Next month, St. Joseph Parish — which already has the honor as the first Catholic faith community in the Paterson Diocese and New Jersey — will mark another historic distinction: as the location of the first Catholic Mass within the boundaries of what later would become the Diocese of Paterson.
WEST MILFORD This past Saturday, Bishop Serratelli concluded celebrations for a milestone of truly superlative proportions both historically and spiritually: the 250th anniversary of St. Joseph Parish here, which encouraged the faith community to explore its legacy as the “The Cradle of the Catholic Church in New Jersey.”
The rural Passaic County parish holds the distinction of being the oldest Catholic faith community, not only in the Paterson Diocese, but also in New Jersey.
Bishop Serratelli was the main celebrant and homilist of the 5 p.m. Mass March 14 in St. Joseph Church, filled to capacity, to celebrate a watershed moment: the end of yearlong 250th anniversary observations that enabled the Passaic County parish to revisit its rich missionary and pioneer history. That day, the bishop also dedicated a new lectern in honor of St. Luke, the first parish’s original namesake.
Guided by the anniversary theme, “Daring to Practice Our Faith for 250 Years,” St. Joseph’s looked back at the German immigrants, who founded the Catholic settlement that would become St. Joseph’s, upon their arrival in the U.S. in 1765 — and would become what is believed to be N.J.’s oldest faith community, according to Msgr. Raymond Kupke, diocesan archivist and pastor of St. Anthony Parish, Hawthorne. From those humble beginnings, St. Joseph has grown to a parish of 800 families, who also used this landmark anniversary to celebrate its faith-filled present and bright future. Msgr. Kupke was a concelebrant of the Mass March 14 along with Father Sigmund Peplowski, a former pastor of St. Joseph’s, who is now pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus and St. Cecilia parishes in Rockaway.
“We are proud of the strength of the mothers and fathers who founded St. Joseph’s without much equipment [or infrastructure],” said Father Steven Shadwell, St. Joseph’s pastor, about the anniversary, which opened with a Mass by Bishop Serratelli last March. “Today, there is still a strength of spirit and great love at St. Joseph’s. The people are so easy to minister to. They see this as their parish, not just a church that they go to. They are heirs to a great history and they intend to propel it forward,” he said.
Today, parishioners “dare to live their faith” through St. Joseph’s broad spectrum of spiritual ministries, including religious education for young people and the popular Generations of Faith program, which provides faith formation across generations. On Sundays, children, who attend the 10:30 a.m. Mass are encouraged to leave the worship space during the Liturgy of the Word for some age-appropriate religious instruction and return to their families for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, said Father Shadwell.
St. Joseph’s parishioners also bring their faith out into the community through many social ministries, including its food pantry, and many outreaches to the poor and the homebound, the pastor said.
Over the last year, St. Joseph’s celebrated the anniversary through a broad range of activities. These included the publication of a cookbook, a pictorial calendar and reminiscences by parishioners in the bulletin; a Christmas concert; a parish picnic; a visit to the faith community’s mother parish, St. Joseph Church, Philadelphia; the opening of a time capsule from the parish’s 225th anniversary; and historical presentations on St. Joseph’s, including one by Msgr. Kupke. Also, St. Joseph’s participated in a town “history road rally,” which encouraged participants to answer questions about local history by visiting various local sites for clues, including the parish. St. Joseph’s will continue anniversary observances with the publication of a photo directory and the burying of a new time capsule, Father Shadwell said.
St. Joseph’s long history of faith begins in 1764, when Peter Hasenclever, a German merchant, began working for an English mine in the area of Ringwood and Greenwood Lake. He invited workers from his homeland to come and settle here; their families soon followed. These families became the founders of what would become St. Joseph’s, where many of their descendants now worship, the parish history states.
In time, Jesuit Father Ferdinand Farmer, also born in Germany, was the first missionary to muster up the courage to ride by horse through forests and over trials along the Delaware River from his parish, St. Joseph, Philadelphia, to West Milford. In between Father Farmer’s twice-yearly visits, these pioneers would gather together in the homes to pray, according to the history.
“St. Joseph’s has a missionary history that is typical. Priests were few and far between, so the parishioners kept the church going by praying and teaching the faith,” Father Shadwell said.
After Father Farmer’s last visit to Macopin in 1786, no Masses were celebrated in the area for 25 years, yet the faithful continued to pray and catechize, according to the history.
The year 1829 saw the building of the first church, which was originally dedicated to St. Luke, not St. Joseph. In 1887 a larger church was built, but was burnt to the ground in 1904 in a fire, caused by an accident that involved the furnace. That church was replaced by the current structure today, which opened in 1905 and contains many relics and pieces salvaged from the second church, the parish history states.
Back in 1880, before the fire, St. Joseph Parish was considered a mission church, part of Anthony Parish, Butler, and was administered by Franciscan friars, who remained at the parish for 120 years. These friars included Father Mychal Judge, former pastor from 1979 to 1985, and chaplain of the New York City Fire Department, who died in the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center on Sept. 1, 2001.
Over the years, St. Joseph’s also completed other buildings, including a rectory and convent, and expanded the cemetery several times. In 1956, the Sisters of Charity arrived to administer the parish school, which opened that year. In 1985, the Sisters of Charity left, ushering in the arrival of two Presentation Sisters, Sister Janet Brisky, pastoral associate, and Sister Geraldine Corio, director of faith formation, who still minister at the parish.
Other changes to St. Joseph’s included the Franciscans returning the parish to administration of the Paterson Diocese in 2003 and the closing of the school in 2006.
One active parishioner and staff member, Mary Beth Ferriola remembers arriving in West Milford with her family in 1989 and immediately starting to attend St. Joseph’s. She first joined the Moms & Tots program and got increasingly more active in the parish over the years. Also, her children were graduated from the former St. Joseph School. Today, she serves as the parish business and cemetery administrator and chaired its anniversary committee.
“The people at St. Joseph’s are down-to-earth, kind and giving people. It’s a warm, welcoming atmosphere here,” Ferriola said. “The anniversary celebrations taught us that parishioners are hungry for more than weekly worship. They want more activities where they are gathered together in social settings. They [these activities] have strengthened our sense of community,” she said.