The History of St. Joseph Church
by Gretchen Gearhart, 2002
As the people of St. Joseph Parish, Fayetteville, Arkansas, moved to a new home on Starr Road in August 2002 after 130 years on Lafayette Street, it seems appropriate to look back to their beginnings and tell the story of the Catholic community in Fayetteville from 1844 to the present, of the valiant priests and lay people who served the church as it developed from the small Irish community of worshipers to a thriving multi-cultural parish of more than one thousand families.
On March 10, 1844, the year after the creation of the Diocese of Arkansas, the ordination of an Irish-born priest, Andrew Byrne, as Bishop of Arkansas took place at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Soon after, he and two priests, Fathers John Corry and James Donahoe set out for Arkansas by way of New Orleans, arriving in Little Rock on June 4.
Not long after their arrival Bishop Byrne sent Father Corry to Fort Smith to build a church. Father Corry was a man of independent means, having been a merchant in Boston prior to ordination. While stationed in Fort Smith, he traveled over the
According to a 1925 history of the church in Arkansas, “His ambition was to establish an Irish Catholic colony, with Church and school as center.” He built a log chapel on the land which was in use until the Civil War. When Father Corry learned that Bishop Byrne planned to locate the church and college he envisioned at Fort Smith instead of Fayetteville, “he felt a bitter disappointment and went back to New York.”
On January 12, 1847, Father Corry deeded over the land to Bishop Byrne for the sum of $1.00. Settlement of the land by Irish families had begun in 1846 with the arrival of the William Flynn family. The bishop made additional land purchases in 1854 and 1856, making his total holdings 630 acres, all near what is now Mission Boulevard and Crossover Road.
The earliest recorded baptisms in Fayetteville were performed by Father Peter Walsh in 1847: William, son of slaves Bob and Alera, and Judith, daughter of Kate, a slave, on February 15. Five days later Father Walsh baptized Alira (Alera?), a forty-five-year-old slave, and her daughter Miranda, and on December 5, Augustus Merrill, legitimate son of James Merrill and Elisabeth Dixon. A man named J. B. Costa sponsored the slaves. Would that more were known about these people. One wonders if they were accepted by the Irish families and attended Mass in the log chapel.
Priests from Fort Smith served the Fayetteville area until 1881, making the arduous trek over the mountains by horseback. Father Laurence Smyth was the first to make regular visits. Beginning in 1857 he came two to four times each year, with the exception of the Civil War years, when there were no visits by a priest for four years. Diocesan records show Father Laurence Smyth as the first priest assigned to St. Joseph’s Parish (1870-1872), followed by his brother, Father Michael Smyth, (1872-1880).
The visiting priests celebrated Mass first in the log cabin on the Flynn property and later in the Flynn home until a frame church was built at the corner of Lafayette and Willow, on a plot of land purchased by Maurice Coffey for $100 and donated to the church. Bishop Edward Fitzgerald dedicated the church in June 1878. At this time the parish, which had been know as St. Mary’s or Mount Saint Mary’s, was named for St. Joseph. This church building served until 1936.
Father P. J. Reilly of Boston was St. Joseph’s first resident priest. Until a room was built for the priests adjoining the church, the Byrnes family gave him a room and the Coffeys, his meals. Fr. Reilly served only from 1881 to 1883. After that priests were in residence only intermittently until after World War I.
The first Catholic cemetery in Fayetteville is a plot on the Flynn farm not far from the log house that served as a chapel. William Flynn and his wife and two Coffey children are buried here. Later Patrick Hennessey, one of the early settlers, donated land for the cemetery on Highway 45 which is still in use.
Father Pietro Bandini, the founder of Tontitown, served Fayetteville in 1899-1900, 1906, 1909, and 1911-1914. Father Bandini established a parochial school, St. Joseph’s Academy, in Fayetteville in 1916 under the guidance of Ursuline Sisters from
The historical record is not clear regarding the parish property at Lafayette and Willow. The frame church dedicated in 1878 faced Willow Street. In 1885 a small room added to the frame church provided living quarters for the priests. A. M. Byrnes built a house for the priests south of the church in 1888. In 1920 this rectory was remodeled for use as a school and living quarters for the sisters. This building was later moved to the east, facing Lafayette, now site of the school playground.
With the laying of the cornerstone for a new edifice on the corner of Lafayette and Willow on July 18, 1936, St. Joseph’s parishioners rejoiced that the congregation would soon have a more comfortable house of worship. The completed building was dedicated by Bishop John B. Morris on November 8, 1937.
