Tuesday, April 9, 2013

St. Joske's

In my reading about this church in downtown San Antonio, I came across an article entitled "St. Joseph's Church Evokes its German Past," by Abe Levy (mysanantonio.com/news/religion/article/St-Joseph-s-church-evokes-its-German-past-919646.php). Its story about the survival of this church brought a smile to my face as well as an acknowledgement of the determination of its devoted parishoners.

Long before a mall nearly surrounded it, St. Joseph Catholic Church was strategically built on the eastern edge of town near a booming residential district of German immigrants.

But that was the late 1800s when Masses were said in German and the city's modern suburbs were nameless countryside.

Today, at weekday Masses the church enjoys waves of downtown workers and out-of-town visitors who hail the historic structure as a treasured, sacred icon.

Yet its location also constrains the parish.

In the hub of hotel, convention and tourist activity, the parish has seen declines in membership. It went from 836 registered families three decades ago to 341 today, according to the Archdiocese of San Antonio. Parish leaders estimate about 100 families are active.

To reinvigorate life, a new priest took over two years ago and has teamed up with lay leaders to rev up volunteerism, try new programs and brainstorm ideas to raise funds and widen the reach of the 142-year-old landmark.

In 1868, construction began on what was the city's fourth Catholic parish.

German immigrants replicated the spiritual experience of their homeland and created a cultural center.

It had an elementary and high school for 60 years. Some of the city's largest and oldest parish societies were started to support the parish and charities. The San Antonio Liederkranz Choir still sings monthly at Mass.

But there were few founding members left in the early to mid 1900s. Their children moved to suburbs and newer parishes nearby. Commercial growth began to explode around the parish. Meanwhile, the congregation also kept a lower profile during World War II because of the stigma created against German Americans.

In 1944, Joske's of Texas bought the church-owned St. Joseph College a couple of lots away and later made an offer as high as $200,000 to buy the church property, according to the parish history book. The church unanimously refused the deal. (As a result, St. Joseph Church stands today and is known as the "Jewel in the Heart of San Antonio," encircled as it is by the new RiverCenter Mall—the reason for the parish's enduring nickname, St. Joske's.)

Still, by staying put, the parish also would struggle for parking and fellowship space.

The St. Joseph society had a property across the street and later a few blocks away used as a parish hall.

But because of HemisFair plans in the 1960s, the hall was relocated to its current site on the southern edge of downtown. The church, which is now a mile away, holds religious education classes there.

For social gatherings, including its yearly German Mass in May, the church pitches a tent in its tiny parking lot. Year-round, volunteers stand ready after Mass to validate parking tickets in a deal with Rivercenter Mall.

To purchase parking or meeting space nearer to the church would require millions of dollars, said church leaders, who declined to say how much its yearly operating budget is or is in its parish preservation fund.

Father Marzocchi is there to usher in visitors from around the world every day who leave noisy, crowded sidewalks and streets before entering a tranquil setting inside.

Archways painted with gold and rose hues cover the ceiling high above that is buttressed by eight, grand pillars. The thick wooden pews face a sculpted relief of the Last Supper under a magnificent altar wall full of Gothic spires and saintly icons. There are 20 major statues in the sanctuary, lit dimly to accentuate the 108-year-old stained glass set in limestone walls.

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