History and State of St. Joseph Parish
Beginning in January 1878 Father Joseph Strub, C.S.Sp., the Provincial Superior of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost Fathers in the United States, came to Arkansas for the first time. Five months later, with the permission of Bishop Fitzgerald of the Diocese of Little Rock, he opened a mission. Father Strub made a deal on behalf of the Holy Ghost Fathers with the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad which gave him land in the following counties: Faulkner, Conway and Pope. By 1879, Father Strub along with two priests, several brothers, and others had built a church and a rectory in Conway, AR. The first church, like the entire colony, was consecrated to St. Joseph and placed under his special mark.
Before St. Joseph had its first church in 1879 there were Catholics living in the area. The first Catholic family to arrive here, not long after Faulkner County was organized in 1873, was the Jacob Schichtl family. By 1876, the Schichtl family was joined by other Catholic families – Jacob Erbach, Edward Lachowsky, Joseph Schneider, John Weber, V. Wurtzelbach, and H. Rappel. The spiritual wants of these few people were attended to by a secular priest, Father Brehm, who sometimes traveled from Little Rock to Fort Smith and ministered to the Catholic families en route. The first Mass said in Conway was offered on an improvised altar in the house of Jacob Schichtl that was located on the Lewisburg Road one mile east of Conway.
About the time the first church was being built, the Hiegel, Balmat, Nahlen, Henze and Simon families settled in Faulkner County. The first resident priest of St. Joseph was Father John Willms, C.S.Sp., and he was accompanied by Brothers Leo and Genes. The first church was a frame building, 60 by 30 feet with an 80-foot bell tower. Bishop Fitzgerald blessed this church on February 23, 1879. For this occasion there was a special train from Little Rock, which brought the Bishop, priests, Cathedral Choir and visitors. In 1880 Father Strub wrote a guide book for Catholic emigrants called “The Guiding Star” for the St. Joseph Colony. This book explained everything one would need to know to travel from Europe to the St. Joseph Colony in Arkansas. Catholics were leaving Germany (Prussia) in large numbers in the 1870’s. The Iron Chancellor, Prince Otto Von Bismarck, pushed through policies which systematically discriminated against Catholics in the new German state. Beginning with the expulsion of Jesuits from Germany in 1872, a series of laws known collectively as the Kulturkampf, or cultural struggle, struck at Catholic liberties and institutions. Things were at their worst for German Catholics at the time this booklet was written. There was a steady flow of settlers now from Poland, France, Switzerland and many from Germany. Soon the number of Catholic families had increased to 90.
The history of the first catholic school in Conway, AR began in 1881. Father Strub, pastor at that time, contacted the Sisters of St. Joseph, Cluny, France. A plot of land was procured for the school on the Northeast corner of Deer and Locust Avenue. A deed was received from Sanford Robinson to Reine Bafard, Sister Mary of Jesus, Superior General of the Sisters of St. Joseph, for the sum of $700.00. The purchase was made on the 8th day of January 1881. A two story building was constructed on the corner for white children, with living quarters for the Nuns. A small building on Deer Street was built for black children. Most of the money for the school construction and operation of the school came from Cluny, France. Three Sisters arrived to run the school. They were Sr. Emilien Kearney, Sr. Mary Sainie Adeltrude Brophy, and Sr. Mary Sainte Edburge Brady. They struggled with the school for several years, but due to low attendance, fire, drought and storms, were forced to close in 1896 and the nuns left. The land was sold on December 2, 1904 for $100.00, plus back taxes.
Because of the severe drought of 1881, followed by a typhoid epidemic, the number of Catholic families was reduced from 90 to 60; for many died, others became discouraged and left Conway for Little Rock, while still others moved to different parts of the United States.
