History of St. Joseph Catholic Church
This is my church, not yours. This is Fr. Boeckman’s church. This is Fr. Tomas’s church. This church is now the Hispanics’ church. This church belongs to the people who built it. Doesn’t sound right, does it? The reason it does not sound right is because it is not right. In fact, here is some history to prove it.
I had a chance to read through our Centennial Book recently, and I was amazed at how obvious it is that God’s Holy Spirit has been with us from the beginning. This Holy Spirit has kept us together in spite of it all.
In 1889, Fr. Ignatius Jean, who was one of the first priests to celebrate mass in Cleveland County, found himself in the Purcell Town Square. The reason was the thousands of hopeful settlers who were about to participate in the Land Run. Fr. Jean spoke to them about the need for stable families and the sanctity of marriage, and on the rights of Native Americans. In 1899, ten years later, the initial First Communion class at St. Joseph’s had five children receive this sacrament, four of whom were Native Americans, which means they made up 80 percent of that first class. Cultural diversity has been with us from the very beginning.
So have cultural disagreements. The early Catholic community in Norman found itself in a dilemma. There was a sizable group of German settlers who wanted the new church to be called St. Joseph’s and there was another sizeable group of Irish settlers who preferred the name St. Patrick’s. When Bishop Meerschaert came to dedicate the new church in 1898, they still had not decided on a name. So Bishop Meerschaert referred to it as the parish of St. Joseph’s and St. Patrick’s. Even with our current church today, you can see evidence of this argument. In the foyer, you will find two floor icons: one of clovers, which alludes to St. Patrick, and one of lilies, which alludes to St. Joseph.
The first pastor of St. Joseph’s was John Metter. He was a young, energetic priest from the East Coast. He had a knack for raising money. This fundraising ability allowed him to secure needed monies to build St. Joseph’s and other early, metro-area parishes. Fr. Metter did so well that Bishop Meerschaert named him a monsignor, even though he was not yet 30 years old. However, later in his life, things got rough for Monsignor Metter. The Benedictine sisters pulled out of the school. The cause was their increasing difficulty in getting along with Monsignor Metter, whose already lively temper had been worsened by the passing years. The pastor became the focus of a divided parish and complaints about him were sent to the Bishop and even to the Pope.
As time continued to pass by, St. Joseph’s was never a stranger to turbulent waters. Fr. Joseph Duffy became pastor in 1960. He said, “The winds of change are everywhere. There are going to be changes in this parish, and you may as well accept it.” Then with dizzying speed, he revamped the choir, began construction of a new church hall, and bought better housing for the sisters.
He angered some parents by refusing to preach while children misbehaved in church. He mentioned this only once, pointing out there was a soundproof area near the back of the church for those who could not control their offspring. “Use it,” he said. After that one admonition he never mentioned the subject again, but when a child began acting up, he simply stopped talking, stared and waited. Sometimes the wait seemed an eternity.
It was also in the 1960s that St. Joseph’s would begin another difficult period of change with two new Catholic parishes being formed, which would impact the church’s numbers and saw it having to say goodbye to some members. St. Andrew’s in Moore became a new mission of St. Joseph’s in 1962, and the university apostolate formally became a parish in 1966; it is known today as St. Thomas More. The 1960s saw a lot of change at St. Joseph’s but I believe the last twenty years have presented St. Joseph’s with an even bigger period of flux.
The last twenty years (1994-2014)
When I first arrived at St. Joseph’s, I was sitting in the Chapel looking at the altar when I noticed the pelican for the first time. I was shocked and had no idea why a pelican would be there. Someone had to explain the significance to me. In times of great hunger and desperation, the mother pelican will tear off chunks of flesh from its own body to feed its young. The young will also drink dripping blood from the wound. The mother pelican knows what it means to sacrifice itself for those it loves. So, too, does Christ, hence the choice of this image for our altar in the Chapel. Christ sacrificed himself with his own body and we feed off his Body and Blood at the Eucharist each Sunday. I think that the mother pelican image is perfect for St. Joseph’s over the last twenty years.
In 1994, St. Joseph’s had 1,000 registered families, 950 of whom were Anglo or non-Hispanic and 50 of whom were of Hispanic origin. But then the winds of change came to St. Joseph’s yet again with three significant events.
First, in 1993, a new Catholic parish was founded in Norman named St. Mark’s. St. Joseph’s saw a significant number of its own transfer to St. Mark’s as founding members. This was the design all along, but it did not make it any easier for those who remained at St. Joseph’s and had to mourn the loss of their fellow parishioners. A mother pelican knows how to sacrifice for something significant: St. Joseph’s is that mother pelican. Being the oldest church in this entire region, St. Joseph’s was able to sacrifice for the greater good and today St. Mark’s is a vibrant Catholic community.
The next big change came one year later, when in 1994, a Spanish mass was started at St. Joseph’s. Once again, the parishioners found themselves being invited to change. Opening its doors to welcome recent immigrants from Mexico and other parts of South and Central America was not an easy thing to do. Change never is. It is human to want things to be the same and to look the same as during our own childhood. With the decision to welcome this immigrant population, that would not be the case. But once again, the mother pelican knows how to sacrifice. St. Joseph’s, the wise mother, knew that to give birth to something new, sacrifice is required. Today, that immigrant community has grown into a vibrant part of St. Joseph’s.
Then in 1995, the third major change happened with the moving of All Saints School from St. Joseph’s to St. Mark’s. St. Joseph’s had a very long history of having a school on its grounds. Giving up the school was like another death. With this move came the inevitable departure of families to St. Mark’s so that they could be closer to the school. St. Joseph’s the mother sacrificed from its very self yet again. Today, All Saints is a top-notch Catholic school.
We find ourselves twenty years removed from these events. Despite two decades of change, today St. Joseph’s still has 1,000 families. However, today 600 are Anglo or non-Hispanic and 400 are of Hispanic origin. God has been faithful.
What has kept St. Joseph’s together through more than a century of change and conflict?
Of course, the answer is Christ.
St. Joseph’s has been finding unity in Christ for 118 years. A long time. It is now our generation’s responsibility to take up this call, to continue this call.
Our unity is not found in everyone looking the same, thinking the same, speaking the same language, eating the same food or listening to the same types of music. That is not the unity we seek. No, we are united in Christ. Christ is our glory, Christ is the reason that we have hung together for over 118 years and Christ is the reason why we will still be together today and tomorrow.
This is not the Hispanics’ church, this is not the Anglos’ church, this is not Fr. Tomas’s or Fr. Boeckman’s church. This is Christ’s Church.