CHARLESTON—Harriet Bedard can remember when attending Mass at St. Joseph parish meant crowding into a small building off Belgrade Avenue that previously was a garage.
“You almost had to look up at the crucifix hanging on the wall to reassure yourself you were in a Catholic church,” Bedard said.
Those days are long gone and the St. Joseph family has been worshipping in their own church building on Wallenberg Boulevard since 1969.
But Bedard and others who have been with the parish since it started 50 years ago said those early days in cramped quarters helped form a sense of community and caring that still thrives at St. Joseph today.
On May 1, parishioners held a barbecue to kick off six months of 50th anniversary events that will conclude in the fall.
The growing Catholic population in West Ashley created a need for a new parish in the late ’60s. At the time, most people living in the area attended Blessed Sacrament Church. That parish’s territory was divided to create St. Joseph, which was established by Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler on Oct. 22, 1966. The first official liturgy was Midnight Mass, held in the former garage.
Between 1967 and late 1969, Sunday Mass was held there and weekday Masses took place at the old rectory on Wedgefield Road. Occasionally the parish also used a chapel at the former Charleston Home for Children on Ingram Road.
According to a written parish history, groundbreaking for the current church building took place in the fall of 1968. The first Mass was celebrated Oct. 5, 1969, by Father Fleming McManus, who was also the first pastor. The building was renovated between 1980 and 1983.
Father Gabriel Smith, the current pastor, arrived at St. Joseph in 1991 and began an extensive series of improvements to the property, including a new rectory on Montclair Street, new stained glass windows and Stations of the Cross, and a reconciliation chapel.
Father Smith also spearheaded the effort to build the Family Life Center, which was completed in December 1994 and holds church offices, meeting rooms, a kitchen, central conference area and a basketball court.
The parish currently has about 593 registered households and supports a wide range of activities, such as an active Knights of Columbus unit, women’s club, youth basketball league and summer basketball camp.
“There’s always something going on, and there are just a lot of very friendly people,” Diane Jaeger said. “I love the people here the best.”
Thomas Wojslawowicz, the main organizer of the anniversary celebration, said he was drawn to the parish in 2008 because of the close-knit community feeling and the variety of people who are members. He also enjoys traditional Polish customs that Father Smith introduced to the parish, including distributing oplatki, traditional wafers eaten on Christmas Eve, and the blessing of food baskets during the Easter season.
“Those things reminded me of my heritage, of the traditional ethnic parishes I used to know living up in New Jersey,” he said. “It’s those kinds of warm family customs that make this parish feel like home.”
Bedard said after 50 years the parish has also become like a second home to her. She is especially close with those who attend the 8 a.m. Mass every Sunday, a tight-knight group of mostly senior citizens who know each other so well they can immediately tell if someone is missing.
“It’s special to me to have been here from the beginning,” she said. “Worshipping anywhere is wonderful, but being at St. Joseph is special because of the people. The people make the church.”
Events to celebrate the 50th anniversary will continue each month and conclude with a closing Mass and banquet on Oct. 22.
Top photo: Miscellany/Doug Deas: Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone speaks to some of the youth at St. Joseph Church in Charleston on May 1. The parish began the commemorations of its 50th anniversary with Sunday Mass, and celebrated its future with the sacrament of confirmation.