Father Charles Steurer, C.S.Sp. was the pastor during these trying and arduous times, having been appointed in 1879. Father Steurer encouraged the remaining people to persevere. Their homes thus brightened, they wrote to relatives and friends persuading them to come to Conway. The result was that many more migrated from France and Switzerland. Just as things were apparently going well with the little mission, a terrible tornado passed through Conway in 1883 and destroyed the Church. For the remainder of the year, Mass was said on the porch of the rectory while the people stood in the yard to assist. For the construction of a new church, Father Steurer went to Europe and recruited the assistance of the Leopole Nerein in Austria and the Bonafatius Verein in Germany. The new larger church contributed to the permanent growth of the parish. However, the quick succession of pastors gave evidence of trying times. Despite adverse circumstances, Father Charles Laengst, C.S.Sp., who returned as pastor in 1898, reopened the school, which had been closed for lack of financial support. With lumber from the old school four blocks away, Father Laengst, erected St. Joseph’s Hall on the Church grounds. Here a school was reopened with some 30 pupils and with Miss Catherine Herbert as teacher. Later the same year the first convent was built. Father Laengst then applied to the Motherhouse of the School Sisters of Notre Dame for some Sisters to teach in the school. His request was granted, and on October 29, 1898 the first three School Sisters of Notre Dame arrived. Classes began November 17, 1898 with an enrollment of 20 pupils. The parish took on a flourishing aspect under the faithful guidance of Father Laengst. However, the toil, anxiety, and superhuman work caused him, in his exhausted condition, to fall a victim to fever which caused his death September 5, 1899. He was the first priest buried in St. Joseph Cemetery.
For the next eight years, Father Andrew Feger, C.S.Sp. was in charge of the parish during which time the two side altars were erected in the second church. He was succeeded by Father Peter Zell, C.S.Sp., who was pastor for fifteen years.
In 1908, Father Zell came to Conway and immediately began to plan for the enlargement of the property, and to that end he erected a beautiful parish hall and cleared the church of the heavy debt. Father Zell a large man, physically and mentally, and gifted in languages, preached three sermons at each Sunday Mass in French, German and English.
In 1912 the School Sisters of Notre Dame began the School Bazaar. In March 1924, Father Joseph Pobleschek, C.S.Sp., became pastor. In 1926 the St. Joseph Hall burned down. Burning embers from the compress where the fire started, were carried by high winds, which destroyed the Hall. Father Pobleschek immediately began rebuilding it, having completed the third church at St. Joseph which was started in 1924. This new church was erected at a cost of $50,000. The laying of the cornerstone of this church took place November 23, 1924 and was dedicated a year later, December 13, 1925. To match this church, the old school was razed and Spiritan Hall constructed in 1926. To complete the church plant, a new convent was erected in 1930.
Father Anthony Lachowsky, C.S.Sp., the first native son to serve as pastor of his home parish, began his duties here in 1934. In 1936, he enlarged the grade school, repainted the church in 1944, and had the interior decorated in 1947. He then planned the building and organized the drive that later culminated in the St. Joseph High School. The highest peak of Father Lachowsky’s administration in Conway was the foundation of the Church and School of the Good Shepherd for the Black people in 1948. To complete the church plant two Notre Dame Sisters opened the two-room Good Shepherd School. Miss Caroline Favre and Theresa Siebenmorgen gave of their services in teaching at the school. In 1950, two Benedictine Sisters graciously undertook the teaching at the school.
Another native son, Father Henry Thessing, C.S.Sp., succeeded Father Lachowsky in 1950. Although weakened in health from his missionary work in Africa, he shouldered his responsibilities, one of which was the construction of the new high school. He had the pleasure of seeing the cornerstone laid, but did not live to see the building completed because of a fatal heart attack. Father Thessing died February 8, 1951.
In March 1951, Father Anthony Lechner, C.S.Sp. came to Conway as pastor. St. Joseph High School was completed and was dedicated by the Most Rev. Albert Fletcher, Bishop of Little Rock, on September 30, 1951. In 1955, he erected a convent for the Benedictine Sisters at Good Shepherd School. While helping with the landscaping of the grounds around the newly-erected convent on August 17, 1955, Fr. Lechner sustained a fatal heart attack.
Father Sylvester Dellert, C.S.Sp. was appointed pastor in September 1955. During his first year the gym was erected. In 1965, the Good Shepherd Kindergarten program was initiated for all parochial children regardless of race or status. Mrs. Patsy Bruich organized it. In 1966, a rectory was erected. Father Dellert served faithfully for 14 years and died on February 21, 1969.
