Please remember in your prayers Antonio Bernardi, a Twin Cities real estate developer and benefactor whose gifts led to the establishment of St. Thomas’ Bernardi Campus in Rome. He died Oct. 4 at the age of 91.
Born in Casella D’Asola, Italy, outside of Venice, Bernardi studied in a seminary in the 1930s, and served as an officer in the Italian Army during World War II and served in North Africa. While stationed in the Tuscan village of Volterra, he met Cecilia, who would become his wife.
He completed an engineering degree and worked for AGIP, an Italian oil company, overseeing its drilling operations in Iran. He became the Italian Consul to Iran and eventually immigrated to Minnesota in 1962.
Bernardi purchased 300 acres of land northwest of what now is Interstate 494 and Highway 100 and helped to develop Edina’s industrial park. A business partnership with Curtis Carlson of Carlson Companies led to the construction of the Radisson South hotel, now the DoubleTree by Hilton.
He eventually established Aurora Investments, a development company, and Sentinel Management Co., a residential property management business. His companies developed industrial, residential, retail and medical buildings throughout the Twin Cities area.
“Tony was a natural developer,” said William Reiling, a St. Thomas alumnus and Board of Trustees member who knew Bernardi for 40 years. “It was in his DNA. He knew how to make a deal, how to negotiate. He had good instincts and judgment.”
Reiling said Bernardi also came to love and appreciate St. John Vianney Seminary, on the St. Thomas campus. He served on the seminary’s board and made gifts there and to the Center for Catholic Studies, the Opus College of Business and the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity.
“He saw St. Thomas as a good institution that helped his son and grandchildren,” Reiling said, “and then we had the Italian connection. He would say, ‘I am a man without a country! I go to Italy and they look at me as an American, and in America they look at me as an Italian.’ It was true! He was in between.”
“Interestingly, he fell in love with this country,” Father Kevin McDonough, another St. Thomas trustee, said in his homily at Bernardi’s funeral on Oct. 9. “He told me that, when he first came to the U.S.A., he thought the people here to be naïve: ‘They did not just pay their taxes, but were proud to do so.’ But he came to see this as a place where a person would be rewarded for honest work and effort. He never stopped loving Italy, but he was proud to live in America and, yes, to be an American.”
Bernardi’s love for his native country and his fondness for St. Thomas coalesced in the late 1990s, when the university had the opportunity to buy a 20,000-square-foot residential estate on the banks of the Tiber River in Rome. A gift from Bernardi allowed St. Thomas to move ahead with the purchase and convert the estate into the Bernardi Campus, which opened in 2000.
(Reiling also became a benefactor of the Bernardi Campus, paying for renovations of a chapel that was named for Dante and Louise Seghieri, the parents of Reiling’s wife, Joan.)
One of Bernardi’s long-held convictions, McDonough said in his homily, was “Sono stato fortunato,” because he knew he was lucky to have been born into the right family, married to the right woman and living in the right place.
“He recognized that his success was not just the result of his own genius or hard work – although it was certainly that – but also the result of things well beyond his control,” McDonough said. “Fortunato also meant, ‘I have been blessed.’ He believed he had been given success for a purpose well beyond himself: for the sake of his grandchildren and extended family, for the good of prisoners, for the support of young men who, as he had done, were considering a life of service as priests.”
The Minnesota Real Estate Hall of Fame, established two years ago by the Shenehon Center for Real Estate in the Opus College of Business, inducted Bernardi as an initial member (as well as Reiling and Gerald Rauenhorst, a former St. Thomas trustee).
Survivors include two sons, Luigi (a 1985 St. Thomas alumnus) and Sandro; a daughter, Paola; 10 grandchildren, including Francesca, a St. Thomas student; and five great-grandchildren. His wife died last year.
The “diritta via” has been opened for him,” McDonough concluded in his homily. “May he know peace and rest, a happy reunion with his parents and friends and especially with Cecilia, and the reward of a life of generosity and intelligence and faith.”