by Marc and Julie Anderson
WATHENA — She didn’t expect it.
After all, it wasn’t her birthday. That had already come and gone back in March.
Still, when Thelma Hewens, 99, heard her name read as the oldest parishioner of St. Joseph Parish in Wathena, she said she felt truly honored and humbled.
Hewens was among a group of six or so honored as the oldest parishioners prior to the 5 p.m. Mass on May 25, as part of the parish celebration of its 150th anniversary. In addition to honoring the oldest parishioners, members paused to offer a moment of silent prayer for the “faith stewards” — the deceased members of the parish throughout its history.
Established in 1869, St. Joseph Parish has never had more than 100 families and currently has 82 families. In fact, its small size, according to parishioners, is what makes the parish special. It also explains why organizers kept the festivities modest.
“We kept it low-key,” said Father Francis Baykor, the parish’s pastor, adding that the parish intentionally chose to keep things “local” and focused on its families.
That included the family of Father Henry Wertin, the only living priest to have come from the parish. Currently a priest in the Diocese of Pueblo, Colorado, Father Wertin celebrated the anniversary Mass, along with Father Baykor.
In his homily, Father Wertin reflected on the words of Psalm 67 in which the psalmist prays, “May God be gracious to us and bless us. May his face shine upon us.” The parish, he said, has been blessed these 150 years and will continue to be so to the degree that parishioners practice the faith. He reminded those gathered of the promises of the Easter season — that, one day, the faithful will all share in eternal life with Jesus.
After Mass, a dinner followed in the nearby parish hall, where families had a chance to enjoy food and fellowship. During dinner, Hewens, a lifelong member of the parish and a graduate of the parish’s grade school, offered a few thoughts.
“I’ve had quite a life,” she recalled.
Born and raised in the area, Hewens and her husband, raised nine children in the parish — all of whom, except one, attended the parish grade school as she had done before them. (The school closed in 1970, so the youngest child finished grade school within the public school system.) Like Hewens herself, all nine children also received their sacraments at the church.
In fact, most of Hewens’ memories involve the parish and/or the church itself in some way. Recalling church picnics and other such activities, the kids she met in grade school and the church’s architecture, Hewens said she felt proud to be both a cousin to Father Wertin as well as a member of St. Joseph Parish.
That sentiment was shared by another one of the parish’s oldest members, Agnes “Aggie” Wertin. At age 89 (she turns 90 in October), she presented the gifts at the offertory to her pastor, Father Baykor, and her son, Father Wertin. She said she will always treasure that memory.
Speaking about the parish’s anniversary itself, she said, “I thought it was absolutely beautiful. It’s a God-given gift.”
Like Hewens, Wertin raised her children within the parish — all 11 of them. Although not brought up in the parish, she moved to the area when she got married and has remained since. She, too, has many fond memories of watching her children grow up in the parish and grade school, adding that she has no regrets.
Recalling her late husband of 61 years, she said even his funeral Mass brought joy and consolation to her since — prior to his death — she witnessed firsthand his suffering from cancer. The funeral Mass made her realize that his suffering was now over and he was at peace.
“Everything’s a good memory,” she concluded.