Vivid in the memory of longtime members of St. Joseph’s is the tragic fire which took the lives of the pastor, Father Charles McCauley, and a visiting priest, Father Dollarton, on Christmas Eve 1946. Father McCauley was ill with influenza, and the night was extremely cold. An explosion in an overheated gas stove started a fire. Ellen Coffey and her family were at the scene before the fire engines arrived. The housekeeper, who lived downstairs, tried to save the men, but rescue was impossible due to the intensity of the flames.
In 1948, after more than twenty years without a school, under the leadership of Father Francis J. McKee the parish acquired a residence on the corner of Lafayette and Walnut and opened a school there with 39 pupils taught by Benedictine sisters from St. Scholastica in Fort Smith. [From this beginning, the school continued to grow, until] an all-day kindergarten with teachers Susann Heckel and Lois Heckel gave support to the school for about seven years beginning in 1955, as many non-Catholic parents enrolled their children.
When in 1969 their request for raises was denied, the Benedictine sisters announced their intention to leave. It is said that Father Maloy could not accept the Benedictine sisters’ decision to abandon their traditional habits and thereafter was less open to their needs. The Franciscan Sisters of Wheaton, Illinois, joined the teaching staff in 1971. Four lay teachers were also on the staff. In the years following, enrollment dropped below acceptable levels, and the school’s continuance was in jeopardy. Parishioner Fred O’Baugh led the effort to bring two Franciscan Brothers [of the Holy Cross, from
The pastor with the longest term of service to St. Joseph was Father Edward R. Maloy, who arrived on January 1, 1951, and served until 1973. Under his guidance the parish built both the old school (313 E. Lafayette) and church (Corner of Lafayette and Walnut). Possibly the building of the church on Lafayette and Walnut was Father Maloy’s most challenging undertaking. Bishop Albert L. Fletcher dedicated the church on Sunday, September 22, 1968.
Rev. Leo Reidmuller (1973-1975) succeeded Father Maloy and was by all accounts a much loved pastor. However, he served only two years. His successor was Rev. Rudolph E. Maus (1975-1993). Father Maus had been pastor briefly in 1939, when he was twenty-four years old and newly ordained. Father Maus, later Monsignor Maus, served until his retirement at the request of Bishop McDonald in 1993. “A thrifty German who took no salary, cut the grass, and shoveled snow,” he is also remembered as a fine storyteller who loved to fish and tend his vegetable garden behind the rectory. During his tenure the parish was able to pay off its mortgage on the church.
The year 1993 brought major changes to St. Joseph Parish. Following Msgr. Maus’s retirement on June 1, St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish and St. Joseph combined under Father Mark Wood, who was already pastor of St. Thomas. By August 1994 St. Thomas and St. Joseph separated. In October 1994 St. Joseph’s Parish purchased a 2500-square-foot house on Hillcrest Avenue for $115,000 to serve as a rectory, thus providing the pastor a home removed from his office with space for visiting priests or other guests. Other properties owned by the parish include the former rectory at 310 Sutton Street, which was renamed Holy Family House, and a duplex at 346 Willow Avenue, Guardian Angel House, which were used by the school and for parish activities.
The Pastoral Council took a major step in December 1995 when it accepted a long-range plan calling for purchase of land and construction of a new church and fellowship hall. That plan was refined by the Core Team and a capital campaign was planned for Fall 1998. In May of 1998, Fr. Mark Wood was sent on retreat and the parish was administered by a pastoral team for the short term until the arrival of Fr. John Antony in August 1998. Having determined that it would be nearly impossible for the parish to support a two campus complex, in February 1999 Father John Antony presented to the Parish Council a new proposal from the Core Team to build a combination worship center, parish hall, school, and parish offices with seating for one thousand at an estimated cost of $3 million. Hight-Jackson Associates were the architects for this phase. A campaign in the fall of 1999 under the direction of Kara Rago to raise $2 million in pledges toward the cost of construction of a Worship Center and Educational Center
The Educational Facility consists of 20 classrooms for St. Joseph’s School including classrooms for music, art, computer lab, and the library for grades kindergarten through seven, as well as a pre-kindergarten class for four-year-old children. Additional rooms will house the parish offices and provide space for parish activities.
Parish obligations in the area of social justice were a continuing concern. St. Joseph's is well regarded in the Fayetteville community for its continuing financial support, volunteer hours, and regular food collections for various outreach programs. The parish has also increased its efforts to respond to the needs of mentally challenged members.
As large numbers of Hispanic people began moving to the area, the Northwest (Arkansas) Deanery took steps to serve the many Catholics among them. In 1994-1995 the Deanery arranged for Vincentian priests to move to Northwest Arkansas to minister to Hispanics. All parishes in the Deanery share in the expenses for this ministry. Vincentians who served include Father Rex Hays, Father Tom Stehlik, and Father Miles Heinen.
