Members of St. Joseph Parish in Milton say they don’t need a year dedicated to St. Joseph as a prompting to model Jesus’ earthly father and patron of the Universal Church.
After all, they’ve been emulating him all along.
“We were already being St. Joseph. It is in our bloodstream, our DNA, as a blue-collar, working parish family. We are a parish that reaches out to others,” said Father John Hoke, pastor.
It’s not lip service. The Northumberland County parish of 192 families prides itself in service to others – parishioners and non-parishioners, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
One of the parish’s most appreciated ministries is its outreach to senior citizens and the homebound, perhaps never more critical than during this past year as many found themselves isolated from family, friends and the community due to COVID-safety protocols.
“We send cards and remembrances for their birthdays, and during the holidays. We do in-home visits, and visits to our rehab centers, where we know there are folks who aren’t Catholic but we celebrate them too,” said parishioner Anne Chiccino, who serves in the ministry.
“During COVID, we were sending bulletins to our homebound and folks in the rehab centers, and they felt very happy to be included in the parish,” she said.
The volunteers in the outreach ministry also mailed weekly letters and delivered monthly home-cooked meals, helping isolated members of the Milton community feel a little less lonely. Through a trust fund bequest, the parish also distributes thousands of dollars in food assistance each year to people who find themselves in need.
Fundraisers have helped connect the parish to the local community over the years as well, and the faithful are eager to return to those efforts as pandemic restrictions ease.
“We have a tremendous ministry of workers who do fundraisers,” Chiccino said. “We have dinners, rummage sales and a silent auction. We’re also involved in things like the town’s harvest festival and putting up a food stand in support of it.”
“We try to articulate the basic, common sense, everyday comings and goings in grace that we see in St. Joseph in everything we do,” said Father Hoke, who has served as pastor since 2012. “We have wonderful and very devoted people, and they are an inspiration to me.”
Gateway of the Faith
St. Joseph Parish traces its roots to the late 1700s, when Masses were celebrated in the homes of area Catholics, many of them Irish immigrants who worked on the canals. Soon after the turn of the century, the faithful used a log cabin Mass house, located near the site of the current parish center, for the celebration of Mass.
In 1844, the first resident pastor of St. Joseph’s, Father Hugh Fitzsimmons, undertook the building of a brick church in the town as the Milton population grew. Tragedy struck, however, with a disastrous fire in 1880 that destroyed the entire church. The parish soon purchased the land for the site of the current church, which has stood as a beacon on Milton’s “Academy Hill” since its dedication in 1883.
“This was an industrial town, and it was originally named Milltown. There were many refineries, factories and processing plants, and over the years they all went by the wayside. The parish continues to survive in spite of the lack of those industries now,” said Father Hoke.
St. Joseph Parish had a parochial school for a period of time, opened in 1955 by Msgr. Vincent Topper.
Described in Diocesan history books as the “gateway of the faith to central Pennsylvania,” St. Joseph Parish is the mother church of a number of parishes in the northern tier of the Diocese, including St. Monica in Sunbury, St. Joseph in Danville, St. Columba in Bloomsburg, St. Joseph in Berwick, Sacred Heart in Lewistown, St. Patrick in Trevorton and St. Pius X in Selinsgrove.
The parish’s history is a woven tapestry, and symbolic elements of its rich past are stitched into a historical quilt, hand-sewn by parishioners in celebration of its 200th anniversary in 2005. The 7-by-7 foot quilt includes renderings and photo transfers of the log cabin from 1812, the original 1883 church, the parishes it birthed, and the church interior.
Anne Rocktashel, director of the parish’s religious education program, helped sew the quilt 16 years ago.
“When I found out how much history was in our little church, I was just amazed,” she said. “It’s incredible that St. Joseph’s was the only church in this entire area of the Diocese until parishes branched out from it.”
The historical quilt is displayed in the parish center, a spacious facility located a mile from the church on the east side of Route 147. Dedicated in the early 1990s, the parish center is fronted by St. Joseph’s historic cemetery, and is home to religious education classes, parish meetings, fundraisers and Masses.
On June 6, Bishop Ronald Gainer celebrated Mass for parishioners there, celebrating Corpus Christi Sunday, conferring the Sacrament of Confirmation on four young men and women, and making a pastoral visit for the universal Church’s Year of St. Joseph.
St. Joseph’s Workers
“Our community likes to work as St. Joseph did,” said Anne Chiccino, noting parishioners’ involvement in ministries for children and youth, new moms, social concerns and the beautification of the parish and its cemetery.
“Each year, the parish celebrates St. Joseph with a special Mass, a parish dinner and activities. However, COVID prevented that in 2020 and 2021, so we simply had a special Mass to honor him, had St. Joseph bulletin boards, and included a special message and holy card in the bulletin,” she said.
She was born and raised in the parish, received first Holy Communion during Msgr. Vincent Topper’s pastorate, and attended St. Joseph School. “St. Joe’s has been very important in my family history,” she remarked. “My parents were well-respected members of our parish, and they instilled their love for St. Joseph’s in me.”
Jim Seksinsky is also a longtime member of the parish, as were his parents, grandparents and several aunts and uncles. At age 84, he serves as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion and on the parish council.
Some of his fondest memories are of working the cake wheel, dice roll and bingo games at the summer festival the parish held in years past.
“Many of our parishioners are outgoing and welcome the stranger in a joyful manner,” Seksinsky said. “Our fundraisers have always been well-attended by the Milton and adjoining communities because our parishioners have an excellent relationship with non-Catholics in the community.”
In fact, the welcome extended by parishioners was what drew Tracie Leitzel to St. Joseph Parish from another Christian church some 50 years ago.
“For years, I had a friend who would bring us to Christmas Midnight Mass and Easter, but when I started dating my husband, I came to church with him on Saturday nights and went to my church on Sunday mornings,” Leitzel said. “I was young when we got married, and people in my church didn’t accept that. But I felt accepted here. I felt that I was welcome here, so it’s where I stayed.”
She became a Catholic in 1978, and currently serves as a Eucharistic Minister, sacristan, dinner volunteer and in the music ministry.
“I love the church, and these people are my family,” Leitzel said. “I want people to know that we are here for anybody who comes. We accept them, we help them.”
Parishioner Stefanie Shaw began attending Mass at St. Joseph’s in 1992, the year she and her husband Tom were married. She had grown up unattached to any denomination and rarely attended services, but was drawn to the community and the faith at St. Joseph’s.
“Tom and I had two young children and we were attending church as a family, and I just had this epiphany: ‘Here I am with my family, and I want to join in what they’re experiencing at the Table,’” Shaw said.
She entered the Catholic Church in the year 2000 at age 30 and has been part of the life of St. Joseph’s in Milton ever since. The parish, she said, is an extension of her family, including its pastor, Father Hoke. He visited Shaw’s father, who was unaffiliated with any religious community, before he passed away.
“What a gift Father Hoke gave my dad in helping him get things aligned. My dad passed away at 9:30 that evening, and it was almost like he got things put into place and squared away before he left us. It was very special to me, my siblings and my mom,” Shaw said.
“St. Joseph Parish is a working church,” Shaw said. “It is a huge extension of my family, and a great group of people.”
“The Year of St. Joseph offers a very special moment for us, a time to recognize St. Joseph and how we as a Church here are already modeling his role,” she said. “I think the year is a great opportunity to showcase what we do with St. Joseph as our patron saint.”
(Photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness