by Jessica Langdon
WAVERLY — From the harmonies in the choir loft and the full-bodied responses from the pews below, you would never guess this is the smallest parish in the archdiocese.
But it is, with slightly more than 40 families. That’s about twice the number the parish boasted when it was founded in 1886.
St. Joseph Parish is “small but strong,” said pastor Father Marianand Mendem at the parish’s 125th anniversary celebration June 19.
And he can point to exactly what makes it so strong.
“It’s a family,” he said. “They really love their parish.”
Janet French is a case in point.
French grew up in a family of 10 children. She was four years old when she first came to St. Joseph. Now 75, she has countless memories of her brothers serving Mass and her sisters singing in the choir.
But she didn’t share that information from the sidelines.
She and two of her sisters sang in the choir at the anniversary Mass.
The church holds special meaning to French and her husband George.
“We were married here in 1955,” said French. “It’s a big part of my life.”
Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann was the main celebrant of the anniversary Mass; he was joined by concelebrants Father Mendem and former pastors Father George Klasinski, Father Ken Kelly and Father Mike Hawken.
The highlights of the day were threefold — it was the solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, Father’s Day and the anniversary celebration.
“Anniversaries in the life of any family are a time to celebrate precious memories,” Archbishop Naumann said in his homily.
“We remember today particularly the founders of this parish,” he said. “In 1886, it was the beautiful faith and unselfish sacrifice of those first families who planted the Catholic faith so deeply in what has become St. Joseph Parish in Waverly.”
This is a time for some nostalgia, he continued: for remembering the sacraments received at the parish, the faith formed in children, the comfort provided in times of grief, the friendships formed.
Anniversaries are important, too, in the life of a parish family, Archbishop Naumann added.
The congregation gathered for a barbecue feast in the parish hall after Mass — a hall that is itself a testament to the strength of this parish.
When the old parish hall had passed its useful life, Father Mendem, the parish and the rest of Waverly — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — poured their hearts into planning for a new one. The work resulted in a building that was ready to open in late 2009 with no need for loans.
In this small community, everyone depends on one another, said Kenneth Combes, a member of the parish council and chairman of the stewardship committee.
“We’re just one large family here, working together,” he said.
Carol Robbins, church secretary and treasurer, loves that everyone has stayed together for so long.
“We’re thankful to have our parish,” she said.
“Anytime you have anything going on, everybody just jumps in to help,” said Marc Lee, parish council president.
Ministers from the Baptist and Methodist churches were even on hand to help celebrate the anniversary with St. Joseph’s congregation.
Parish council member Marie Drumm sees pieces of St. Joseph’s past in the church today, in both its physical appearance and in its work to bring people closer to their faith.
“I can see the stamps of each priest who has been here,” she said.
After the anniversary dinner, some St. Joseph parishioners drove over to the St. Joseph Cemetery for an additional ceremony there. Although always a Catholic cemetery, it has never had anything to mark it as such, and the three acres of land sit next to two sections of the city cemetery.
“My husband died just a year ago,” said Mary Lou Efinger, pointing out the site where her husband Fred is buried. During her visits she realized, “This cemetery needs something.”
She asked if she could do some research, which led to a proposal for action. A committee organized landscaping, concrete work and the addition of a St. Joseph statue, a bench and a crucifix.
On the day of the cemetery’s ceremony, church members saw only a cross, but looked forward to the arrival of the corpus to complete the design.
Archbishop Naumann dedicated the statue, blessed the cross, and praised the committee’s idea.
“It makes our cemetery look like a Catholic cemetery,” said Efinger. “It has great meaning to me.”
Parishioners shared hugs and kind words after the dedication.
To them, this is just another way that St. Joseph Parish, though small in numbers, is huge of heart.
1881-82 — Father Luke LaGierse, pastor in Emerald, tried to organize Catholic families and said Mass occasionally at homes in and around newly developing Waverly.
1886 — Father Joseph Walsh, pastor in Emerald, formally organized Waverly’s Catholics. June
1886 — First written records of St. Joseph Parish. About 20 families’ names appeared in the first pages of the financial record books.
1886 — St. Joseph’s first church was built. Aug. 15,
1902 — Minnie McGrath was the first person interred in the Catholic cemetery.
1902 — St. Joseph boasts a congregation of 125 people.
October 1915 — The church is moved from northwestern Waverly to its current location on Pearson Avenue.
1980 — St. Joseph numbers 38 families.
2007 — Efforts are begun to build a new parish hall, which was completed in 2009. Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann dedicated it in 2010.