His benevolent reach extended beyond the Coon Rapids parish to places as disparate as the State Fair and Haiti.
Thousands of people turned out Friday and Saturday for a 24-hour vigil and the funeral for the Rev. Bernard Reiser, founding priest of one of Minnesota's largest churches, Church of the Epiphany in Coon Rapids.
Almost everyone in the overflow crowd, which included Archbishop John Nienstedt, more than 50 priests and parishioners of all ages, had a story to tell, said Reiser's niece, Ann Brau of Eden Prairie.
"People would weep when they told their stories," Brau said. "Many said he'd saved their lives, or changed their lives, or touched their lives in some wonderful way."
Reiser died of a brain tumor on Dec. 27, two days short of his 87th birthday, at his Coon Rapids apartment.
He grew up in a large, close-knit family "of humble circumstances" on a small farm in what is now the west metro, Brau said. As a child, he loved sports, nature, fishing and church "and, from a very early age, he knew he wanted to be a priest," she said.
Reiser went to St. Thomas Seminary in St. Paul and was ordained in 1949. For the next 15 years, he served as associate pastor at St. Mary of the Lake in White Bear Lake.
In 1964, Archbishop Leo Binz asked him to found a parish in fast-growing Coon Rapids, Brau said. Reiser threw himself into the effort, overseeing the purchase of 72 acres of farmland "that still had barns and a silo on it, then going door to door to invite everyone in town to the new church," she said.
Over the years, the church and its school, convent, senior apartments and assisted-living facility went up, and its flock grew to almost 20,000 people (5,000 families), with Reiser overseeing every detail until his semi-retirement in 2001.
His "charisma and huge presence" were instrumental in the growth of the church, Brau said. "He loved what he did -- it was absolutely his calling," she said. "He was everybody's best friend, and would greet every person he passed. 'Excellent' and 'marvelous' were his favorite words when he'd talk to people."
Reiser also oversaw a number of efforts that reached well beyond his parish, from Epiphany's popular State Fair diner (it closed last year after a 46-year run), to promoting rallies against abortion, to major projects to provide clean water, food, shelter and medical care to Haiti's poor.
"Father was a traveler -- he went all kinds of different places," Brau said. "I'm not sure what took him to Haiti the first time he went, but he was so horrified by the poverty there. He couldn't rest until he'd done something to help."
Reiser "had a little bit of a politician in him -- he was charming, with a quick wit -- and he was able to sell his ideas," Brau said. "He was a man who did everything well -- and fast! He drove fast, walked fast, and was incredibly energetic. He answered his phone day and night, and never seemed to sleep much. I remember once, he said to a guy he was working with, 'Don't try to keep up with me.'"
Josie Bertie of Coon Rapids, whose children went to Epiphany's school and whose husband, Richard, was Reiser's physician, said he "had a huge, wonderful heart, and tried to do everything he could for everyone, from rich to poor."
That compassion, combined with what Richard Bertie called "his singlemindedness of purpose," helped him accomplish many things. "He was the most selfless man I ever knew, a true saint," Bertie said.
In addition to Brau and many other nieces and nephews, Reiser is survived by a sister, Rosemary Leger of Princeton.
Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290