Rural leavenworth church packs three events into one day.
by Joe Bollig
LEAVENWORTH COUNTY — The tenor of life at St. Joseph of the Valley Church here is usually placid, as befitting a small parish surrounded by bucolic countryside and bounded by a large, quaint cemetery.
The parish, however, fairly bubbled with activity on July 21 as Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann joined parishioners to celebrate three big events.
The main event was the 150th anniversary celebration of the founding of St. Joseph Parish, which began as a mission in the homes of pioneering Catholics during the spring of 1863. No longer a single entity, it merged with St. Lawrence Parish in Easton in 2009 to become St. Joseph-St. Lawrence Parish.
The second event was to install as pastor Father Mathew Francis, who had served as pastoral administrator for the past two years.
And the third event was the dedication of the parish hall and catechetical center named for former pastor Father George Bertels.
Some of the history of the parish was put to music in a sesquicentennial song, which a combined choir sang as a prelude to the Mass. The choir also sang “Man of Faith, Priest of God,” originally written for the 25th anniversary of ordination of Father Bertels.
Father Mathew Francis was formally installed as pastor in a very brief ceremony after the Liturgy of the Word.
“You’ve gotten to know him these past two years as he has served and led this parish, so we invite you now to show your approval of his appointment now as pastor of St. Joseph-St. Lawrence,” said Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, who was the main celebrant and homilist.
The concelebrants were Father Francis and Father Bertels. Deacon Guy Berry assisted.
In his homily, Archbishop Naumann said that the history of the parish was written in the lives of its people as they lived the sacramental life of baptisms, confirmations, reconciliations, marriages, Eucharists and funerals. It was written, too, by the struggles of the parishioners as they overcame tragedies and disasters.
“[The anniversary is] also a moment to remember the zeal and dedication of those who have gone before us,” said the archbishop. “As I had the opportunity to briefly review the history of this community, the hard work and the unflagging perseverance of those who founded the parish and have sustained it over these past 150 years, it’s truly quite remarkable and inspiring.
“This community has survived tornadoes, fires, depressions, recessions, wars and many other challenges,” he continued.
“We give thanks for those pioneering — as well as the persevering — families who have handed on the precious gift of our Catholic faith now for the past 150 years.”
During the offertory procession, gifts were brought forward by individuals representing five generations of the Pierron family.
Before the final blessing, Father Francis thanked parishioners for their work in planning and executing the 150th anniversary celebration. Father Bertels, pastor from 1961 to 1966, and again from 1972 to 1982 — and the second longest-serving pastor in the parish’s history — also offered his thanks and a brief reflection.
“I just can’t help but think, however, that I am more indebted to you than you are to me,” said Father Bertels. “I was young and green when I first came out here, newly ordained. I can’t help but think that it was you that made a priest out of me.
Administering the sacraments [to you and sharing your lives] . . . made me the person that I am.”
Following the Mass, Archbishop Naumann, Father Francis and Father Bertels joined parishioners outside the parish hall and catechetical center for a blessing and dedication. The hall, built in 1992, replaced an earlier hall built in honor of Father Paul Kelly.
A reception was held in the hall following the blessing and dedication. Archbishop Naumann was presented with an embroidered sesquicentennial pillow depicting the church.
Parish and family
In many —if not all — cases, parish history is family history.
Take, for example, Leo Fink, who pointed to a photo of his great-grandparents in a historical display of parish history.
“Bishop Louis Fink (1874-1904) is my great-great-uncle,” said Fink, from Leavenworth. “He sponsored my great-grandfather, who was his nephew Peter Fink, to the United States. He married Mary Wiesinger Fink.”
Bishop Fink used to visit the parish and his nephew from time to time and would walk back and forth in the yard of the old home place and pray. The house, located near Pleasant Ridge High School, still exists.
Also on display was the wooden tabernacle from the original 1867 church, which had been in the basement of Mary Anne Brown’s father. Also on display was an altar bread iron, a relic from the days when parishes had to make their own hosts for Communion.
“My husband Richard is now taking care of [the iron]” said Linda Heim. “His mother gave it to him for safekeeping, and her mother gave it to her.”
Many current parishioners are descendants of the pioneering and long-time parishioners.
“There are many multigeneration families [in the parish],” said Mary Anne (Sachse) Brown, chairman of the parish sesquicentennial committee. “You can find evidence of this in our cemetery. Many of our founding families are still represented in the parish, and the most prominent is the Heintzelman family.”
Before the Civil War, some Irish, French and German families settled in the valley just west of Leavenworth. For a while, the area was known as Mount Olivet, which is the name of the adjoining parish cemetery.
The settlers used to travel to Leavenworth for Mass but, after a while, a French missionary started celebrating the occasional Mass in settlers’ homes. The parish was formed in the spring of 1863. In 1867, a small wood frame church was built. A new church was built in 1894, and this was demolished by “the twin tornadoes” of May 1, 1930.
The parishioners pulled together and built a brick church this time — which was destroyed by a fire on Oct. 28, 1932.
Proof of the parishioners’ self-reliance is seen in that both the post-tornado and the presently standing post-fire churches were completed debt free . . . and this at the beginning of the Great Depression.
Father Mathew Francis
The newest archdiocesan pastor isn’t exactly a rookie.
Since his arrival in the archdiocese in January 2009, Father Mathew Francis has served as associate pastor at Mater Dei Parish in Topeka, St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Onaga, Curé of Ars in Leawood and St. Joseph-St. Lawrence Parish in Leavenworth County.
And though he was installed as a pastor here in the archdiocese for the first time on July 21, Father Francis has quite a bit of pastoral leadership under his belt. He spent 15 of his 22 years in the priesthood as a pastor and a school principal in India. Father Francis is a native of Vellore City, in Tamil Nadu State, located on the southwest tip of India.
The transition to the United States has been a smooth one, however, and the Indian priest is happy to return to his former role.
“It’s good [to be pastor here],” said Father Francis. “Since I have been here two years as administrator, this has been a good experience. I know the situation here and how to handle the [needs] of the parish.”
Among the things that Father Francis appreciates about his parishioners is their willingness to cooperate, pitch in, volunteer and take the initiative in regard to parish needs — which is, of course, a 150-year parish tradition.
“I am so proud to be part of this celebration,” said Father Francis.