A New Diocese is Formed

After years of speculation, Archbishop Jean Jadot, Apostolic Delegate to the United States announced in July of 1978 that Pope Paul VI had created the new Diocese of San Bernardino. It would be carved out of the northern half of the Diocese of San Diego – San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

As it remains today, growth was a defining factor in the decision to create new Diocese of San Bernardino. Church leaders at the time acknowledged that San Bernardino and Riverside counties had established a distinct identity in their parish communities.

“Like a child that has matured and gone on its own, we watch from a distance your continued progress,” said a prepared July 1978 statement from Bishop Leo Maher, who continued to lead the Diocese of San Diego.

It was perhaps no accident that Father Phillip Straling, a native of San Bernardino, was chosen to lead the new diocese as its first Bishop. He was ordained as Bishop by Cardinal Timothy Manning at Raincross Square in Riverside on November 6, 1978, signaling the official establishment of the diocese. Holy Rosary parish in San Bernardino, where Bishop Straling, himself, had been baptized in 1933, was named as the Cathedral parish for the new diocese.

According to the July 1978 edition of the Diocese of San Diego’s Southern Cross newspaper, Bishop Straling inherited from the “mother diocese,” 85 parishes, 235,665 parishioners, 171 priests and 31 Catholic schools.

Of course, the Catholic history of San Bernardino and Riverside counties can be traced back more than a century before the diocese was founded. Pioneer colonists had arrived in 1842 from Abiuqiu, New Mexico, to found the first settlement in San Bernardino Valley and they called it Agua Mansa and their parishSan Salvador. After the great flood of 1862, many of these pioneers moved to today's south Colton and organized another church by the same name in 1893.

Aside from Agua Mansa's San Salvador, other pioneer parishes have survived to celebrate their respective centennials. The list to date includes:

  • St. Bernardine, San Bernardino (1862)
  • St. Francis de Sales, Riverside (1886)
  • St. Frances of Rome, Wildomar (1887)
  • St. Ann, Needles (1888)
  • Precious Blood, Banning (1890)
  • St. Anthony, San Jacinto (1890)
  • San Salvador, Colton (1893)
  • Sacred Heart, Redlands (1895)
  • St. Edward, Corona (1896)

The oldest school still operating is Sacred Heart, Redlands, which opened in 1897. The next oldest are St. Francis de Sales, Riverside (1918) and St. George, Ontario (1920).

A Detailed History

As the Catholic population of southern California soared in the mid-1970s, the need for more direct service and ministry to the outlying areas of the two Dioceses of Los Angeles and San Diego brought increasing tension and desire for "home rule."

That wish was first granted in the land of the "magical" kingdom, as the communities of Santa Ana, Orange and Anaheim watched their once-beautiful orange groves "disappear" to make way for the thousands and thousands of new homes that, in 1976, became the spiritual responsibility of the new Diocese of Orange.

News of a new Diocese adjacent to their own excited the people to the east. If it could happen once, the speculation went, why not twice?

Three years earlier, when San Diego Bishop Leo T. Maher had assigned the newly appointed Auxiliary Bishop, Gilberto Chavez, to minister in the north, it was conjectured that Bishop Chavez would head the new Diocese.

However, it was not to be. To the disappointment of many in the Hispanic community, Bishop Chavez was reassigned to San Diego.

With the diocesan leadership centered in San Diego, lobbying efforts to secure the location of a future cathedral in one of the major cities in the region began in earnest. Both Riverside and San Bernardino were seen as immediate contenders, since they were already the government seats of their respective counties.

But other communities hoped that the unique geography of the region, which included both the upper and lower deserts, might make their locations more central to any new diocesan administration.

Fortunately, the upcoming Bi-Centennial celebrations tempered the situation as thoughts turned toward the pride and heritage of the United States of America.

On July 17, 1978, the 170th Diocese in the United States, the Diocese of San Bernardino, would finally be established.

Carved out of the northern territory of the Diocese of San Diego, its physical boundaries were selected to be co-terminal with the combined boundaries of the counties of Riverside and San Bernardino, a total area of 27,300 square miles.

When the news broke, Fr. Phillip F Straling, the man designated first Bishop of the Diocese, was on visit to Africa. Upon his return, his choice for the cathedral was his home parish, Holy Rosary, where he had been pastor since 1974.

The third oldest parish in San Bernardino, Holy Rosary had celebrated its fiftieth anniversary only the year before.

Renaming it Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral, Fr. Straling noted that the church had served the local people faithfully in its nurturing role as "Mother Church" to nine mission parishes.

