April 20, 2012

Easter liturgy marks final Mass at St. Joseph Parish in Universal

Members of St. Joseph Parish in Universal attended Mass at their church for the last time on Easter Sunday. (Archive photo)

Members of St. Joseph Parish in Universal attended Mass at their church for the last time on Easter Sunday. (Archive photo) Click for a larger version.

By Mary Ann Garber

St. Joseph parishioners in Universal gathered as a faith community for the final time to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord on Easter Sunday.

The 8 a.m. eucharistic liturgy on April 8 was the last Mass at the 92-year-old Vermillion County church located at 270 E. Wood Ave.

St. Joseph Parish is one of four small Terre Haute Deanery parishes that were designated for closure by the archdiocese last year to best use the Church’s resources and achieve vibrant ministries in the west-central Indiana deanery.

St. Leonard of Port Maurice Parish in West Terre Haute was closed on Nov. 19, 2011, and parishioners were welcomed at the nearby St. Mary-of-the-Woods Parish in St. Mary-of-the-Woods.

St. Ann Parish in Terre Haute will be closed on May 20, and Holy Rosary parishioners in Seelyville will celebrate Mass at their church for the final time on Oct. 12.

Father Joseph Villa, administrator of St. Joseph Parish and pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Clinton and St. Joseph Parish in Rockville, had asked the archdiocese to keep the 53-household parish open until Easter. The parish was originally scheduled to close on March 18.

In an Easter letter to St. Joseph parishioners, Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, apostolic administrator, noted that “Christ is always with us no matter where life takes us. As you celebrate the final Mass at St. Joseph [Church] and you renew your baptismal promises, I ask that you look to the future.

“The closing of your parish brings some pain and sorrow, and I thank you for the dignified manner in which you have carried out this difficult task,” Bishop Coyne wrote. “I especially thank Father Joe Villa for his ministry and care for you.

“For more than 90 years, the people of St. Joseph’s have been faithful Catholics, formed by the Word of God and the sacraments, [and] eager to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with their neighbors,” the bishop said. “We give thanks today for all those ancestors who have gone before us.”

In 1917, Father Clement Thienes, a priest from St. Mary-of-the-Woods, began ministering to the hundreds of people settling in the area to work at nearby coal mines. He celebrated Masses at Marietta Hall, the second floor of Joseph Marietta’s building, in Universal until the approximately $2,500 church building project was completed three years later.

“This small, white chapel that opened in 1920 has been a constant in the lives of many families who have experienced plenty of economic ups and downs over the decades,” Bishop Coyne noted. “I thank you for your unwavering faith. I’m sure that over the past few weeks you have looked back at important moments in your lives that have taken place in this church, whether it was a baptism, a wedding, a first Communion or a funeral.

“Be grateful for those memories and the blessings of the past,” he urged the parishioners, “and take all those memories with you to your new parish homes where a blessed future is awaiting you. I know the people of your neighboring parishes, especially the parishioners of Sacred Heart Parish in Clinton, are ready to welcome you with open arms.”

A Journey of Faith, the history book published for the sesquicentennial of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in 1984, notes that St. Joseph’s first parishioners were truly universal. These 26 families had immigrated from a number of countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and South America to begin new lives in the “coal-rich fields of Indiana.”

Bishop Joseph Chartrand was the principal celebrant during a Mass of Dedication for St. Joseph Mission Church in 1920.

During the liturgy, Bishop Chartrand paid tribute to “the many Catholics of Clinton and St. Mary-of-the-Woods for their cooperation and help in making the building possible.”

Originally tended as a mission by Sacred Heart Parish in Clinton, the small faith community was also administered by St. Patrick Parish in Terre Haute from 1921 until 1925, when it was placed under the care of the chaplain at the Gibault Home for Boys in Terre Haute.

When coal mines in the area were closed in 1927, the population of Universal declined significantly, but St. Joseph Mission managed to survive the economic problems at the time.

From 1926 until 1946, St. Joseph Parish was administered by several parishes in Terre Haute then in 1947 was placed under the authority of Sacred Heart Church in Clinton with Father Bernard Shea in charge.

In June of 1945, Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter celebrated the 25th anniversary Mass of Thanksgiving at the mission church.

An interior renovation of the church in 1950 included the installation of stained-glass windows to cover the clear glass panes as well as a cross hand-carved from one piece of wood that was used in a Passion Play in Germany before it was acquired by Father Robert Wilhelm.

Modern conveniences also were added during the renovation, which retained the beauty and simplicity of the original church design.

Fifty years after the first Mass at the church, parish membership had grown to 57 families.

Archbishop George J. Biskup was the principal celebrant for the parish’s 50th anniversary Mass on Sept. 5, 1970.

When the parish marked its 75th anniversary in 1995, Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein was the spiritual leader of the archdiocese.

Like a Mustard Seed Growing, a history of the archdiocese from 1834 until 2009, noted that the pastors of Sacred Heart Parish in Clinton also ministered to Catholics in Universal because St. Joseph Parish never had a resident pastor.

“The parishes have cooperated in offering religious instructions, and in welcoming parishioners’ weddings and funerals,” the story noted. “Because St. Joseph children must attend public school, their religious education is given on Sundays [at] the Universal Town Hall.”

Throughout its faith-filled history, “this church has been a place—a home away from home—to meet God,” Bishop Coyne noted in his letter. “But on this Easter Sunday, we are reminded that our true home is found in God and is not contained by any walls. … As you continue on your faith journey, you can be assured of my prayers.” †

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