The Rev. Franklin Vilas was appointed to the job last April and agreed to serve in the position for six months to allow the parish time to find a permanent replacement for its former rector, the Rev. William F. Feus, who left the post in July 2012. In the meantime, though, the man known to his congregants as Father Skip became beloved by the faith community and grew fond of his new spiritual home.
"They're a very dedicated group of people," Vilas told Patch. "I'm pleased that I will be here for another year."
Vilas, who lives with his wife in a retirement center in Hackettstown, re-entered the work world to take the position. Under his agreement with the parish, the priest-in-charge usually works three days a week and spends much of his time visiting sick and homebound parishioners.
But not all of his time: A big part of Vilas' contribution to the parish has been to bring his commitment to the environment to the people of Bernardsville.
A founder of the New Jersey interfaith coalition GreenFaith, Father Skip has brought his passion for the planet and shared it with the congregation. The church is now working actively toward becoming a GreenFaith-certified institution—there are only 10 in the nation right now—and has a "Green Team" of church members who research ways in which St. Bernard's can become more ecologically responsible and efficient and a better steward of the planet.
Vilas said the green focus has been a valuable way to return the once-struggling church back to its mission.
"There have been real problems here," the priest told Patch. "There was a major fire a couple years ago, and then they've had a succession of losses in terms of membership.
"I think that at this point, there was a lot of interest in moving into new directions."
He said the new directions, including a focus on the connection between parishioners, nature and the environment, should keep St. Bernard's on the right track.
"They have been through difficult times, but we're committed to a future for the congregation," he said.