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: St. Benedict’s wisdom for our times 

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“Let us get up then, at last, for the Scriptures rouse us,” the Rule of St. Benedict urges us. “Let us open our eyes to the light … and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out. … ‘If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts’” (Ps 95:8). On July 11 the Church observes the memorial of St. Benedict, and his words from 1,500 years ago seem perfectly fitting for our challenging and changing times.

The Rule of St. Benedict was written some time around 530, a time when the Roman Empire had collapsed and Christianity’s existence in Europe was threatened. Given our current cultural situation and its parallels with his time, I believe we can find fruit in St. Benedict’s teachings.

Saint Benedict grew up surrounded by a culture that was morally corrupt but with the grace of God lived a virtuous life. After spending some time in Rome for studies, he fled its moral decadence to pursue a more solitary life. St. Benedict lived the life of a hermit for several years before he eventually founded several monasteries, which became centers of prayer, manual labor and learning.

St. Benedict begins his rule by urging the monks to “Listen carefully to the master’s instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart” (Rule, Prologue 1). For us, this means establishing a daily time to listen to the Lord, both in reading the Scriptures and in conversational prayer and meditation.

Our sure foundation during these trying times should be God’s will for each of us, not the constantly changing messages that bombard us in the news or on social media. For some, every online trend has become a form of gospel that must be adhered to with religious conviction. But the faith handed down to us from the Apostles is the only true Gospel, and only it can save souls. Although the times and technology were different, St. Benedict understood the importance of listening to “the master’s instructions.”

In his book, The Holy Spirit in the Life of Jesus, the preacher of the Papal Household, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, addresses the need for priests to arm themselves for battle “with the world rulers of this present darkness” (cf. Jn 10:12). At the heart of his reflection is the insight that “Jesus freed himself from Satan by an act of total obedience to the Father’s will, once and for all handing over his free will to him, so that he could truly say, ‘My food is to do the will of the one who sent me’” (Jn 4:34, The Holy Spirit in the Life of Jesus, p. 36).

The question we must ask ourselves is, “Do I put the Father’s will first in my life in every decision I make and in all that I say and do?” If we place the Father’s will at the center of our lives and truly listen to him with “the ears of our hearts” as St. Benedict taught, we will be prepared for whatever happens and always give witness to the love of God and others. We live in a world that has removed God from culture. History, both salvation history and world history, shows clearly what happens when this occurs. When God is removed, something else becomes “god.” Societies decline and eventually fall and disappear unless they return to the true God and become cultures that promote a life of holiness and virtue.

There is at least one additional lesson from St. Benedict’s rule that is applicable in these times of societal disunity and division. The monks and sisters of the Benedictine spiritual family are known for their hospitality. The Rule teaches this virtue in this way: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Mt 25:35). Proper honor must be shown to all, especially to those who share our faith (Gal 6:10) and to pilgrims” (Rule, #53).

Let us make it our prayer to be able to see others as Christ himself coming to us, even if they are clothed in what St. Mother Teresa called, “the distressing disguise of the poor.” If we continually seek the will of the Father and ask in prayer for our hearts and will to be conformed to his, then we will be able to weather any challenge.