Father Martin Conroy, C.S.Sp. in 1969 succeeded Father Dellert as pastor and continued to modernize and expand the parish facilities. In 1970, with positive thinking of the future by Father Conroy the property west of the railroad tracks owned by George Schichtl was purchased. Also that year the School Sisters of Notre Dame were withdrawn from St. Joseph Junior and Senior High School. In 1971, the St. Joseph Elementary School was renovated and expanded and that same year the Sisters of St. Joseph assumed the High School teaching and duties. In 1972, the Notre Dame Convent was remodeled and redecorated. In 1973, Father Joseph Behr, C.S.Sp. was appointed pastor. In 1974 St. Joseph School Board conceived the idea of the St. Joseph School Endowment, which became a reality in 1976. In 1979, the School Sisters of Notre Dame began phasing out their sisters of the elementary school due to a shortage of personnel and the same year the Sisters of St. Joseph felt the call to new fields of endeavor and left the high school.
In January of 1983, Father Joseph Deniger, C.S.Sp., became pastor of St. Joseph Church. He immediately recognized the needs of the school and the parish and began to address them. Father Roger Duffy, C.S.Sp., was pastor from 1986 to 1988 followed by Father Michael Carr, C.S.Sp. A new elementary school was erected in 1989. Father Wayne Epperley, C.S.Sp., became pastor in 1990. In 1993, the former Constantine family home was purchased for the use of after-school care. The school uniform policy for all students at St. Joseph Schools was also initiated. The parish was growing very fast and established the largest building program in the history of St. Joseph. An 1,100 seat new church was built next to the existing one, which was remodeled to serve as a chapel. The school gym was transformed into a parish hall/school cafeteria. A spacious Family Activities Center became the new home of the school’s athletic teams. All of this was completed by 1995. St. Joseph also was blessed with the establishment of around-the-clock Perpetual Adoration. St. Joseph School was bursting at the seams. The neighboring Ellen Smith Elementary School was in the process of closing and the Friends of St. Joseph negotiated the purchase of the property with the financial help from the St. Joseph Endowment and Charitable Trust. This property was renamed St. Joseph Primary School. These buildings and grounds were dedicated by Bishop J. Peter Sartain in September 2000.
Some history of the first St. Joseph Church was returned to the “Gathering Area” (now the Baptistry) of the church. The painting of St. Joseph with the Christ Child hung in the St. Joseph Church, Conway, AR, 1879. When the church was destroyed by a tornado on April 14, 1883 the painting was blown out of the church and was found undamaged leaning against a tree. For many years it hung in the St. Joseph Convent. With the nuns departure in 1979 they entrusted the painting to the rectory for safe-keeping. In 1994, the painting was restored to its original state. On St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, 1996, the painting was returned to the St. Joseph Church.
The parish also began to see an increase in its Hispanic population. Father John Yates, C.S.Sp., was assigned to St. Joseph to assist with the Spanish speaking parishioners. He celebrated the Mass in Spanish and attended to their other sacramental and spiritual needs. Upon his departure from St. Joseph after 2001 the Mass in Spanish was celebrated for the next few years by the new pastor Father Tom Byrne, C.S.Sp. (2001), Father Brandon Nguyen, C.S.Sp., Father Joseph Nguyen, Father John Brown, C.S.Sp., or a visiting Carmelite Priest. From 2008 through 2009 Spanish speaking services were primarily conducted by Deacon Arnold Hernandez, C.M.
When Father Byrne accepted the position as pastor in January 2001, he found that the parish had a serious financial problem. He was forced to make cuts in personnel and budget in order for the parish to survive. He established a business plan for the parish, which enabled it to grow. In January 2002 the debt of the previous building program was paid off. Also in the same year, the St. Joseph School Endowment and Charitable Trust, with the support of the parishioners began a three-year pledge/drive for $2,000,000 to pay off the Ellen Smith Property and set aside monies for a Maintenance Trust for the School. The property was paid off in June, 2004.
Under the leadership of Father Byrne a new residence for the priests was constructed off campus. The former rectory was converted to administrative offices for the church. Father Martin Conroy, former pastor at St. Joseph and Senior Priest in residence, died on August 15, 2004, a week before moving into the new residence.
The Precious Memory Walkway was completed (October 2007) during Father Byrne’s final year as pastor of St. Joseph. The walkway extends from the entrance of the St. Joseph Cemetery to the large crucifix in the center of the cemetery. One foot on each side of the sidewalk has been stained and divided into 12 x 16 inch rectangle bricks. Originally, the bricks were set aside for memorializing “Pre-Term” losses. In 2009 it was decided to open up the available bricks to any parishioners who would like to memorialize a family member or friend.
