From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Parishes in LaCrosse, St. John: boundaries might change, but commitment to church remains

Story and photos by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the Oct. 3, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)


The facade of the parish in LaCrosse features artwork depicting the church’s patron, St. Joseph.
Parishioners describe Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in St. John as “a peaceful place.” (IR photos)

Whitman County in eastern Washington is dotted with small cities and towns, once thriving farm or railroad towns. On the list of those towns are the communities of LaCrosse and St. John.

The town of LaCrosse has a population of about 400, give or take a few souls, and St. John, about 500. Both towns have Catholic churches with congregations that number about 25 or so families each.

The Catholic history of LaCrosse goes back to at least 1879, when priests came to town from elsewhere to celebrate Mass in homes. A parish history tells about those early years, stating that after Mass was over, the gathered families would have a potluck dinner, followed by religious instruction for the children. Then the priest would go hunting for prairie chickens.

The first LaCrosse church, named for St. Joseph by the late Bishop Edward O’Dea of Seattle, was built in 1905 under the direction of Father Leroux, then pastor in Colfax. The land was donated by A. J. and Harden Shobe, whose mother had homesteaded the land on which the town of LaCrosse was built.

There were eight Catholic families in the LaCrosse area at that time. The few Catholic men were assisted in building their church by men in the Protestant community. Thanks to their help the church was debt free when it was finished.

The first resident priest was Father Edward Wagner, who came in 1924.

The second church was built in 1958, when Father John Rompa was pastor. As was true of many priests before him, Father Rompa lived in Colfax.

The old church was placed on rollers and moved west a short distance, situated behind the new church. It was used for worship while the new church was under construction.

The late Bishop Bernard Topel dedicated the new church April 7, 1958. The church cost $54,000; parishioners had collected $58,000. The extra $4,000 was used as seed money for a new rectory, which was built not long after the church.

What catches the eye on first seeing St. Joseph Church is its tall angled steeple that points upward to heaven. A metal depiction of St. Joseph with his tools, done by artist Harold Balasz of Spokane, is mounted on the steeple. Inside the steeple is the bell from the old church, connecting past church history with the present.

The interior of St. Joseph is simple and uncluttered. Church furnishings, purchased by Father Rompa and still in use, include the wrought iron crucifix that hangs in the sanctuary, and the large, off-white statues of Mary and Joseph that stand on either side.

Father John Sand crafted the altar and the stand for the tabernacle when he was pastor in the 1960s. The late Helen Guske made the beautiful filet crochet cloth that graces the altar. The Guskes were one of the church’s founding families.

Rows of windows flank either side of the church. The windows are unusual in that they are made of tinted vinyl. In the sanctuary the windows are pink, and when the sun shines through onto the red carpet, the whole area takes on a rosy glow. In the nave, the windows are pale green. Vinyl religious pictures, made by parish children, hang in each window.

The parish hall is connected to the north side of church. A movable panel on the hall side opens to accommodate an overflow crowd. A movable divider can section the hall into two rooms as needed.

In 1960 parish boundaries were changed and LaCrosse became a parish, with Father Ronald Schenk as its pastor and the church at St. John as its mission.

Now, however, in what may have seemed like deja vu, LaCrosse is again served by a priest from Colfax, Father Felix Lorge, pastor of Colfax’s St. Patrick Parish. Father Lorge has served in that capacity for 21 years.

Church activities are typical for small parishes. There are coffee hours, potlucks, and religious education classes. A yard sale is held every spring as a fund-raiser. A recent event was a potluck dinner and birthday celebration for Father Lorge.

Peter and Leona Schweiger were married in St. Joseph 51 years ago. Schweiger’s father, Peter, Sr., was one of the charter parishioners who helped build the first church. Both are still involved with its activities.

Parishioner Ellen Bauchman likes the sense of family at St. Joseph. “We all get along,” she said. “When we come together, we visit. It’s like we’re all best friends.”

The town of St. John is about 35 miles northeast of LaCrosse. When parish boundaries were changed in 1960, Our Lady of Perpetual Help became a mission of St. Joseph in LaCrosse. Prior to that time, the St. John area was in the Malden parish. One of the factors in the change was the larger number of Catholics in St. John.

In 1985, boundaries were changed once again, and Our Lady became one of the three parishes pastored by Father Eugene Glatt. Father Glatt retired July 1, but he continues to say Mass in St. John.

Father Schenk purchased the lots on the west edge of town on which the church was built. Its simple design fits in nicely with the homes of the neighborhood. One of its features are the window walls on both sides of the sanctuary, featuring randomly placed colored panels of gold, blue and purple.

There is a poster of Jesus as Divine Mercy on one side of the sanctuary, where the tabernacle is located, and a poster of the diocese’s Holy Trinity icon on the other. Former parishioner Orville Mayer made the free-standing oak candle-holders and stands for the statues in the church.

The church has a full basement.

Eileen Schmidt and her family came to the parish in 1963. She is the parish secretary, a post she has held since the mid-1970s, when Father Sean Donnelly was pastor. She likes the small size of her parish: “It’s family, and it really feels like it’s your church.”

Carolyn Hubbard has been in the parish for 25 years and serves as the church organist. She is a member of a prayer group that meets in the church each week to pray the rosary. “I love our little church,” she said. “It’s a peaceful place.”

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