Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



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 Dayton, Waitsburg are great places ‘to be involved’

Story and photos by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the April 10, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

St. Joseph Parish, Dayton, and St. Mark, Waitsburg, share a sense of small-town community, as well as pastoral personnel.

Forsythia was blooming in the towns of Dayton and Waitsburg in mid-March, along with daffodils and bright yellow pansies. The flowers seemed clean and fresh after a recent rain.

The two communities — Dayton is the larger — are eight miles apart on Highway 12 in southeast Washington. Each one has its own Catholic church, served by Father Bonaventure Obisike of Walla Walla, which is 20 miles south of Waitsburg.

Catholicism has a long history in Columbia County, where the two towns are located. By the mid-1800s, those intrepid Jesuits were traveling the area, ministering to the Catholic settlers. As the settlers grew more numerous, churches began to spring up.

According to the diocesan directory, St. Mark Church in Waitsburg was started in 1888 and St. Joseph in Dayton in 1890. Confusion exists about this, however, since information in the diocesan archives states Dayton had a church first.

Whichever was first, the two parishes’ history has been linked since the beginning. The first resident priest was Father VanHolderbeke, who served from 1888 until 1893.

Father Patrick Flavin, a “quiet, prayerful Irish priest” who came in 1908 or 1909, was the first of the two parishes’ “building priests.” He was stationed in Walla Walla and could see the need for places of worship. He built three churches: St. Mark in Waitsburg, St. Joseph in Dayton and St. Catherine in Prescott. (The latter church has since been closed.)

The second “building priest” was Father Joseph Campion, described as a “jolly, well-liked Irishman,” who arrived in 1916. He was pastor 10 years, and during his tenure finished the building program and paid off a “huge debt” of $12,000.

One remarkable remembrance of Father Campion was the shiny black Ford given to him by a group of admiring former students from New York. Prior to this time he had traveled by train.

Fathers Arthur Joda and Maurice Helfenstein served the two churches for a year after Father Campion left. The two parishes did not have a resident priest after that until the mid-1940s. For 19 years, from 1927 until 1946, assistant priests from Walla Walla came up to the two towns to serve the communities’ Catholics.

Msgr. Hugo Pautler helped arrange the assignment of Father Ralph Schwemin, who arrived in 1946. He was the third of the “building priests.” He also served 10 years, and he and Father Campion share the honors of having the longest tenure of the priests assigned to Dayton and Waitsburg.

Father Schwemin purchased the property on West Fifth where the church is located, an attractive residential neighborhood on the west side of town. The current Waitsburg church was built there in 1953-54 at a cost of $25,000. The first Mass was celebrated in February 1954 and the building was dedicated in April that year.

The hall was built first, at a cost of $17,000. The church came later. Like many church buildings with an attached hall, this one has a door off the sanctuary that opens if extra seating is needed.

Father Schwemin was a versatile man of many talents, and did much of the work for the church himself. He built the pews, the crosses and did much of the finishing work.

In 1966 a four-room wing was added to the back of the church, allowing needed space for classrooms and storage. The kitchen in the hall was also remodeled. Last year parishioners refurbished and installed different pews, purchased used from a site in Michigan. This year new carpet was to be installed.

St. Mark Church has a row of tall glass windows in the west wall. Three of the windows have stained glass designs, but eventually all the windows will be stained glass. The one that depicts the Blessed Mother is old, and was donated by the Keve and Hermanns families. A second window depicts St. Mark, and the third, St. Catherine. This window, which is red, includes a rendering of Prescott’s St. Catherine Church.

Parishioners have donated the cost for stained glass for all the windows and the others will be installed as they are finished.

The church has two sets of Stations of the Cross. One set, with each station painted in black on what appears to be white ceramic tile, is mounted over the entry area and door into the hall. It is signed “JJ 1950.” The second set comes from Italy, purchased there and donated to the church by parishioners Jim and Geraine Hanson.

The church is made of concrete block. Lending warmth is the back wall of the sanctuary which is covered with narrow wooden strips in a triangular pattern. The two statues of Mary and the Sacred Heart also contribute to the warmth of the sanctuary with their red and gold colors. The tabernacle is placed on this wall, too.

The church building in Dayton is the original structure built in 1916. When Father Schwemin was pastor, he built the Dayton rectory, garage and parish hall.

The church was vandalized some years ago and several of the Stations of the Cross were thrown down and broken. The stations are made of painted plaster of Paris. Each one is surrounded by colorful flowers.

A Dr. Pandio, who was a retired parishioner, repaired them. “It (the repair job) was like a miracle,” said long-time parishioner Lina Cunningham, since one couldn’t tell that the broken stations had been damaged.

