Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
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St. Joseph Parish, Rockford: 100 years of ministry to rural Catholics
by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff
(From the Oct. 25, 2001 edition of the Inland Register
St. Joseph Parish in Rockford celebrated its centennial Sept. 16. About 100 people attended the Mass and accompanying dinner to reminisce about parish life.
Father Steve Dublinski, pastor, presided at the centennial Mass. Former pastors in attendance included Fathers Dan Wetzler of Spokane and John Birk of Pasco. Bishop William Skylstad had planned to attend, but he was grounded in Washington, D.C., after the events of Sept. 11 and unable to return in time.
The parish’s history is rooted in the late 19th century.
As people began to settle along the banks of Rock Creek in 1893, the few Catholics among them would attend Mass in someone’s home. Jesuit priests from Desmet, Idaho, would come to the settlement once a month, not necessarily on a Sunday, to offer Mass. The community would learn of it only a day or so before and spread the word via human grapevine as best they could. They used a hall in the fledgling town for their worship, with rough wooden blocks for seating.
Arrival of newcomers from the Midwest, primarily Minnesota — the Hogans, Keegans, Dolans and McAvoys, many of them related to each other —brought a change. They decided that a full-fledged church was needed. They and the Catholics already settled in Rockford — the Fonders, Cowleys, and Sullivans — went to work. They began building the church in 1901, and finished their work in 1902.
A newspaper article stated the church cost the princely sum of $3,500. Whatever the cost, the settlers built St. Joseph Church to last; the building is still in use a century later.
Although the interior has been remodeled and the original steeple was removed and replaced when it became unsafe, the simple white wood frame structure, a common design for churches of that era, looks sturdy enough for another 100 years of service.
For most of its history, St. Joseph has been a mission of Sacred Heart Parish in Tekoa. The Jesuits from Desmet served both parishes until 1895, when Father William Amschwand was assigned as pastor for both Tekoa and Rockford. Father Al DeMalsche was the second pastor. He began his service there when the church was under construction, and continued for several years afterward.
In 1919, St. Joseph became a separate parish, with its own resident pastors. But that lasted only until 1924, when it was again made a mission of the Tekoa parish. In 1991, it was separated from Sacred Heart for the second time. Jesuit Father Bill Vogel became pastor then, serving until 1997. In 1998 the church became a mission of St. Mary Parish in the Spokane Valley.
During the 1920s, when St. Joseph was a separate parish, a house was moved near the church to become a rectory. Later the house was torn down and the materials incorporated into construction of the parish hall, which is still used for dinners, receptions, card parties and other events.
In 1977, during the pastorate of Father Wetzler, a mobile home was purchased and moved onto church property. Father Wetzler used the home as his residence two weeks out of each month, with the other two weeks spent in Tekoa, a practice continued by most of the pastors who succeeded him.
The town of Rockford is southeast of Spokane, about 15 miles from the Spokane Valley on Highway 27. The parish numbers 52 families, most of whom live out of the town itself. The address list shows parishioners far and wide: Fairfield, Waverly, Valleyford, Mica, Freeman, even Worley.
In the beginning most were farmers, but today many are commuters. Even so, it is a rural parish. A number of events held during the year helps to foster a sense of unity between parishioners.
One such event is the Southeast Spokane County Fair, held in September after harvest is over. The parish sells food and nearly everyone, even Father Tom Connolly, the parochial vicar, gets involved one way or another. Another event is the Sweetheart Dinner for couples, held at area restaurants around Valentine’s Day.
Religious education classes are held on Sundays and some of the adults go to breakfast after Mass. The women’s group arranges dinners after funerals, holds fund-raisers, and plan the parish potlucks. The women also make a annual retreat together.
One of the parish’s three-generation families is the LaShaws. Alexus LaShaw was the 10th settler to come to Rockford. At one point in St. Joseph’s recorded history, 26 out of the 142 parishioners were LaShaws. The parish still has a large number of LaShaws.
Marie Verheyen Burton, who is the oldest parishioner, is head of another three-generation family. She was born in the area and baptised at St. Joseph. She had 10 children. The nine boys were all altar servers. By the time the youngest Burton was serving at Mass, there were grandsons coming along to replace them.
Burton’s daughter, Kay, became a Sister of the Holy Names, following in the footsteps of two of her aunts.
Burton said she likes the small size of the parish, since everyone can get to know everyone. “It’s more like a family,” she said.
Jack and Marlene Morris agreed, adding that in a small parish like theirs, there are many things to be done by the parishioners. “We all have to work together,” Marlene Morris said. “We work with everybody on every committee.”
Jack Morris is on the parish council and he appreciates the depth and sense of continuity in the parish that comes as the newer parishioners blend with the older, whom he called “pioneers.” The history and spirit of the parish are passed down to each succeeding generation. “As the older people pass on,” he said, “then the newer folks become the pioneers.”
Among the “newer folks” are Steve and Heidi Pintor and five children, who have been in the parish about a year and a half.
Heidi Pintor made the banners for the centennial Mass. The huge painted banner depicts St. Joseph walking with the boy Jesus through fields of wheat. Because of the nation’s tragedy Sept. 11, she added rocks to the banner to show strength, and also forget-me-nots, to show that “we’ll always remember.” The banner hangs in the sanctuary on the wall behind the altar.
What Pintor sees as strengths in her parish community are good communication and an ability to work together on projects. The people are “very prayerful, and they are very much aware of the needs inside the community as well as outside,” she said.
Perhaps that awareness comes from their family connectedness. Father Dublinsky shares Sunday Mass celebrations with Father Connolly.
“They’re a close-knit community,” Father Dublinsky said, “very family-oriented. And in that lies their strength.”
Deacon Don Bentley, recently assigned to St. Mary Parish in Spokane, ministered at St. Joseph from 1997-1999. He also commented on the people’s close connections. “It took me a while to understand small-town dynamics,” he said. “Many of them are related and everyone knows everyone.” He described parishioners this way: “They’re good farming people, good religious people.”
(The church was fortunate to count among its members the late Florence Hogan Loeffler, who wrote news for local newspapers. Some years ago she put together a church history, which was aided by the fact that her family was among those Minnesotans who built the church a century ago. Much of the information for this article comes from her work.
Parish’s patron saint gives occasion for annual celebration
Heidi Pintor made banners for St. Joseph’s centennial celebration, and she started the project by researching information on St. Joseph himself. “I wondered why the church was named for him,” Pintor said.
On the internet, she found a story about farmers in Sicily whose crops — wheat, barley and soybeans — were suffering from lack of rain. They prayed to St. Joseph the Laborer for rain and their prayers were answered. “That seemed so like us,” she said.
In gratitude the farmers and their families responded by holding a feast, which developed into the custom of St. Joseph’s Table, held on his feast day, March 19. Sicilian and Italian families prepare food and join together on that day to give thanks and celebrate God’s bounty.
St. Joseph Parish holds Mass at a rural parishioner’s home on Stewardship Sunday, asking God to bless their crops, followed by a picnic.
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