Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Odessa’s St. Joseph Parish approaches the century mark with strong faith, community spirit
Story and photos by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff
(From the Sept. 11, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)
The town of Odessa is nearly, but not quite, in the center of the Spokane Diocese in Eastern Washington. It’s in wheat country and the community is very much oriented to agriculture.
St. Joseph Catholic Church in Odessa, 98 years old, is located on the north side of town. Father Roy Floch is the current pastor. He is also pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Wilbur and makes his home there.
St. Joseph is the oldest church in Odessa, constructed just three years after the town was founded. In about 1900, the small Catholic community in Odessa was served by Father H.P Van de Ven, who traveled by horse and buggy from Sprague every six weeks to say Mass and tend to the faithful.
Father Van de Ven also offered the first Mass in the new St. Joseph Church on Oct. 18, 1905. The cost of building the church is not known, but four lots were purchased for $250. The church was insured for $2,500. Non-Catholics and Catholics alike contributed to the building fund.
The first resident pastor, Father J.B. Herrmann, arrived in 1910. Many people in the congregation were Bohemian and their Old World custom at worship was that the women would sit on the left side of the church and the men on the right. The custom continued among older parishioners until the 1940s.
The building that is St. Joseph Church is the original building, a simple white wooden structure with stairs up to the front door and a steeple, bell and cross on top.
The traditional-style interior is quietly elegant. The ceiling is ornamental tin but in a bow to newer material, the floor is carpeted. Another modernization removed the pot-bellied wood stove and installed a furnace.
The sanctuary features a crucifix on a framed wood panel background. Underneath is the tabernacle and a statue of St. Joseph. Kneeling angel statues adorn both sides of the sanctuary.
The peaked Gothic windows are white frosted glass with green and blue sections at the top. There are also two windows in the large choir loft. A statue of Mary stands in the choir loft; there is also a statue of Mary as queen to the left of the sanctuary. The baptismal font stands near this statue.
To the south of the church is the building that was designed to be a Catholic school but was never used as such. The classrooms now are used for religious education. In the basement is a large hall with stage and a large kitchen which would be the envy of any parish community.
One of the church’s major projects (and major fund-raisers) brings everyone in the parish together. It’s the Altar Society’s food sale at Odessa’s annual Deutsches Fest, held the third weekend of September – this year, Sept. 19-21. The Fest was started in 1970 and draws about 26,000 visitors each year.
Parishioners make over 3,000 kraut ranzas, a sausage-sauerkraut sandwich, to sell during the Fest. The mixture is baked in yeast bread dough, making it a true to-go meal. Parishioners also make kuchen, a coffee cake with fruit, usually apples, and a cream topping. The food is made in the latter part of August and frozen. When it’s Fest time, parishioners sign up to staff three-hour shifts in the food booth. “We all pretty much help with this,” said parishioner Helen Pierce, who was born and raised in Odessa. “Everyone is good to sign up.”
According to a history of the church written in 1987 by Don Walter, income from the Altar Society’s food sale was second only to those of the Chamber of Commerce sausage and beer garden – at least, at that time. The money raised at the food sale has contributed to several major renovations and improvements at the church.
While parishioners enjoy fellowship through their money-making project, the parish has other occasions when they gather for camaraderie. One long-time celebration is that of St. Joseph Day in March, when the parish notes its patronal feast day. After Mass, everyone enjoys a potluck dinner at the hall.
Father Floch (right) started several parish events enjoyed by his congregation. He revived the pancake supper held on theTuesday before Ash Wednesday. “This has gotten real popular,” Pierce said. Another is the ice cream social held in August, which is also well-attended.
One function Father Floch started reaches beyond the parish. The church holds an ecumenical service at Epiphany. “We invite all the other churches in Odessa,” Pierce said. “Lots of people come, and we all enjoy it.”
Catholics have always been a minority in Odessa and as the population of the area declined, so did the number of Catholics. The congregation at St. Joseph is mostly older; there are not many families with children. But many or few, young or old, they love their church.
One thing most parishioners like is the small size of their parish. Kay Weber said she likes “the country setting. I feel at home there.” She also likes how everyone gets together to help, “like when there’s a funeral or with prayer.” (She also likes the huckleberry syrup Father Floch makes to bring to the St. Joseph Day celebration.)
Mildred Deife also likes the “willingness of the parish to work together.” She sees the parish’s greatest strength in its deep faith.
Pierce commented on the liveliness of their parish events, of how there is a “good turn-out” for Epiphany, the pancake supper and St. Joseph Day.
Peggy DeWulf is the mother of one of St. Joseph’s younger families. She and her husband have four young children. She guides the religious education program, with classes held on Sunday mornings either before or after Mass. What she likes about St. Joseph Church is that she knows everybody. And, she said, “everything gets done. People pull through and do it, and sometimes we don’t even know who did it.”
In her view, the parish’s strength lies in the fact that even though the numbers are few, their faith is strong. Parishioners are “extremely dedicated to keeping their church open and not letting it die,” she said.
Father Anton Flour was parish pastor 13 years, to hold the record for the longest service. One notable resident who spent part of his growing up years in Odessa is William Weigand, now bishop of Sacramento.
(Much of the information in this article comes from the parish history, St. Joseph of Odessa, written in 1987 by Don Walter. He is the publisher-editor of the Odessa Record newspaper. Extra copies are available at St. Joseph Church.
One common thread among the pastors of St. Joseph, whether resident or non-resident, was traveling to serve Catholics in other parishes in the territory. From Father Van de Ven in a horse and buggy to Father Hermann on the train to Father Floch in a red pickup, priests faithfully traveled many miles each month to say Mass and minister to their Catholic communities.
But some of that traveling was thrilling if not downright scary. Some now adult altar boys can tell of harrowing rides to other parishes with priests who drove fast, sometimes smoking and sometimes reading the paper and sometimes doing both at once. Parishioner and historian Don Walter was one of those altar boys and he wrote in the parish history that they probably prayed more in those rides than they did all week.