Topeka parish celebrates German roots at milestone anniversary
by Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — These days, it’s unusual for a newly ordained priest to be assigned as pastor of a parish. And it’s even more unusual for a priest to serve nearly his entire priesthood in one place.
But that’s exactly what happened to Father Francis Henry, the first pastor of St. Joseph Church in Topeka, which celebrated its 125th anniversary on April 22.
On Oct. 19, 1886, Francis Henry was ordained to the priesthood. Upon ordination, he was named assistant pastor of Topeka’s first Catholic Church — Assumption.
Only a few months later, due to an influx of German-speaking immigrants arriving in Topeka from both Germany and Russia, the newly-ordained priest was asked in December to organize a national parish to serve the immigrants’ needs.
On Feb. 13, 1887, he celebrated that parish’s first Mass, and over the next 46 years — until his sudden death in 1932 —Father Henry faithfully served the needs of these German-speaking people. He was only the first of many to do so.
“Anniversaries are wonderful opportunities to recall the beautiful memories of how God has blessed us,” Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann said at a special Mass of Thanksgiving. The archbishop later added that anniversaries, in the case of a parish, cause parishioners to stop and reflect on how the faith was planted in that particular community, give thanks to their ancestors for doing so, and recall with joy the many occasions parishioners have joined together in sacramental moments.
“Most importantly, what’s been at the heart of this community for the past 125 years and remains at the heart of our Christian faith is what we do here at the altar,” said Archbishop Naumann.
“It is here that we most powerfully encounter the risen Jesus alive within us and touch his body just as really as those who encountered him in those few weeks that he remained on earth after His resurrection.”
In his conclusion, the archbishop encouraged those coming forward to receive Communion to be “aware of the precious gift that is given to us and how all those over 2,000 years and 125 years at St. Joe’s have passed along this precious gift of our Catholic faith with the gift of the Eucharist.”
Priests concelebrating with Archbishop Naumann included Father Thomas Melchior, Msgr. Vince Krische and Father Tim Haberkorn, all native sons of the parish, former pastor Father Carl Dekat, and Father Thomas Hesse.
Also at the Mass, Archbishop Naumann blessed a newly restored bronze statue of St. Joseph, which stands more than seven feet in height. As part of the 125th festivities, parishioner Steve Beier, an employee of the restorer, J.F. McGivern Company, and and a nephew of one of the priests ordained from the parish, coordinated the effort to return the statue back to its place atop the church’s center door of the main entrance.
A reception followed the anniversary Mass, as well as an open house of the former St. Joseph Grade School. (The school closed in 1970, and St. Joseph was merged with Sacred Heart in 2006 to form Sacred Heart-St. Joseph Parish.)
Parishioner Jackie Carlson was among those who toured the school, and found the pictures displayed evoked fond memories.
“I’ve been here my whole life,” said Carlson, adding that her grandparents were among the early parishioners.
“This is our home. This is our life.”