Thursday, May 23, 2024

With ‘Vitality and Joy,’ St. Joseph Parish in Lancaster Celebrates 175th Anniversary

Known to be among the first – if not the very first – ethnic parishes in the history of the United States, St. Joseph Parish in Lancaster is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, and its historical roots have grown into a testament to the diverse community of faith that finds its spiritual home on the city’s Cabbage Hill.

Founded in 1849 for German immigrants, St. Joseph’s today is a community that has expanded to welcome families from Asia and Africa into its fold.

“Today, we have Catholics of various ethnicities who call St. Joseph their spiritual home and help make it such a vibrant place. Even though we might not speak the same language, the unity we have is that we call this our home,” said Father Pang Tcheou, pastor.

St. Joseph Church itself has been a beacon on the hill in the city’s southwestern corner, dating back to when parishioners lived in the neighborhood that surrounds it. Today, Masses in English have replaced the German vernacular, and Masses are celebrated weekly in Burmese and twice a month in Swahili for those respective communities, many of whom come from miles away.

“Each group has its own gifts, and one of the most beautiful gifts is that there are so many children. It’s the Church alive, and with such vitality and joy,” Father Tcheou said.

The faithful filled St. Joseph Church on Saturday evening, April 27, for a solemn Mass in celebration of the parish’s 175th anniversary. Bishop Timothy Senior was the principal celebrant and homilist for the Mass, which was viewed by more than 200 via the parish’s livestream.

Among the concelebrants were Bishop Ronald Gainer, Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Harrisburg; Father Tcheou, Father Deogratias Rwegasria, AJ, chaplain of Lancaster General Hospital and a priest in residence at St. Joseph’s; Father Allan Wolfe, a former pastor who is now pastor of Corpus Christi Parish in Chambersburg; and Father Philip Burger, a native son of the parish who is currently pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Abbottstown.

“What a great gift it is to celebrate this anniversary and to hear the words of Jesus, reminding us that He is the center of this parish, the life of this parish…. He says, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches.’ We cannot bear fruit apart from Him,” Bishop Senior said in the greeting. “As so many generations of Catholics have come to this place to worship, to be nourished on the vine of Jesus Christ, so we gather this evening.”

The Mass was a celebration of the parish’s history and of its people, with hymns and prayers in English, Burmese and Swahili.

Rooted in Faith

Prior to the establishment of St. Joseph Parish, German Catholics in Lancaster attended Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Parish. Historic St. Mary’s was a largely-German parish at the time, although settlers from Ireland and England were among its flock as well.

In September of 1849, Bishop Francis Kenrick of Philadelphia sent Father Bernard Bayer, a Redemptorist priest, to organize a parish under the patronage of St. Joseph, made up of more than 200 faithful from its very beginnings. The cornerstone of their church was laid in 1850. A three-room school established in the church basement became the first parochial school in Lancaster, and was taught by the Sisters of St. Francis from Glen Riddle.

In 1882, a school building, hall, convent and new church were built. Bishop John Conroy of Albany dedicated the new church, which incorporated the original church into its center. St. Joseph Parish continued to flourish over the next decades – Diocesan history books tell of a new school, named in honor of the 40-year-pastorate of Father Henry Christ; the renovation of the church basement to create the Holy Family Chapel; and the priests of the parish celebrating Mass at the Manor Shopping Center auditorium in Millersville for what would be the beginnings of St. Philip the Apostle Parish.

St. Joseph’s is blessed with an Adoration Chapel, which is currently open to adorers on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It was a Perpetual Adoration Chapel for many years, but the round-the-clock schedule was amended during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is a great grace to know that the Lord is truly present for us in the chapel to spend time with Him,” said Father Tcheou, who recalls making visits to the chapel when he was on break from seminary studies. “We have faithful people who will come to the chapel even in the middle of the night to spend time with the Lord.”

St. Joseph School merged in 1991 with nearby St. Mary’s School and St. Anthony of Padua School to form Resurrection Catholic School, which St. Joseph Parish continues to support, along with a vigorous religious education program.

The education of young people is of great importance to Father Tcheou, himself a product of Catholic education in Lancaster.

The Tcheou family belonged to St. Mary’s Parish, and he attended St. Mary’s School before being enrolled at Resurrection after the consolidation. Father Tcheou is a 1998 graduate of Lancaster Catholic High School.

“I remember serving Mass at St. Joseph’s as an altar server, so it’s neat to come back as the pastor. It was surreal in the beginning. I used to serve at the altar as a kid, and now I’m presiding at Mass,” he said.

“We want the education of our young people to be vibrant, as well as the RCIA program for adults. Education and formation have been very important here,” he said.

The priest has worked with Deacon Tom Owsinski on bringing a family-focused religious education program to the parish, which has more than doubled its enrollment in the past few years.

Ministry to the poor is also a focus of the parish.

“We are on Cabbage Hill, a poor area on the southwestern part of the city, so we’re aware of and concerned for the needs of our neighbors,” Father Tcheou said. “We have revamped our food pantry with parishioner engagement, and it’s run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society. We also work with the Southwestern Lancaster Coalition, which rents part of our convent, and we work together to help make the neighborhood a better place.”

Rekindling the Flame

In his homily during the anniversary Mass, Bishop Senior reflected on the Gospel reading, from John 15:4-5, in which Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”

“It’s that magnetism of Jesus, the promise, the message of the Gospel, that has drawn people to this community of faith. They see in Jesus that intimate connection as He says, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. You cannot bear fruit apart from me,’” the bishop said.

“As we acknowledge that fruit that has been experienced through our life of faith in our families and in living our vocations, we need to invite the Vine Grower in to show us what needs to be pruned, and let Him do His work,” he said.

Acknowledging the many religious vocations that have come from St. Joseph Parish over the course of its history, Bishop Senior mentioned one religious Sister in particular – Sister Bernadine Schmalhofer, M.S.B.T., of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity. An aunt of the late Father John Schmalhofer who served the Diocese as a priest for 50 years, Sister Bernadine, now 102 years old, shared her memories of growing up in St. Joseph Parish during a recent phone call with the bishop.

Bishop Senior came to know Sister Bernadine and her ministry as a social worker when he began his assignment with Catholic Social Services as a priest in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

“She inspired me from the moment I met her,” Bishop Senior told the congregation. He offered Sister Bernadine a special greeting, knowing that she was watching the Mass via the livestream.

“The beauty of the reality of this parish, centered on Jesus Christ, calls us to rekindle that same flame that has animated the parish for so many years in our own lives,” Bishop Senior said. “As we do during this Easter season…we recognize that closeness to the Risen Lord that we have in the sacramental life of the Church, in the Living Word that speaks to our hearts.”

Following the Mass, the anniversary celebration continued with a magnificent banquet at the Holiday Inn Lancaster, where parishioners further reminisced and celebrated the traditions and legacy of their parish.

“St. Joseph’s has been a place to encounter and worship our loving and living God, and I hope it will be that place for many more people for generations to come,” Father Tcheou said.

“As a pastor, the sanctification and holiness of the people in my care are my goal. We gather as a family to thank God for all He has done, and to look to the future so that this may continue to be place for so many others to come,” he said.

(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)

By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness

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