dead of winter.

Franciscan Father Michael Fowler, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in south St. Louis, said Father Hahn "has done a lot of good work. And he has a lot of people who still keep following up on him. He's faithful to his prayer life and is a great inspiration for us."

Visiting Father Hahn a few years ago in St. Louis, Sue Orsen wrote a profile of him for the Victoria Gazette weekly newspaper in Minnesota. "His strength is not his own, but the Lord's, and he passes it on to those who are open to receive it," she wrote. "He is a happy man because he loves God and he lives for others." 

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