Bonnie Elberson
Freelance Writer
September 14, 2016 // Local

St. Joseph’s fosters vibrant faith community in Wells County

Bonnie Elberson
Freelance Writer

Parishioners of St. Joseph Church, Bluffton, feel a close connection to their parish and support a variety of parish ministries.


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BLUFFTON — St. Joseph Church has been the only Catholic church in Wells County since its founding more than 140 years ago. “We’re a minority,” said church secretary Michelle Paxton, naming several other denominations which outnumber Catholics in the Bluffton area. Still, the parish is a vibrant community of worshippers who gather for Sunday Mass, daily prayers and recitation of the rosary. St. Joseph’s, with its 230 registered families, draws many parishioners to its organizations and boasts a faith-filled outreach to the surrounding community as well.

The pastor, Msgr. Pius N. Ilechukwu, is a native of Nigeria who has been in residence since 2013 and is enthusiastic about the area. “I like this place,” he said. “This is a lovable parish, with good people … very generous, very kind.”  His observations are borne out by the spirit of cooperation and involvement among parishioners of all ages.

Paxton echoes his sentiment. “What’s really nice about a small parish is that everyone helps … It’s amazing, the love we have in this parish.” She is also director of religious education and heads up a five-member team of instructors for kindergarteners through 12-graders. “I’m very proud of our program,” she adds.

Music minister Sister Rose Ehrlich divides her time between St. Joseph’s and St. Paul of the Cross in Columbia City. She is in Bluffton each Wednesday and Friday and every other Sunday, when her choir sings at Sunday Mass, but said she receives able assistance from Diane Witwer and Diane Holland on the off weekends. “I could not do this without help,” she noted. “I’m very blessed.”

St. Joseph’s boasts many active committees, like the Knights of Columbus, Council of Catholic Women, a Social Committee and New Evangelization Committee, to name a few.

Parishioner George Witwer said the New Evangelization Committee is in formation to discuss the parish’s unique mission, then to build unity of purpose in making that mission a reality. The goal is to transform St. Joseph’s into an “evangelizing parish.” The parish has hosted speakers on the subject and is currently working with the diocesan Office of Evangelization to take the next step. Msgr. Pius said he expects them to become disciples, helping St. Joseph’s to be a more welcoming parish.

The Council of Catholic Women, under the leadership of President Mary Ann Bickley, stands ready to help “wherever there’s a need,” she said.  An upcoming craft fair slated for Nov. 12 has been a successful fundraiser in past years and popular with the community as well.  A holiday giving tree draws parishioners to help needy families at Christmas time. Proceeds from a baby bottle project each spring go to Helping Hands, a local women’s clinic. The organization recently provided new hymnals for the church, purchased a portrait of Jesus for the church in celebration of the Jubilee Year of Mercy and provided plane fare for the pastor to return home for his brothers’ funerals. Other ministries of council members include hosting funeral dinners and visiting the sick.

A 20-year parishioner of St. Joseph’s, Bickley said the parish is “very much like family … I feel very comfortable here,” she adds.

Jessica Seago is chairman of the Social Committee, which heads up fun activities for parishioners. An annual parish picnic featuring fried chicken and homemade side dishes and desserts is a popular favorite, as well as the coffee and donuts offered after the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass when parishioners gather for a bit of fellowship before heading home. An Epiphany brunch in January rounds out the social schedule.

Years ago, the parish constructed an outdoor path for parishioners and visitors to enjoy while meditating on the mysteries of the rosary.

An active Knights of Columbus organization of about 55 members spans generations, said President Mike Lautzenheiser. There is no shortage of men willing to tackle its many projects. The group often prayed the rosary at the abortion clinic in Fort Wayne when it was in operation, and they travel to Washington D.C. for the annual March for Life. They collect toys for needy children at Christmas and provide weekend meals in a backpack for children from low-income families. They are well-represented at the first Saturday evening Mass each month, at which they lead the rosary, then act as greeters, altar servers, lectors and lay distributors. Lautzenheiser pointed out that, in a parish as small as St. Joseph’s, everyone wears several hats in order to get things done. If another group says, “I need some help,” the Knights willingly step in, he added.

St. Joseph Church was founded in 1875 after years of priests arriving by horseback on occasional Sundays to celebrate Mass in the home of early pioneer Timothy Enright. Initially, five families were instrumental in constructing that first church building on the corner of Cherry and Williams Streets, a 30 by 50-foot structure, at a cost of $1,300. It was dedicated by Bishop Joseph Dwenger that same year.

Many decades later, with a burgeoning parish population, a larger church was constructed on the current site at 1300 N. Main St., on land donated by E.J. Schaefer, founder of Franklin Electric Company in Bluffton. It was dedicated by Bishop Leo Pursley in 1966. Later, space was increased with the addition of nine classrooms, two conference rooms and a gymnasium through the generosity of the Schaefer estate, augmented by parish funds.

Recently, as the parish celebrated its anniversary, Msgr. Pius said: “Now is the time of great hope for a bright future … Your kindness, generosity, dedication to things of God, volunteer spirit, unity, your love and more, all these give me great joy … I wish you God’s special and choicest blessings.”

Though St. Joseph’s stands alone as the only Catholic church in Wells County, it has long been a beacon of light that stands in silent testimony to the deeply rooted faith of its parishioners.

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