St. Joseph in Akron celebrates 100 years

Deep roots of family and faith alive and well in Akron parish on centennial anniversary

Moira Cullings

When Father Marek Ciesla celebrates Sunday Mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Akron, the community is deeply connected — not just in the prayers and responses, but in the very sacrifice of the Mass.

“We have hosts baked out of the local wheat,” said Father Ciesla. “That’s very significant, something very important.

“Every Mass, they come and they receive the bread made out of their work and God’s blessings.”

In a town of just over 1,700 people, the rural lifestyle and deep roots of many St. Joseph parishioners makes the parish unique. Since its founding in 1918, the small-town parish nestled in Akron has continued to flourish.

A century of memories

Many St. Joseph parishioners have deep ties both to the town and the parish, which was initially a mission until 1918, when then-Bishop J. Henry Tihen officially declared it a parish.

One of several parishioners who has been at St. Joseph her whole life is Agnes Friedly, who was born in 1941. Friedly’s grandparents homesteaded in Washington County, and some of her relatives helped found the church.

Friedly remembers her mom reminiscing on what the church was like during its first few years.

“I know my mom talked about the old church — how cold it was, and if the babies cried, you had no place to go in the winter,” she said. “Your cars wouldn’t heat up, and you wouldn’t go outside.”

Parishioners at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Akron celebrated the parish’s 100th anniversary Aug. 19. Photo by Jason Weinrich

Friedly’s childhood memories are deeply intertwined with St. Joseph.

“When I was growing up, the one thing I really enjoyed was the nuns would come in the summer, and we’d have vacation school,” she said. “Three of them came every year.”

Another fond experience at the parish was that Father William Coyne married her parents in 1934, and then her and her husband in 1959. Father Coyne served the parish for several years.

“To think he stayed with our church — that was probably what helped make us a strong community. He built it up.”

Another family with deep ties to the parish is the Piepers, whose mother’s grandfather was the architect and chief carpenter of the new church built in 1913.

“Our whole family grew up involved with the church,” said Alex Pieper.

Alex, his brother Leo and all of their siblings grew up in a family that served the church in a variety of ways, which helped shape their lives and values.

To think he stayed with our church — that was probably what helped make us a strong community. He built it up.”

“We still help with the church,” said Leo Pieper. “Our parents sacrificed a lot in order to give us that Catholic education.”

Like Friedly, Alex Pieper has fond childhood memories of the parish that stand out. One in particular is when the archbishop approached the students during their confirmation.

“He came down to the aisle where we were sitting to ask questions, and the kid next to me didn’t know the answer,” said Alex Pieper. “I held up my hand, and he drew me out into the aisle and stood me there for about 10 minutes asking me all kinds of questions.

“My mom was probably the proudest lady in church,” he said with a smile.

The Piepers’ love and fondness for their parish and town didn’t end with their childhood.

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila gives a cemetery blessing at St. Joseph Catholic Church to kick off the centennial celebration Aug. 19. Photo by Jason Weinrich

“All of us were married here in the church,” said Alex Pieper. “We’ve all had pretty much adjacent farms in the area. In our case, our neighbors were our brothers.”

Now, both men continue to serve the parish in a variety of roles — a value they learned at a young age.

“Those are our roots,” said Alex Pieper.

St. Joseph — 100 years later

If original members of St. Joseph Catholic Church could see the parish now, they’d find it buzzing with parishioners fully alive in their faith.

Father Ciesla describes the audience at Sunday Mass as “all generations coming together.”

The St. Joseph pastor of three years enjoys seeing people of all ages attend Mass each weekend.

And afterwards, families take turns preparing breakfast for everyone. Then, children go to religious education class and adults meet for an adult studies program for about an hour.

“What I am impressed with is the quest, the desire, to do adult studies,” said Father Ciesla. “Even older people just want to learn more and strengthen their relationship with God, with the Church.”

That desire fuels a deeper faith in all generations of the parish.

“Adults have desire,” he said, “and youth are looking at that, and they want to follow.”

Many of the St. Joseph parishioners are farmers, ranchers and people who work in town.

Parishioners packed St. Joseph Catholic Church Aug. 19 during Mass celebrated by Archbishop Aquila. Photo by Jason Weinrich

“All the parishioners are hard-working people, down to earth, but they have their minds and eyes in heaven,” said Father Ciesla. “All those wonderful things like God, country, family — all those values — that’s how they have their priorities.”

Those values are passed from one generation to the next, and parishioners don’t lose sight of where they all began.

“They keep in high regard those who started the church,” said Father Ciesla.

Even older people just want to learn more and strengthen their relationship with God, with the Church.”

Aside from the local wheat used in the hosts and the strong community at St. Joseph, another unique aspect of the parish is its pulpit.

