Steeped in history, Shelton's St. Joseph Church moves forward
When the 100th anniversary of St. Joseph Church was celebrated at a Mass in October 2013, a principal celebrant was Archbishop Peter Gerety, 102, who grew up on Oak Avenue, just two blocks from the church.
Gerety was very likely present as a 2-year-old at the dedication of the church in 1913, said Monsignor Christopher Walsh, pastor of St. Joseph Church on Fairmont Place, just off Coram Avenue.
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This article begins a series on houses of worship in Shelton that will highlight a different institution every few weeks.
The centenary “was a wonderful day,” Walsh said, and Gerety’s presence is an example of the continuity of Shelton’s oldest Roman Catholic parish.
“It’s a very stable parish,” Walsh said, and it’s not unusual to conduct the funeral of someone who was baptized in the parish as a child.
St. Joseph Parish was established before the church was built — in 1907, under the leadership of the Rev. Daniel A. Bailey.
The first Catholic Mass was celebrated in Shelton in April 1906 in Arcanium Hall in the Pierpont Building on Howe Avenue, and later in Clark Hall on Howe Avenue.
A temporary building was completed on the current church site in February 1907, Walsh said. The cornerstone of the current church building was laid in August 1907, and the building was dedicated in 1913.
Church hall renovated
The church’s centenary also celebrated a $1.1-million renovation of the church hall that took place from 2011 to 2013.
The project included modernizing the kitchen and meeting hall, and adding a modern elevator and a new air conditioning and heating system.
The church itself seats 380 people, and has stained glass windows brought from Austria in 1906. There are 2,200 registered church members.
The present rectory has a history of its own. It was a private home built in 1875 by one of the region’s factory owners, Walsh said.
“He would take a horse and buggy to the office,” he said, and a covered carport originally used for the buggy was still on-site in the late 1970s.
“This was the suburbs,” Walsh said.
The rectory, a large Victorian house, was built before electricity was common, and a pump organ that sits in the foyer was formerly used in the church.
A changing parish
Despite its stability and historical presence in the community, St. Joseph is undergoing changes that have characterized the region.
“We have the only Spanish Mass offered in the Valley from Bridgeport to Waterbury,” Walsh said. “Ten percent of the parish population is Latino.”
Walsh, 60, who has served as pastor since July 2005, and the Rev. Rolando Torres, 36, who recently joined the parish as a full-time priest, are bilingual.
Before coming to Shelton, Walsh served as vocation director of the Diocese of Bridgeport and said he found speaking Spanish “extremely helpful” in that capacity.
Torres was born in Bridgeport and grew up in Puerto Rico. He previously served at St. Mary’s Parish in Stamford.
He surmises that one of the reasons he was assigned to St. Joseph was because of a need for service in the Latino community.
“There’s a lot of work to do,” Torres said, and he’s involved with the senior high youth group and the Latino youth group.
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Read about St. Joseph's mother church in the Valley:
Despite his work with Spanish-speaking parishioners, Torres is associated with the whole parish, Walsh said, and that parish is diverse.
There’s also a growing Philippine and Albanian population, and parishioners have Portuguese, Italian, Polish, Irish, French African, and Vietnamese backgrounds.
“It’s fascinating to see the cultural diversity,” said Walsh, noting the church hosts an international dinner in November.
A Mass in Spanish
The Spanish Mass is celebrated at noon on Sundays, and about 200 people attend.
There’s also a traditional English-speaking Mass at 12:15 p.m. and parishioners mingle at the coffee hour that follows.
There are a total of eight Masses celebrated each weekend, including two on Saturday evening and six on Sunday.
A welcoming place
Based on an annual census taken in October, between 1,300 and 1,400 people worship at St. Joseph’s on the weekends, Walsh said.
“We try to reach out,” he said. “The word ‘Catholic’ means universal. It’s important for me to be welcoming for those who wish to be disciples of Jesus Christ.”
Brad Smythe has served as a deacon since 1993. “I like this parish,” he said. “My family considers it their home.
“There’s a true diversity in the parish,” Smythe said. “We have a number of people from various parts of the world. Welcoming is something we’ve always been good at.
“We’re trying hard to welcome those returning to the church or moving in to town. We want them to truly feel welcome and feel the strength of spirit.”
Smythe runs the weekly meetings of the Sons of St. Joseph, a men’s ministry. “We pray together, and there’s a study component,” he said. “We feel it serves a need to help men with their spirituality.”
“Two things characterize the parish,” Walsh said. “It’s an extremely active parish and it’s a friendly and welcoming church.”
There’s a Rosary Society, a women’s devotional group, and a Bible study group conducted in English and Spanish.
A parish carnival takes place around Memorial Day each year and is open to the community.
The religious education program serves 300 students from the area, Walsh said, and from 70 to 90 students receive their first communion in May.
Boy Scout, Cub Scout and Girl Scout troops meet at the church, and in addition to the senior high and Latino youth groups, there’s a junior youth group and a young adult group for 18- to 29-year-olds.
The young adult group includes college students and recently married couples who meet to socialize and take part in Bible study.
About 80 altar servers include young people ages 10 to 17. “Hundreds of kids are impacted by St. Joseph’s,” Walsh said.
St. Joseph School
And still more young people are educated at St. Joseph School on church grounds.
In the 1920s, the sisters of St. Joseph expressed interest in teaching in a school, Walsh said, and eventually moved into the building next to the church that had served as the original rectory. That building became a convent.
St. Joseph School was completed in 1928 and the first class graduated in 1932. “The 82nd graduation occurred this year,” Walsh said.
The ties between church and school are close. “We say Masses for the children once a month,” Walsh said, and he takes a class weekly to the chapel that’s attached to the convent.
The students take religion classes and school families participate in parish activities such as the Lenten fish fry that takes place on Fridays during Lent.
Stephen Anderson is the new principal of St. Joseph’s School and was formerly principal of Central High School in Bridgeport.
“We’re delighted to have him,” Walsh said.
Tradition of outreach
“We emphasize outreach,” Walsh said, and an effort is made to bring adults back to the Catholic Church.
“The largest single religious group is Roman Catholic,” he said. “The second largest religious group is former Catholics, who now are either searching or don’t fully identify with a Catholic parish, or have become Protestant or agnostic. It’s a very fluid religious environment in the United States today.”
A total of 22 people took part in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults at St. Joseph’s this past year, Walsh said.
The rite is a process for prospective high school age or adult converts to Catholicism and takes place between September and April.
A liturgy takes place at Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night when the initiates receive baptism and First Communion.
St. Joseph’s outreach responded to the tragic shooting death of Kristjan Ndoj, 15, earlier this year in Shelton. The church conducted a funeral Mass and a reception.
“He was buried from here,” Walsh said. “We reached out to the family. Our hearts went out to them.”
The focus on being a welcoming church extends to “families who are really in need,” Walsh said. “That’s when the church can be there in a real way. That’s where it counts.”