By Denise Fedorow
LaGrange — St. Joseph Church in LaGrange has the distinction of being the only Catholic Church in LaGrange County and reportedly the last county to get a Catholic Church; but that’s not the only thing that stands out about St. Joseph. It’s a vibrant parish and is in the midst of a building project.
St. Joseph Parish, like Blessed Sacrament Parish in Albion, owes its founding to a meeting hosted by a Methodist minister in LaGrange in the 1930’s to help his congregation and others in the area to learn about Catholicism in a very anti-Catholic era.
The Methodist minister invited a priest, Father William Ehrman from Kendallville to speak and reportedly there were 28 Catholics from Albion and LaGrange present who approached the priest afterwards about getting their parishes started, or in Albion’s case, restarted.
Holy Cross Father J. Steele, who is pastor for both parishes, said there was a log chapel by the lake where, in frontier days, an occasional Mass was celebrated. After 1931, the original parish celebrated Mass in the Burr Hotel, which is still standing and Father Steele said descendents of the Burr family still attend St. Joseph. The original parish was just a handful of families and they built the first church on US Hwy 20 on the west side of town.
They outgrew that church when an influx of Catholics came to the area. The current church was built in 1978. They expanded and built a social hall and gym in 1993. The current church building is all one connected building — the rectory, parish office, church sanctuary, social hall and gym.
Father Steelee said the original plans called for a separate rectory but due to lack of funds, built it inside the church in space originally meant for classrooms.
“So classroom space has always been tight here,” he said.
St. Joseph had a lot of growth in the 1970’s and 1980’s and since 2000; a fairly large Hispanic community has come into the parish. Father Steelee, who came in 2012, said even the last couple of years the growth has been very rapid. When he came to St. Joseph there were 165 kids in religious education and now there are 225. That growth has created the need for new classroom space and they decided to complete some other work that has been planned for a while.
There’s a big mound of dirt on the site of St. Joseph parish — the mound of dirt which will someday soon be the site of the new rectory. The new rectory is the first step in the multi-phased project for the parish.
Father Steele said once the new rectory is built, the place he’s called home for the past four years will be converted into the classroom space it was originally intended to be.
Next, they’ll be expanding the entryway to the church, which Father Steelee said now is more like a hallway and forces parishioners out into the parking lot.
“We want it to be a bigger space so they can socialize after Mass,” he said.
They’ll also be renovating the sanctuary, where they will be introducing classical elements. They’ll be adding three reredos above and against the wall of the central altar. There will be three new altars — one central altar, one for Mary and one for Joseph.
An outdoor chapel for Our Lady of Guadalupe will also be built in the shape of a half octagon. The chapel will lean up against the sanctuary wall.
Father Steele explained the significance of the placement of the chapel. “In some places in Latin America when the church is closed, people go and pray touching the tabernacle wall. In some places there are grooves worn into the ground from so many of the faithful,” he said.
In the chapel, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the tabernacle will be back to back.
Father Steele said there are several different aspects to the building project.
“What’s really great is these building projects will be completed without debt,” he said. “In order to do all this construction without debt we are doing a lot of the work ourselves.”
Some of the work being done by parishioners includes demolition, drywall work and all the finish work like carpeting, laying tile, etc. He said the altars are being built by a local craftsman, Barry Campbell of LaOtto. According to Father Steelee, Campbell does work for churches all over the country, but he hasn’t done a lot of work in the diocese.
“I’m really pleased he’s building four altars for us; plus a new pulpit and Baptismal font in the old traditional octagonal style,” he said.
People and ministries of St. Joseph
There are approximately 360 families at St. Joseph and because it is the only Catholic Church in the county, parishioners come from as far away as Shipshewana and Topeka in Indiana and White Pigeon and Sturgis in Lower Michigan. Hispanic parishioners may come from even farther as there is no Spanish Sunday Mass in Steuben County.
“We have a very vibrant Hispanic community with a newly developing charismatic movement,” Father Steele said.
An overnight Eucharistic adoration was recently started from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and adorers all come as a group at 7 p.m. It is held every second Saturday of the month.
“They love it — it’s very high-spirited. It’s very impressive,” Father Steele said.
He said the Hispanic community also likes to put on dramas for Our Lady of Guadalupe celebrations, Stations of the Cross and Christ’s passion. The parish just started a Corpus Christi procession.
St. Joseph’s Youth Group is going to the Steubenville conferences at Franciscan University for the first time this summer. Father Steele said their youth group re-grouped and re-energized about two years ago and they have about 25 kids involved. The youth group meets the second and fourth Sundays of the month.
They also have a seniors group that meets once a month. Father Steele said they hold potlucks and plan annual pilgrimages, among other things.
Adult education programs held at St. Joseph in the past have been Arise, Symbolon, about which Father Steele said, “It’s an excellent resource, we’re now using it for RCIA.”
They are currently doing a Bible study by Dr. John Bergsma — ‘Bible Basics for Catholics — a new picture of Salvation history.’ Father Steele “highly recommends” this program.
St. Joseph’s has a large social hall and full gymnasium that; Father Steele said for many years, before the town had a youth center, was used by all the youth in LaGrange for playing basketball.
“We have a tremendous facility but there’s a lot more to be done,” Father Steele said.
St. Joseph preschool
St. Joseph’s Parish also has a preschool that serves not only its parishioners, but many in the community.
Father J. Steelee, pastor of St. Joseph, said their preschool was the leader in academic preschools in town, stating that St. Joseph’s preschool was a “pioneer” in offering an academic preschool.
The preschool has been open about 12 years and has classes for three four-year-old and four five-year-old children. The children learn their letters, colors and shapes, have physical activities and they offer a light introduction to Bible stories and prayers.
Father Steele said they have the children pray at the beginning of the day and before meals. He said although it is part of the parish, it’s not a Catholic pre-school but instead an Ecumenical one.
“We emphasize the shared parts of our faith,” he said.
Knights of Columbus
The St. Joseph, LaGrange Knights of Columbus Council 13962 is an active group of men who’ve added some new projects in the last few years.
Grand Knight Warren Patka said one of those new projects came about last Christmas when they decided to make plywood Nativity scenes. He said they made about eight or nine large scenes and three small ones last year. He said they didn’t really sell them, but would accept donations instead. If someone took a Nativity scene, they were asked to display it.
“Our main goal was to get them out there and remind people to put Christ back in Christmas,” Patka said.
The other project that started last year was hosting a social breakfast for the parish — they hosted two — one in the spring and one in the fall. Patka said about 100 people attended. There was no charge for the breakfast.
The Knights sponsor two Red Cross Blood drives — one in the spring and one in the fall and around Thanksgiving they have a Turkey Bingo, where they give away about 20 turkeys and other prizes. They also host fish frys during Lent.
This group of dedicated men is only about 15 strong. Patka said they originally had about 30 active members but lost several due to death and relocation. So they are always looking for more members. They connect with the Angola council for events where they attend in full regalia.