Due to health reasons, in June 2007 Father Byrne returned to the Holy Ghost Fathers Provincial House in Houston, TX, but continued to serve as pastor of St. Joseph until the arrival of a new pastor, Father George Spangenberg, C.S.Sp. in February 2008.
Under Father Spangenberg, the Tabernacle was relocated to the sanctuary of the church and the sanctuary was refurnished. The chapel was repainted and recarpeted and serves as the Chapel for Perpetual Adoration and prayerful meditation. The former Gathering Area was repainted and recarpeted and serves as the Baptistry, housing the Baptismal Font previously in the sanctuary and the fourteen paintings displaying the “Stations of the Cross”. Two new rooms have been added to the Baptistry, one serving as a robing room for the Altar Servers and housing of materials for the Church Ushers and the other as the Mass Preparatory Sacristy. In 2009, the wrought iron fence which surrounded the perimeter of the cemetery was extended to include the south end and west side of the church and elementary school yard.
In June of 2010, St. Joseph Church made the transition from the supervision of the Holy Ghost Fathers to the care of the Diocese of Little Rock. After over 130 years of Spiritan guidance, Father John Marconi was assigned by Bishop Anthony B. Taylor as the first Diocesan Pastor of St. Joseph and Monsignor Richard Oswald was designated as Associate Pastor. In the fall of 2010, Father James Melnick joined the parish, as well. Monsignor Oswald was reassigned in June of 2011 after a year of service to St. Joseph. Fr. Melnick served the parish until he was reassigned in 2012. Fr. Joseph Archibong joined St. Joseph in 2012 and served as Associate Pastor until 2014. In 2014, Fr. Archibong was reassigned and the newly ordained Fr. Robert Cigainero joined the parish.
During his tenure, Father Marconi reinstated the Pastoral Councils and commissions to help advise the pastor on the many issues facing the parish. In 2012, the parish completed a five-year plan which included a directive to develop a campus master plan. Parish leadership began extensive planning for the long-term infrastructure needs of the community. This process included surveys and public meetings to discuss the future of the campus. These identified several priorities for the parish, including additional meeting space, additional restrooms in the church and chapel, covered drop-off at the church, and upgrading the current facilities.
In January of 2015, the parish engaged Guidance in Giving to conduct a feasibility study regarding the possibility of remodeling Parish Hall and Spiritan Hall versus tearing them down and building new facilities in their place. This process solicited input from all parishioners and at the end of the study a new plan emerged based on the feedback received.
The plan called for a new multipurpose building located next to the church replacing the Parish Administration Office, Parish Hall and Spiritan Hall. The new two story building will provide space for parish offices, classrooms for Faith Formation (PRE), additional meeting space for parish groups and organizations, additional education space, additional kitchen and dining space for church and school events, stage/auditorium space, and more bathrooms for church. Also, the removal of the existing Parish Hall would allow for increased parking and beautification and the new facilities will increase square footage in the prime location on campus. It will also offer increased parking and provide a covered drop off for church, which was the top priority identified in the feasibility study.
Parish leadership kicked off the Growing our Faith Capital Campaign in the spring of 2016 and there has been strong support for the project. The parish has nearly completed the $10 million project. In the midst of this large campaign, Fr. Marconi and Fr. Cigainero were reassigned in 2016. Fr. Tony Robbins was appointed as the new Pastor and is now leading the parish. Fr. Alfhones Perikala and Fr. Mariadass Vallapaneni were assigned as the new Associate Pastors. In January of 2017, Fr. Vallapaneni was reassigned. Fr. Rajasekhar Chittem was assigned to the parish in June of 2017 as associate pastor. In June of 2018, Fr. Perikala and Fr. Chittem were reassigned. Fr. Jeff Hebert was assigned as associate pastor in July of 2018 and Fr. Chandra Kodavatikanti was assigned as associate pastor in August of 2018.
Fr. Robbins, Fr. Hebert, and Fr. Kodavatikanti are working with the parish leadership to continue the wonderful progress that has been made and to further develop the faith community at St. Joseph.
From a small number of Catholic families in 1879, the parish has grown to over 1,800 families in 2018, with a Catholic membership of over 5,000. This membership has an average age of 36 years, with 22 percent (total of 1,064) of it consisting of children and youth from 6 through 18 years of age.
St. Joseph Catholic Church, Conway, AR has experienced a rich and diverse history through the years and with the help of its parishioners and priests is looking forward to serving the Catholic community for years to come.