The next step was to call the diverse communities and cultures that made up the Diocese to unify their efforts behind Straling in the daunting job of setting up and running a diocesan transitional team.

The Bishop's first days were largely dedicated to conducting interviews for vacant positions in the Diocese and listening to and addressing the needs of the diverse community.

Known for his team style of leadership, Straling soon called all 128 priests of the new Diocese to a two-day retreat at El Carmelo Retreat House in Redlands where the men and he could get to know one another. To better shepherd the Diocese's 235,665 Catholics, he would need his brother priests' input and support.

The euphoria of finally becoming a Diocese was short-lived. Twenty days later, Pope Paul VI, the 261st successor to St. Peter, died. Straling had been the last bishop appointed by the 80-year old pontiff. The eyes of the faithful turned to Rome where the world's 111 cardinals eligible to vote began to gather. Albino Cardinal Luciani, 65, to become known as the "smiling Pope," was selected on the fourth ballot. Choosing the name John Paul I, he appeared at the papal balcony and greeted the throng of people waiting in St. Peter's Square.

Unfortunately, his reign lasted a scant 33 days. Before his papal ring, the symbol of his authority, could be struck, he was found dead of a stroke. The Cardinals found themselves re-assembling, this time to name John Paul's successor.

They shocked the world by breaking with tradition and naming Karol Wojtyla, Archbishop of Krakow, Poland, the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years. He chose the name John Paul II, in honor of his three predecessors.

The world's news media noted that John Paul II, at 58, was the youngest Pope to be elected in 132 years. He was also the first Pole.

With media attention no longer covering the papal elections, local reporters began to focus on the upcoming November 6 diocesan ordination ceremonies at Raincross Square in Riverside.

The Most Reverend Phillip F. Straling was ordained before a standing room only crowd of 2,800 faithful. The bilingual celebration was broadcast live over local television station KSCI, Channel 18.

Evoking the theme of unity, 40 parishes had created banners for the celebration, and a 135-member choir, representing 12 parishes sang.

In addition, music by a Spanish singing group and the Gospel choir from St. Anthony Parish in San Bernardino reflected the cultural diversity of the new diocese.

Following his ordination Bishop Straling expressed the hopes of all in the diocese when he said, "We must have a unity, a oneness in your spirit. We are co-workers with Jesus Christ in His church."

This celebration of unity and diversity would set the tone for the future of the San Bernardino Diocese.

The ethnic make-up of the diocesan community was changing quickly. Since 1973 the Hispanic population growth in the United States had jumped 14.3 percent to a total of 19 million.

By February 1976, statistics estimated the number of Hispanics in California to be 3.3 million. In Texas it was 2.56 million. Besides Hispanics, the figures included peoples from Spain, Central and South America and even the Philippines.

The Administrators of the 1980 Census would try to base their figures more clearly on the ethnic origins of the people. The diversity of the Diocese's population closely followed the history of the state as a whole.

Bishop Gerald R. Barnes grew up in California, and came back from Texas as rector of Assumption - St. John Seminary to be installed as Auxiliary Bishop on March 18, 1992. He assisted Bishop Phillip Straling in conduction parish visitations, Confirmations, and attended diocesan and community functions.

Pope John Paul II appointed him Diocesan Bishop on December 28, 1995 and on March 12, 1996, he was installed as the second Bishop for the Diocese of San Bernardino.

Bishop Alberto Rojas spent his childhood in central Mexico where he entered the seminary to pursue his vocation to the priesthood. He later would complete his seminary studies in the United States and be ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago on May 24, 1997 by Cardinal Francis George.

After serving at two parishes as associate pastor, Bishop Rojas was appointed to the faculty of the University of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Chicago.

He was ordained a Bishop for the Archdiocese of Chicago on Aug. 10, 2011 by Cardinal Francis George. As Auxiliary Bishop, Bishop Rojas served as Episcopal Vicar for a regional area in the Archdiocese, as well as the Cardinal’s Liaison to Hispanic Catholics.

Nationally, Bishop Rojas has served on several committees of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, including being the Lead Bishop for Region VII (Mid-West) with the V Encuentro Process.

On December 2, 2019, Pope Francis appointed Bishop Rojas as the Coadjutor Bishop for the Diocese of San Bernardino. A special Mass of Welcome was held for Coadjutor Bishop Rojas on February 24, 2020 at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Chino Hills. On December 28, 2020, Rome accepted Bishop Gerald Barnes’s letter of resignation and Bishop Rojas officially became the Third Episcopal Ordinary for the Diocese of San Bernardino.