Built on faith, three times

Celebrating 250 years, St. Joseph Church has a rich and interesting history

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  • St. Joseph Church, circa 1932

  • Photo by Ginny Raue Interior of St. Joseph Church. This is the third church building, replacing the 1887 structure that burned down in 1904.

  • This stained glass window in St. Joseph Church depicts the betrothal of Mary and Joseph. The stained glass windows, made in Innsbruck, Austria, were installed in the third and current St. Joseph Church in 1905. Photo by Ginny Raue

  • The choir loft in St. Joseph Church. The pews on the left are reportedly from the church that burned down in 1904, some of the very few items saved from the fire. The organ is no longer in use, age unknown. Photos by Ginny Raue

“Fourteen months ago I was a Macopin for the first time. At that time the church resembled a barn.”
1840 letter by Rev. John Reffeiner
A view from the school house in 1904
“It was about noon; Mrs. Haley, the teacher for all eight grades, looked out the window and saw the blazing church. She told us children that the church was on fire and to go tell someone.”
Ethel Kochka, life-long parishioner, (deceased), from an undated, unnamed newspaper article.
When the current church was built in 1905:
There were 8,000 cars in America
The average wage was 22 cents per hour
The average life expectancy was 47 years
Financial Statement of St. Joseph Church for 1904
Reported receipts - $1,236.13
Expenditures $1,086.42
Running in the black with a balance of $149.71
St. Joseph’s Cemetery
Exact date of establishment is unknown
One of the earliest markers: Jacob Struble, 1770-1857. Older stones exist but are undecipherable
Veterans from the War of 1812, Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korean War, Vietnam War and the Iraq War rest in St. Joseph Cemetery.

In this year when St. Joseph Church begins to celebrate its 250-year jubilee, The West Milford Messenger is taking a look at the history of this, the oldest Catholic parish in New Jersey. This is the second of two parts.

The year was 1829 and under the direction of the pastors of St. John’s Church in Paterson (est. 1820) the Catholics at Macopin were about to get what they had longed for. It was time to build their church.

A dispute arose, however, among the congregants as to what style it would be: “boards” or log? The “log party” had the lead but only until a Wanaque gentleman pledged a donation on one condition, that it would be a “board” structure. It’s said that money talks, and evidently did so in the 1800s, and the “board party” emerged victorious. It didn’t take much to sway the decision – the promised donation was $10.

The first church was erected in the area of what is now known as the historic section of the church cemetery, between the St. Joseph grotto and a boulder marked with a pioneer plaque. It appears that this church was dedicated to St. Luke, rather than St. Joseph. When or why the name was changed remains a mystery.

The rustic little church was dedicated in November 1829 and was served by priests from Paterson and New York City. The congregation of approximately 100 was made up of the German settlers and their descendants and a few “late-comers” described as decedents of Hessian prisoners of war who had been granted permission by George Washington to work in the iron mines and settled at Macopin at the close of the war.

Here is the church, here is the steeple….

The “board” church outlived its usefulness and by 1887 a larger church was erected where the current church now stands. Unfortunately this structure burned to the ground in 1904, reportedly caused by a “testing fire” of the furnace.

Following the fire, a fund drive was held to build yet another church. Records indicate the contributions ranged from 25 cents to $330, the larger amount is thought to have paid for the church bell and the side altars. The total cost of the church, “with furniture,” was $8,500.

A cornerstone for the third and current church was installed in May 1905. It contains the names of the 349 parishioners and relics of the second church; a portion of the bell, the altar stone and the keys that had opened this house of worship for the people of Macopin until 1904. It’s been said that the pews in the choir loft today were pulled from the blazing church and that little else was rescued, despite the courage of the people who ran in to save what they could.

The beautiful stained glass windows that grace St. Joseph Church today were installed in 1905, a product of Innsbruck, Austria. Early photographs of the exterior of St. Joseph’s show that the projecting entry portion of the church was added sometime later. It’s reported that formerly a temporary “shed” was attached to the front of the building each winter to preserve heat. The painting over the altar depicting the death of St. Joseph appears in photos dating back to at least 1930.

Open the doors and see all the people

In 1880, St. Joseph Church was a mission church attached to St. Anthony’s in Butler and under the direction of Franciscan priests. It wasn’t until 1944 that St. Joseph’s became a canonical parish in its own right, part of the Diocese of Paterson and Franciscan Rev. Berard Vogt became the first pastor, though not in residence.

The Franciscans maintained a 120-year presence at St. Joseph’s and oversaw many changes within the parish until the departure of Rev. Boniface Hanley, O.F.M., in 2003 when the parish was handed over to the spiritual guidance of the priests of the Diocese of Paterson.

The congregation increased over the years and there were changes to the church property as well. In 1956, St. Joseph School was built where the Echo Lake School house once stood and became an educational center for many local children until its closure in 2006. The convent and rectory were built several years after the school and the cemetery has seen several expansions.

In 1956, the Sisters of Charity arrived to teach in and administer the school. The convent did not yet exist so the sisters lived in several converted classrooms. After the departure of the Sisters of Charity in 1985, two Presentation Sisters arrived to serve, and they continue to serve the parish; Sister Janet Brisky, P.B.V.M., pastoral associate and Sister Geraldine Corio, P.B.V.M.,director of Faith Formation.

Rev. Steven Shadwell, the current administrator, is the third diocesan priest to shepherd the congregation at St. Joseph Church. Shadwell came to St. Joseph’s in 2009 and will lead the congregants through the celebratory year.

“The spirit of our ancestors is very much alive in the parish today; that staying capacity, the ability to love, the identification the parishioners have with St. Joseph Church as their spiritual home. They are very comfortable, they work hard and they stand by St. Joseph’s come what may,” he said. He said he feels honored to be administering the parish at this moment in time.

“This is going to be an exciting year with many beautiful things planned. It will be a year of grace and rejoicing,” Shadwell said.

This is a year of looking back at its history and forward to many more years of people coming together under the roof of the little white country church at Macopin.

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