Survives and Thrives for 125 Years
By Brad Bugger
for the Idaho Catholic Register
POCATELLO – What does it take to maintain a historic church? The parishioners of Holy Spirit Catholic Community in Pocatello would tell you it takes a lot: a lot of hard work, a lot of good for-tune, and a lot of goodwill on the part of a lot of people.
St. Joseph’s is the oldest standing and still-operating Catholic Church in Idaho, consecrated on Dec. 19, 1897. Continued use of the Gothic Revival style chapel has faced a number of challenges over the years, including deteriorating external walls, a “bulging” bell tower, leaky flashing, and, perhaps, the biggest threat to the long-term well-being of the building – the prospect of a new, larger parish church.
Now celebrating its 125th anniversary, the building has survived all those challenges, and recent inspections indicate the building will be structurally sound for an-other century or more. And if Paul Yochum’s experience is any indication, the building will remain an essential spiritual gathering place for the foreseeable future.
Yochum, who came to Pocatello in 1993 with his wife Judy, purchased a historic home in Pocatello right across the street from St. Joseph’s. He’s always had a vested interest in ensuring the landmark church was properly cared for. That interest was reinforced when Judy passed away in 2019.
“I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to come into a church and see people you know and recognize and say hello to,” Yochum said during a presentation on the history of St. Joseph’s Church last summer. “And when I lost my wife, the people who responded to me the most were sitting in this church.”
Yochum is one of many Holy Spirit parishioners who invested their time, skills, relationships and money to ensure St. Joseph’s remains an important spiritual home for Pocatello’s Catholic community. Their devotion to the church reflects that of the priest who first oversaw its design and construction and invested his own time, money and relationships to see it completed – the Rev. Cyril Van der Donckt. Father Cyril was a Belgian-born priest who first came to Pocatello at 23 and whose original parish ranged from Montpelier on the Utah border to Idaho Falls, about 135 miles north to south.
Father Cyril Van der Donckt
Father Van der Donckt, who received a special dispensation from Pope Leo XIII to be ordained 20 months before the mandatory age of 24, arrived in southeastern Idaho in 1888 – two years before Idaho became a state, four years before Pocatello became a city, and five years before the Diocese of Boise was formed.
After naming his new parish after the patron saint of his home country, Van der Donckt and his parishioners purchased property for a Catholic school, which would open three years later when four Sisters of the Holy Cross arrived in Pocatello to run the school. Then, Father Cyril purchased three lots for the new church with $730 of his own money.
Father Cyril envisioned constructing a stone church in Gothic Revival style, measuring 40 by 90 feet and seating 240 people. He enlisted the services of Frank Schmidt, who is believed to have been a parishioner, as the architect. The late Dr. La-Vonne Mills, a St. Joseph’s parishioner who extensively studied the history of the church, believed that Schmidt was assisted in his design work by Charles Frederic Hummel, the Boise architect who designed the Idaho Capitol building, St. John’s Cathedral in Boise and dozens of other Idaho Catholic churches.
Father Aleksander Dembowski celebrating Mass at St. Joseph’s Chapel, September 2023 (Courtesy photo/Jessica Gallegos)
Excavation for the church began in 1896. Sandstone for the exterior walls was quarried on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation and was donated by the Department of the Interior, with the consent of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. This would become an important point to note when deterioration of the exterior walls threatened the continued use of the church. More on that later.
The total cost of the construction and furnishing of the church was about $10,000, according to Dr. Mills, who presented the church’s early history last summer. In a pattern that has been repeated through-out the history of St. Joseph’s by other patrons, Father Cyril used his connections and persuasiveness to obtain a significant donation from the local railroads, who were turning Pocatello into a major railroad hub around the turn of the century.
The impressive stained-glass windows for the church were created by Povey Brothers of Oregon, known as the best in their craft in the Pacific Northwest. The glass was imported from Europe and assembled in Portland.
According to Dr. Mills, the pews, still in use at St. Joseph’s, likely came from Nichols Strayhan in Portland, and the First Presbyterian Church in Portland probably inspired the design.
St. Joseph’s church served as the “pro-cathedral” for the Diocese of Boise until the cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Boise was built. A pro-cathedral is a parish church that temporarily serves as the cathedral of a diocese.
Bishop Alphonsus Glorieux and Father Cyril believed in the “pay-as-you-go” approach, so the furnishing of St. Joseph’s occurred gradually. In 1900, three bells from the Stuckstede Foundry in St. Louis arrived via the railroad. Named after the apostles Peter, James and John, each bell was tuned differently and weighed different amounts. Peter weighed 1,000 pounds; James, 800; and John, 500. Bishop Glorieux came to dedicate the bells, washing them with holy water, then anointing them with oil. The cost of the bells was $660.
In 1905, the pipe organ was installed. Tells-Summerhof Organ Co. of Erie, Pennsylvania, manufactured it. A $1,000 gift from the Carnegie Foundation helped pay for the organ, with the remaining $1,200 raised by the women of the parish.
