|Msgr. Bernard Niedergeses sorts through linens at the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother shortly before his retirement in 2008. He served as pastor of Assumption and St. Pius X Churches for 38 years. On Wednesday, June 3, Msgr. Niedergeses celebrated the 65th anniversary of his ordination while attending the annual diocesan retreat for priests. Tennessee Register file photo by Rick Musacchio
One of the Diocese of Nashville’s old vocations posters featured Msgr. Bernard Niedergeses wearing work overalls and holding a hammer in one hand and other carpentry tools in the other. It was a fitting image of a man who spent much of his priesthood building.
“That construction work that I grew up with I used in my priesthood,” said Msgr. Niedergeses, who celebrated the 65th anniversary of his ordination on Wednesday, June 3, while attending the annual diocesan retreat for priests.
His family was involved in the construction business in his hometown of Lawrenceburg, and his father and brothers taught Msgr. Niedergeses woodworking. “My dad was a finish carpenter. He could do real fine work,” Msgr. Niedergeses explained. “My dad was very proud of his work and his tools.”
He worked with his father and brothers in their construction business and also with his cousin Joe Seifried as a painter and paster of wall paper. “They were happy, fun jobs.”
His construction skills were put to use almost immediately after his ordination. His first assignment was in Memphis assisting Msgr. Leo Ringwald at Blessed Sacrament Church, St. Michael Church and St. Ann Mission in Bartlett. While serving there, he helped with the construction of a church for St. Ann’s.
Construction “was something I was very familiar with,” Msgr. Niedergeses said.
Later he was assigned to East Tennessee and eventually was appointed pastor of Notre Dame Church in Greeneville and its missions in nine counties. His building work continued. From Greeneville, he organized and built St. Patrick Church in Morristown and St. Henry Church in Rogersville.
In Greeneville, he built a rectory. But after living in cramped quarters for nine years, he only got to live in the new rectory for two weeks before Bishop Joseph Durick called him back to Nashville to serve as diocesan director of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, also known as religious education.
Bishop Durick had heard Msgr. Niedergeses give a talk while he was the deanery moderator for the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women. In East Tennessee few parishes had schools, he explained. “It was important for parents to use their God-given responsibility to teach their children the religion. I was very vocal about that.”
Msgr. Niedergeses set up his office in the rectory for Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother, which at the time was empty. That started his association with Assumption Church and the longest and grandest construction project of his priesthood.
When he was named pastor of Assumption and St. Pius X Church in 1970, Assumption had six buildings more than 100 years old. “They were all run down,” he said, and the church and parish were nearly abandoned.
Slowly and surely, over the next 38 years, with Msgr. Niedergeses and volunteers from the two parishes doing much of the work themselves, Assumption was rebuilt as a parish and the church was remodeled and renovated. Today, it’s considered one of the prettiest churches in the city and a popular choice for weddings.
Through nearly four decades as pastor, the renovation work at Assumption seemed nearly continuous, Msgr. Niedergeses said. “We didn’t have a lot of money to spend,” he said. “You did it as you got the money.”
Msgr. Niedergeses jumped right in to do a lot of the work himself. “I had a rule. I would never ask anybody to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself,” he said. So that meant climbing scaffolding to work on the high ceilings, doing a lot of stripping and re-painting and staining, putting up paneling. “I went as high as you could go in the church and as low as you could go” working on repairs and renovations, he said.
Msgr. Niedergeses is quick to share the credit with the many parishioners who shared the work. “A lot of what I did, I couldn’t have done without the help of the people,” he said. “We had a lot of helpers.”
All that work by parishioners helped build a sense of community, according to Msgr. Niedergeses. “Everybody got to be part of it. You could take pride in it.”
The work also helped rebuild the Germantown neighborhood around the church, which is now a one of the cities’ trendiest.
Assumption and its neighbor the Monroe Street United Methodist Church launched Oktoberfest, celebrating the history of the churches and the neighborhood once home to so many German and Swiss immigrants and their descendants. The popularity of Oktoberfest drew thousands of the people and exposed the neighborhood and its potential to many.
“I still have some good Methodist friends around there,” Msgr. Niedergeses said.
Thankful for his vocation
Much of Msgr. Niedergeses’ early life revolved around Sacred Heart Church in Lawrenceburg. His family lived only a block away and “the pastors would call on our family for almost everything,” he said.
He became an altar server and learned the Latin prayers before he started school. And through his childhood he would often help at the church mowing the grass and helping the pastor, Father Christopher Power Murray, count the Sunday collections.
“He was a very good pastor,” Msgr. Niedergeses said of Father Murray. “He was an inspiration.”
In the seventh and eighth grade at Sacred Heart School, Msgr. Niedergeses began to talk to Father Murray about a possible vocation to the priesthood. His pastor’s advice was to pray, study hard and take four years of Latin in high school. Because Lawrence County High School offered only three years of Latin, he moved to Nashville and went to Father Ryan High School for his senior year to get a fourth year of Latin.
He graduated from Father Ryan in 1943 and left the following fall for St. Charles College and St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland.
On June 3, 1950, he and six other men were ordained priests by Bishop William Adrian at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. “It was the most wonderful event in my life,” Msgr. Niedergeses said. “It was a wonderful day for our family.”
He returned home to Sacred Heart Church to celebrate his Mass, which, like his ordination, drew a large crowd of friends and family, including his cousin Father James Niedergeses, who later served as the Bishop of Nashville.
Msgr. Niedergeses retired as pastor of St. Pius and Assumption parishes in 2008. In 2012, at the request of Bishop David Choby, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him to the rank of Prelate of Honor to His Holiness and granted him the title of monsignor.
“I’m very thankful for the vocation the Lord gave me,” Msgr. Niedergeses said.
“If I live to Thanksgiving, I’ll be 90 years old,” he said. “It’s been a busy, busy 90 years.”