“We’ve got an ambo, a pulpit, that John Paul II used for World Youth Day to address [attendees],” said Father Ciesla.

The ambo was built specifically for the pope’s visit to Denver in 1993, and a St. Joseph parishioner eventually obtained it. When the parish updated its sanctuary, Father Ciesla knew it was the perfect time to add in the pulpit.

“We decided after prayers to use the top of the pulpit used by Pope John Paul II, and we built a new one,” said Father Ciesla. “So it was incorporated into a new pulpit that we use now.”

St. Joseph Catholic Church on Aug. 19, the day of the parish’s 100th anniversary celebration. Photo by Jason Weinrich

The now-saint’s spirit of evangelization is alive and well with St. Joseph parishioners, who Father Ciesla believes have a set of values that make his job much easier.

“As a pastor, I am happy to accompany them and to be with them going this direction,” he said.

St. Joseph Catholic Church celebrated its 100th anniversary August 19 at the church. The celebration began with a blessing of the cemetery and its new signs over the entrance and exit, followed by Mass and a reception.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to be part of it,” said Father Ciesla.

Father Ciesla hopes that in its next 100 years, the parish “continues the direction given to them at the very beginning by founding members of the community,” he said.

COMING UP: Historical clarity and today’s Catholic contentions

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

One of the curiosities of the 21st-century Catholic debate is that many Catholic traditionalists (especially integralists) and a high percentage of Catholic progressives make the same mistake in analyzing the cause of today’s contentions within the Church — or to vary the old fallacy taught in Logic 101, they think in terms of post Concilium ergo propter Concilium [everything that’s happened after the Council has happened because of the Council]. And inside that fallacy is a common misreading of modern Catholic history. The traditionalists insist that everything was fine before the Council (which many of them therefore regard as a terrible mistake); the progressives agree that the pre-Vatican II Church was a stable institution but deplore that stability as rigidity and desiccation.

But that’s not the way things were pre-Vatican II, as I explain at some length and with some engaging stories in my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books). And no one knew the truth about pre-Vatican II Catholicism better than the man who was elected pope during the Council and guided Vatican II through its last three sessions, St. Paul VI.

On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII, thought to be an elderly placeholder, stunned both the Church and the world by announcing his intention to summon the 21st ecumenical council. That night, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (who would be known as Paul VI four and a half years later), called an old friend. An experienced churchman who had long served Pius XII as chief of staff, Montini saw storm clouds on the horizon: “This holy old boy,” he said of John XXIII, “doesn’t know what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.”

That shrewd observation turned out to be spot on –– and not simply because of the Council, but because of the bees and hornets that had been buzzing around the ecclesiastical nest for well over 100 years.

Contrary to both traditionalist and progressive misconceptions, Catholicism was not a placid institution, free of controversy and contention, prior to Vatican II. As I show in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, there was considerable intellectual ferment in the Church during the mid-19th century, involving great figures like the recently-canonized John Henry Newman, the German bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (grandfather of modern Catholic social thought), and the Italian polymath Antonio Rosmini (praised by John Paul II in the 1999 encyclical, Faith and Reason, and beatified under Benedict XVI). That ferment accelerated during the 25 year pontificate of Leo XIII, who launched what I dub the “Leonine Revolution,” challenging the Church to engage the modern world with distinctively Catholic tools in order to convert the modern world and lay a firmer foundation for its aspirations.

American Catholicism, heavily focused on institution-building, was largely unaware of the sharp-edged controversies (and ecclesiastical elbow-throwing) that followed Leo XIII’s death in 1903. Those controversies, plus the civilization-shattering experience of two world wars in Europe, plus a rapid secularization process in Old Europe that began in the 19th century, set the stage for John XXIII’s epic opening address to Vatican II. There, the Pope explained what he envisioned Vatican II doing: gathering up the energies let loose by the Leonine Revolution and focusing them through the prism of an ecumenical council, which he hoped would be a Pentecostal experience energizing the Church with new evangelical zeal.

John XXIII understood that the Gospel proposal could only be made by speaking to the modern world in a vocabulary the modern world could hear. Finding the appropriate grammar and vocabulary for contemporary evangelization didn’t mean emptying Catholicism of its content or challenge, however. As the Pope insisted, the perennial truths of the faith were to be expressed with the “same meaning” and the “same judgment.” Vatican II, in other words, was to foster the development of doctrine, not the deconstruction of doctrine. And the point of that doctrinal development was to equip the Church for mission and evangelization, for the modern world would be converted by truth, not ambiguity or confusion.

Over the past six and a half years, it’s become abundantly clear that more than a few Catholics, some quite prominently placed, still don’t get this history. Nor do the more vociferous elements in the Catholic blogosphere. Which is why I hope The Irony of Modern Catholic History helps facilitate a more thoughtful debate on the Catholic present and future, through a better understanding of the Catholic past.