Father Cyril left Pocatello in 1921, but his influence on the development of St. Joseph’s continued even after his departure. In 1923, the Gothic-style altar was installed, which included depictions of the Last Supper and the Stations of the Cross. The parish secretary at the time said she ordered the Stations of the Cross from Belgium, as directed by Father Cyril, who paid for them himself.
As the years rolled by, two main factors threatened the continued use of St. Joseph’s – changes in society and the natural degradation of the sandstone caused by weather, gravity and time.
Societal changes, which contributed to a paucity of nuns, led to the closure of St. Joseph’s School in 1968 and its eventual sale. The lack of priests, meanwhile, led to the consolidation of the three former Catholic parishes in Pocatello: St. Joseph’s, St. Anthony’s and St. Paul’s. The new combined parish entity was named Holy Spirit Catholic Community, and its three churches were thereafter designated “chapels.”
As the parishioners of Holy Spirit grappled with the impacts of consolidation, they considered building a new church and school on Pocatello’s West Bench and closing and selling St. Anthony and St. Paul chapels. The plan for St. Joseph’s envisioned only special occasion usage, like that for weddings or funerals.
A fundraising campaign began, land was purchased on the bench for a new church and school, and St. Paul’s Chapel was sold. The St. Joseph’s School sale proceeds were primarily earmarked for the new church and school project.
At the same time, Mother Nature was taking a toll on the aging St. Joseph’s structure. As early as the mid-1940s, concrete was added to reinforce the bell tower. In 1989, further reinforcement of the bell tower occurred, which included adding bolts to the structure.
In addition, there was visible degradation of the sandstone that covered the exterior walls, partly attributable to the addition of stucco to the church’s back (west) wall. The plaster would not allow the stone to “breathe,” which caused the stone, made from volcanic ash, to turn to clay.
In the 1990s and mid-2000s, outside consultants were brought in to assess the stability of St. Joseph’s Chapel. They concluded the facility was still structurally sound but made several recommendations. The bells were no longer rung for a period of time because of concerns that the vibration would further damage the bell tower. Later inspection showed the bell tower was surprisingly sound, and the bells could resume ringing. Then, the focus turned to the west wall and its deterioration, the flashing near the bell tower that allowed water to penetrate, and the restoration of the church interior, helping it better resemble its 1930s look. The St. Joseph’s Restoration Committee was formed in January 2007 to renew the chapel.
While the restoration effort was getting off the ground, Holy Spirit Community was still raising money for the envisioned new church and school. With the focus on a new church and the possibility of reducing the use of St. Joseph’s Chapel to special occasions, the committee had to convince parish leaders of the value of restoring the old church.
With Fr. Cyril-like ingenuity and trading, Yochum worked with the Shoshone-Bannock tribes to obtain sandstone cut from the original quarry. That stone was used to repair St. Joseph’s bell tower, buttresses and lower walls. The stone used to restore the chapel’s back wall was brought from a quarry in Boise that had also supplied the construction needs of St. John the Evangelist Cathedral.
Good fortune also shone on the restoration project. Pocatello happened to have two master stone masons, Mike Katsilometes and Mike Hayden, who were able to tackle the significant stone restoration project. “Think of the cost if we would have had to bring them in from somewhere else,” Yochum noted.
Meanwhile, restoration committee member Susan Swetnam secured two grants from the Idaho Heritage Trust program for $12,000 to assist in the restoration. Inmates at the Idaho State Women’s Prison in Pocatello did much of the woodworking, which included a baptismal font and a railing in front of the altar.
The late Dr. Mills was a persuasive fundraiser for the project, and $40,000 was raised in five months. The late Karen Sloup, who had extensive arthritis in her hands, personally wrote thank-you notes to every contributor to the project.
When all was said and done, all the statues and the altar were restored, a new furnace was installed, the west wall was refinished, the bell tower doors were repainted, a new baptistry was made, and fire and smoke detectors were added.
About $58,000 from the sale of St. Joseph’s School was re-directed to the chapel restoration. In addition, Holy Spirit Pastor Enrique Terriquez permitted some donors to the new church project to re-direct their gifts to St. Joseph’s restoration.
Eventually, the idea of building a new church and school was abandoned, the property on the west bench was sold, and the proceeds were used for upgrades at the St. Anthony Chapel campus.
“We spent $139,761 (on the St. Joseph’s restoration) – and every contractor gave us a break,” Yochum said. “The original bid of $90,000 for the west wall was reduced to $70,000. The building was rendered structurally sound for another 100 to 200 years.”
A little later, Holy Spirit parish also provided St. Joseph’s Chapel with easier access to the rectory, where new bathrooms were built, as the 125-year-old church had no running water.
“There were many contributions by a lot of people,” said Yochum. “There was no debt, and we repaired this church for a long time.”
Fr. Emil Parfiniuk, current pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Community, invites anyone interested in seeing St. Joseph’s outside of the Mass schedule to contact the parish office.
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