Father Antony spent less than a year in Fayetteville, however, as Bishop Andrew J. McDonald sent him to the Catholic University of America in
St. Joseph Church held its first Masses in the Worship Center
The move to the new location after 130 years on the same ground was wrenching for some parishioners. Most, however, were grateful for the commodious worship space, the generous parking lot, and a school with space for all its programs. (Here ends the official history by Gretchen Gearhart)
Of special note is the ministry of Fr. James Fischer, CM, who upon retirement as Provincal of the Western Province of the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians), chose to come to Northwest Arkansas. Though never formally appointed, Fr. Jim 'adopted' St. Joseph Parish and celebrated many Masses, attended Scripture study and counseled any who sought him out. Fr. Jim spent most of his vocation as a Theology Professor. A scholar of Biblical Studies, he authored books and commentaries. Due to health, he left in 2004.
Fr. Paul Worm concluded his service to the parish, which numbers 1300 families, in early August 2006. Fr. Thomas “Tom” Marks arrived on August 21, 2006, appointed as ‘Temporary Parish Administrator’ by Msgr. J. Gaston Hebert, acting Diocesan Administrator. Our Diocese has been 'cede vacanti' (without a bishop) since June 2006, when Bishop Sartain departed to lead the Diocese of Joliet, IL.
Msgr. Hebert appointed Fr. Bradley "Brad" Barber, a married priest of the Archdiocese of Corpus Christi, TX as our parish administrator. Fr. Brad arrived with his wife, Jody, and four children in June 2007. With less than half of one percent of all diocesan priests in the U.S. being married clergy converts ordained by papal approval, Fr. Brad brought his rare vocation to St. Joseph.
The parish continues to grow, surpassing 1500 families. The mortgage on our 2002 facility is satisfied in October of 2007. Proudly, three parishioners Norm DeBriyn, Grant 'Mike' Henry and Marcelino Vazquez, are accepted into the diaconate. Each will be ordained as a permanent deacon in the Summer of 2012. With out growth and ministry needs, expansion plans begin on the Norm and Caroline DeBriyn Activity Center and Classroom Addition.
Fr. Brad concluded his service to our parish in August 2009. In October 2009, after a decade away, Fr. John K. Antony returned to shepherd our parish following his appointment by Bishop Anthony B. Taylor, who was ordained as our Bishop in June 2009.
During the fall of 2009, the national economy slipped into a recession, though Northwest Arkansas is less affected. Our building project is put on hold, as Fr. John gets reacquainted with the parish and we await optimism in the local economy.
In October of 2010 Fr. Ravi Gudipalli, an ex-tern priest from the Diocese of Nelore, India was assigned as associate pastor to assist Fr. John with pastoral duties. St. Joseph has not had an associate pastor in nearly two decades, since 1991 when Fr. John Marconi came to assist Msgr. Rudolph Maus (due to health) in 1991.
In January of 2011 we receive Diocesan approval on a scaled down version of the original 2009 plan. Construction of the $3.000,000 DeBriyn Family Life Center began in March of 2011. Bishop Taylor dedicated the 20,870 square foot building, with full gym and reception hall, concessions, conference room, office and 6 classrooms including music and art, on February 21, 2012.
Fr. Ravi Gudipalli was assigned to Booneville and Waldron as we bid him farewell on June 3, 2012. Early this year, Fr. Larry Heimsoth, a married priest from the Diocese of Austin, along with his wife, Beverly, retired to Fayetteville. Fr. Larry offered his assistance to Fr. John. With Fr. Ravi's reassignment, and our additional Sunday Youth Mass, Fr. Larry became a regular on the Mass schedule.
In April of 2013, Fr. Les Farley was assigned as priest-in-residence. He is here in an interim capacity to serve as needed. About this time, Fr. John Antony asked Bishop Taylor to allow him to discern a calling to the Carmelites, to pursue the contemplative life. On August 5, 2013 Fr. Shaun C. Wesley, formerly of Eureka Springs and Berryville, was assigned pastor. Fr. Shaun has a strong background in Liturgy and has directed the liturgies for major diocesan events such as ordinations and regional Rites of Election.
The parish debt on the DeBriyn Center was paid off in January of 2014, two short years after it was dedicated. We are truly blessed with generous parishioners. The next project in the long range plan is a new sanctuary.
Fr. Les Farley was formally assigned as associate pastor in July of 2014. At the same time, Deacon Mike Henry was appointed administrator to Our Lady of the Ozarks in Winslow, while continuing to assist at St. Joseph.
As the parish strives to minister to more than 1800 families, Fr. Shaun is ready set the parish's sights on a new sanctuary. We continue to look to God's will for our future and the ongoing mission of St. Joseph Parish in Northwest Arkansas.
Priests serving St. Joseph Parish:
Rev. Laurence Smyth