In 1987 the church was extensively remodeled at a cost of $300,000. A gathering space was created in the north side of the church building and the entry door in the east wall was moved from the center down to the corner into the gathering space. A handicap ramp was also added. The newly-remodeled church was rededicated in 1987.

Unique in the Dayton church are the several colorful glass windows. Each window features a kaleidoscope design of colored glass segments in red, blue, green and gold. Not all the windows have stained glass; tall windows in the east wall are plain. They allow plenty of light into the nave which is very open and spacious. The tabernacle is on a stand on the east wall in front of a set of the colored windows.

Another unique aspect of the Dayton church is that it’s downtown, just one block south of the main street, on First. Its parish hall sits to the north, right next door.

According to the diocesan directory, St. Mark Parish in Waitsburg has 48 families; St. Joseph in Dayton, 78. In the mid-1990s, the two churches were once again without a resident priest. The late Deacon Dale Shaeffer served the two communities for many years. Priests would come from Walla Walla and even Pomeroy. From 1994-2000, Theresa Overfield was business administrator for the two parishes.

Father Obisike is pastoral administrator for both parishes, putting many miles on his car each month as he travels between his churches. He is also a parochial vicar for St. Patrick and St. Francis of Assisi parishes in Walla Walla. He is assisted by Deacon Mike Breier, who moved to the area several years ago from the Yakima Diocese.

The old-timers and the newcomers alike say it: the Dayton and Waitsburg churches are friendly, welcoming and easy places to get involved. When there’s a job to be done in either church, volunteers jump right in and do it.

Bob Mayse retired to Dayton from Los Angeles. He recently finished a term as parish council president and likes how the parish seems to “have more direction now. Lay people are taking more of a role.”

Tom Hannan moved to the area from southern California in 1999. In his former (large) parish, he was a member of the Knights of Columbus and had often cooked meals for KC fund-raisers.. When Hannan got to Columbia County, he offered his cooking skills. Three years ago, he cooked the first of what has become an annual St. Patrick’s Day dinner and fund-raiser for the Altar Society.

Hannan recalled how the parish welcomed him and his wife and how much easier it is to have “a one-on-one with the priest” in a small parish.

The two congregations join together in many ways. Religious education is combined. Holy Week services will be alternated between the two churches. A joint picnic is held in the summer.

The two churches continue to foster that sense of unity. On the first Sunday of March, St. Mark hosted the first Parish Unity Day which, said several parishioners, had a great turn-out. “The place was packed,” said one.

Only one Sunday Mass was celebrated that day. A potluck dinner followed. The plan came from Father Obisike, but both parishes enthusiastically embraced the idea. St. Joseph was the host church on April 6.

The two churches share in other important ways.

One is prayer. A group ofThird Order Franciscans draws members from both parishes. Overfield, who has been a Third Order Franciscan for over 50 years, is formation director for the group. Four members have already made their profession and four more are in formation.

Another is charitable works. Father Paul Wood of New York was pastor for a time in the early 1990s. He and Franciscan Brother Padraic Campbell and the people of both parishes started Project Timothy in Dayton, to serve the low-income and migrant workers and their families. People from both churches volunteer at Project Timothy, and also assist the local St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Deacon Breier is blessed by the two congregations, not only in how they welcomed him and his wife, Tammy, but also in the active roles they take in their parishes. “Each congregation has a group of leaders,” he said, “who have assumed the roles of being leaders in their respective fields.”

He sees their strength as “their genuine love and acceptance of people. They don’t care who you are or what you do; they simply accept you as you are.

Tom Hannan said St. Mark Parish “is basically friendly, with a strong sense of community. It’s a great place to be involved.”

Betty Opbroek of Waitsburg, who has been altar society president and on the board of Project Timothy, said that “Our strength is our camaraderie. Everyone works together and I like that.”

“It’s the people getting together and the closeness of everyone,” said Ivan Keve, also of Waitsburg. “They have a great love for their church.”

Bernie Donnelly, who does maintenance for St. Mark, likes how the church “cares for its people.”

In Dayton, Jeannie Fletcher said, “We have a real good community, more like a family.”

Lydia Buettner of Dayton sees parish strength in their sense of family and in their unity. “We’re more unified and when someone is absent, we miss them.”

As Father Schwemin reminisced, he commented that his time in the parishes “was a great 10 years. The people there are very faithful Catholics.”

Father Obisike agrees: “They are committed 100 percent to their church. They are always looking for ways to serve. They’re very dedicated and very generous.”


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