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: Despite no Masses, you won’t believe what parishes are doing

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Despite no Masses, you won’t believe what parishes are doing

Livestreamed Masses, drive-through confession and more are sustaining the faithful during quarantine

Aaron Lambert

Nothing like creativity and some humor to make a tough situation a little easier to endure.

“It took generations, but they have succeeded where the rest of us have failed. Children, of all ages throughout the world, have successfully given up school for Lent,” St. John the Baptist Parish in Longmont posted on its Facebook page April 1. Quite a few “Haha” reactions ensued.

The post, of course, refers to the fact that because of the coronavirus pandemic, students are not attending classes in-person and are instead learning from home. This homebound engagement is true for pretty much every other public institution, including Catholic churches. Parishes across the Archdiocese of Denver are having to adapt to a temporary reality where Masses are empty.

Thankfully, that aforementioned creativity, strong communities and a little help from the internet are making it possible for parishes to still serve the faithful in plenty of ways. For many parishes, this means something as simple as livestreaming Masses for the faithful to participate in from home.

While it’s impossible to replace being physically present in the Mass, many seem appreciative and grateful for the opportunity to still engage with the sacred liturgy from afar.

“So grateful to have a Parish Staff that has responded to the current situation and found ways to continue offering sacraments and ministry,” wrote Jodee Hinton on Our Lady of the Valley’s Facebook page. “It was very special and much needed for my family to watch Mass today. My kids loved being able to see what actually happens on the altar.”

“Thank you Father, miss you and sharing Christ with you in person, but we will be with you soon with the help of Jesus Christ. Stay strong and safe,” wrote Judith Ann Aerne on Holy Cross in Thornton’s Facebook page.

Parishioners in their cars line up in the parking lot of Queen of Peace Parish in Aurora to have their confessions heard. Parishes are finding creative ways to offer the sacraments to the faithful while stay-at-home and social distancing orders are in place. (Photo provided by Queen of Peace)

Other parishes are also finding ways to continue providing other sacraments to the faithful. Queen of Peace Parish in Aurora, for example, has launched drive-through confessions on Saturdays to ensure people still have the chance to receive to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and they’re not the only parish to do so. It’s just one of the ways that they’re able to stay connected to their parishioners while their doors are closed.

“Since they can no longer gather here, we’ve tried to go to them,” said Queen of Peace pastor Father Felix Medina. “We’ve stayed busy. We livestream at least three liturgies a day: Morning Prayer and Adoration in the morning, English Mass at noon and Spanish Mass in the evening.

“I think it’s important for people to know that the Church is still open and it’s more present than ever before, that we will not be silenced, that we won’t stop reaching out to people now,” Father Medina said.

And by reaching out, Father Medina doesn’t mean that figuratively. Queen of Peace and other parishes such as Assumption in Welby and St. John the Baptist in Longmont have been calling their parishioners one-by-one to check in on them and see if they can help with anything.

“We’re essentially asking three basic questions: one, how are you doing; two, do you need anything; and three, can we pray with you?” Father Daniel Ciucci of St. John the Baptist said in an interview with Fox 31.

Volunteers at St. John the Baptist make phone calls to check in on parishioners. Outreach from parishes has taken on a whole new meaning during the coronavirus outbreak, and they’re finding ways to rise to the occasion. (Photo provided by St. John the Baptist)

“As priests, we’ve maintained a life of prayer, but we’ve also been calling our parishioners,” Father Medina said. “We each try to call 50 or 100 a day. They’re very happy to hear us checking in on how they’re doing and how their family’s doing and whether they need anything – especially because we know some of them are lonely and are having a hard time.”

Of course, there’s a whole lot more that parishes do besides offer Mass, and they’re finding ways to keep those things going too. Nativity of Our Lord in Broomfield is offering assistance to parishioners who need it, whether it be delivering groceries or seeing a priest; Risen Christ in Denver is continuing its partnership with Food Bank of the Rockies and doing drive-up food distribution; youth ministers across the archdiocese are doing virtual youth group nights via Zoom. And that’s just scratching the surface.

The parishes of the Archdiocese of Denver will continue to find innovative and creative ways to serve the faithful through all of this. However, they need the vital support of their communities to do so. Many parishes have online giving portals set up through their own website, but you can also visit passthebasket.org to give to any parish in the Archdiocese of Denver.

Vladimir Mauricio-Perez contributed to this report.