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: Radical living and my friend Shelly

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I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.