CHEHALIS - The twists and turns in the early history of Chehalis are intertwined with those of St. Joseph Parish, like the rivers that flow into this fertile bottom land.
Rush, Lonergan, Donahoe, Schwarz, Shreitzer. These are among the names of those who laid the foundation for this Western Washington Catholic faith community, which marks its 125th anniversary this year.
The parish was established under the patronage of St. John the Evangelist in 1889 by Bishop Aegidius Junger in the city then known as Saundersville.
Eliza Barrett was an Irish immigrant to the United States who worked as a waitress at Fort Vancouver. She later became a Chehalis landowner who donated land for construction of a Catholic church and school. Photo: Courtesy Lewis County Historical Museum
A foggy history
Creation of the parish coincided with a rapid population increase in the region and in the Diocese of Nesqually, which at the time encompassed 70,000 square miles. Partly due to completion of the railroad link with the east, and mirroring growth in the region, the Catholic population grew from 12,000 in the 1870s to 42,000 by Bishop Unger’s death in 1895. During that time, the number of Catholic churches and chapels in the diocese increased from 23 to 82.
Little else is certain about the establishment of this Catholic faith community. For instance, scant mention can be found in official records of Eliza Tynan Saunders Barrett, an important figure in the development of Chehalis and what was to become known as St. Joseph Parish.
One local history credits her with building Chehalis’ first Catholic church in 1889, presumably St. John the Evangelist, a wood-framed structure at Prindle and St. Helens Avenue. It also says she built a Catholic boarding school for girls in 1895. But her name is largely unrecognized by St. Joseph’s present-day parishioners.
Perhaps it was her irregular marital status — she had eight children and was married four times, widowed, deserted and divorced twice — but Barrett is scarcely mentioned in parish records. And her contemporaries among the city of Chehalis’ founders — thwarted in their own development plans by her tight grip on more than 300 acres in the former town center — did their best to expunge her name from the city’s history, according Julie McDonald Zander, author of the local history “Chapters of Life in 1915 Chehalis.
Like many mission churches, many details of St. Joseph’s beginnings are shrouded in the fog of history. What is known is that the first Masses were celebrated in Chehalis in 1888 and 1889, by Father Emil Kaulen and Father James McGreevy, respectively.
The first church building was constructed on land deeded to the diocese by Barrett when the city of Chehalis, now the county seat, was in its infancy. And although archdiocesan records indicate that Bishop Junger established St. John the Evangelist as a parish in 1889, no pastor was assigned until Father Gustave Achtergael was appointed in 1892. He served until 1901. Perhaps as a result, the parish marked its centennial year in 1992.
In 1923, Father Eugene Duffy, who served as pastor from 1922-1926, pleaded with Bishop Edward O’Dea to change the name because the parish’s mail was often “misdirected.” Bishop O’Dea agreed. In a letter dated Feb. 29, 1944, explaining the name change to the diocesan chancellor, Father Duffy said, “Sometimes inquiries for baptisms and marriages intended for me would be sent to other churches,” because a Lutheran and an Episcopalian church in Chehalis were also named St. John.
In 1922, after more than three decades of growth for the city and parish, Father Duffy had started a capital campaign to accommodate the growing parish, and in 1923 he oversaw the construction of a building that became the new home of the school and church at Sixth and McFadden. Although the auditorium of the school was designated a temporary church, it served as the parish liturgical space until the current church at Sixth and Cascade Avenue was dedicated by Bishop Thomas A. Connolly on June 12, 1960.
August Clara, the original church bell named for two of the parish’s founders, was installed in the new church’s bell tower, where an usher still rings it by hand before weekend Masses. The church is adorned by stained-glass windows imported from Holland. Statues, including one of its namesake, were imported from Italy. The sanctuary is crowned by its marble altar from Ireland, and the church’s red oak pews were crafted by monks from the Trappist monastery in Lafayette, Ore.
Father John McLaughlin (1972-1984) is among the longest-serving of St. Joseph’s 20 pastors to date. Father McLaughlin was made administrator of the parish in 1971 and the next year was appointed pastor. He remained in that role until 1984 and today stays active in the parish as a weekend assistant.
Asked what he remembered about his time as pastor of St. Joseph, he said simply, “A lot of good memories.” Father McLaughlin recalled with a laugh that one of his first acts as pastor was to give students a day off school, “much to the chagrin of the principal and parents.”
He said the parish school has persevered over many financially challenged years, including his 13 years as priest and pastor. “We never had anything done commercially in the school. We had big work parties,” he said. Tuition payments were required only from those who could afford it.
Father McLaughlin said Dominican Sister Dorothy Berg “was really the mainstay of the school at that time.” Sister Dorothy, who according to the parish’s centennial history led St. Joseph School for 24 years, was the last of the Edmonds Dominican sisters to lead the parish school.
In 1895, five Dominican sisters first arrived from New York to serve at the parish at the invitation of then-St. John’s first pastor, Father Achtergael. They took on the task of teaching the school’s 40 students. The Edmonds Dominican Sisters provided continuous direction to the school (initially named Holy Rosary Academy) until 1992, when Sister Dorothy retired.
St. Joseph School remains a vital part of the West Lewis-Pacific Catholic Churches, a community of six parishes shepherded by Father Tim Ilgen. Enrollment, however, remains a challenge. With roughly 150 students, Father Ilgen said, “We’re on the rebound. It dipped, but we’re building it up slowly.”
Originally named Holy Rosary Academy, St. Joseph School dates back to 1895, when five Dominican sisters from New York operated a boarding and day school for 40 students. This photo dates around 1910. Photo: Courtesy Lewis County Historical Museum
The parish today
Father Ilgen, who was appointed St. Joseph’s pastor in 2010, says that in 2014 the parish of 530 households is about 30 percent Hispanic, and a Mass in Spanish is celebrated on Sunday afternoons in addition to English Masses on Saturday evening and Sunday morning.
He said that the timber industry played a large part in the early economy of the area, while today farming and the nearby Alberta-based TransAlta power plant are among the area’s largest employers. That may present a new challenge to the community over the next 15 years as the plant, which employs 300, will shut down the first of two coal-fired burners at its Centralia plant in 2020. A second will stop burning coal five years later.
Although the company has plans to convert the Centralia site to cleaner-burning natural gas, a natural-gas facility would employ far fewer than the coal plant, where workers now earn an average of $88,000 a year.
Just as in the earliest days of the region’s settlement, flooding remains a constant threat to the property and well-being of the community. “The flood in 2007 was a pretty significant moment,” Father Ilgen said. A coastal gale flooded the Chehalis River, destroying local buildings and property and closing a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 5.
Father David Mulholland, St. Joseph’s pastor from 2006-2010,“spent several months trying to help people affected by the flood, so that was a major event in the history of the church,” Father Ilgen said.
As the parish looks back on its 125-year history, it is also looking forward to its mission of service in Chehalis and the surrounding communities. In a recent pastor’s letter, Father Ilgen wrote of his parishes’ involvement in the third annual Lewis County Day of Service, in which the parishes joined the local Latter-day Saints church to serve the community.
In keeping with the community’s and St. Joseph’s self-reliant tradition and character, Father Ilgen wrote: “We realize that if we want our communities to look good and be well taken care of then we have to do our part in keeping them this way.”