St Joseph’s History

The Georgia Bulletin, Print Issue: May 16, 1991

Dalton Parish Marks 50th Anniversary
By Paula Day

A parishioner suggested Father Edward Thein might even ask God if that’s His definitive answer when He seems to say “no.”

This determination was evident the first weekend of May when St. Joseph’s in Dalton celebrated the 50th anniversary of its reopening.

Gambling on good weather, the pastor and planning committee decided a date close to the May 1 feast of St. Joseph the Worker would be better for the anniversary celebration than the March 19 feast of St. Joseph, patron of the Universal Church. Then it rained the weekend of May 4 and 5.

“Nothing is going to stop this celebration,” said a determined Father Thein. The planned outdoor bilingual Mass was moved to the upstairs of the parish hall.

If the weather was a loss, the gain was a stronger sense of intimacy, a “better mix,” the pastor believes. The only Mass celebrated that weekend, it was intended to bring together the whole parish. St. Joseph’s is a microcosm of the universal Church, made up of people from Latin America, the African continent, India and the Orient as well as from other states. This variety was evident as one looked at the gathering.

Archbishop James P. Lyke, OFM, was the principal celebrant for the liturgy. Father Thein, Hispanic pastoral minister Father Juan de la Cruz, and Father Edward Salazar, SJ, vicar for Hispanics, were concelebrants.

In his homily the archbishop noted the event not only commemorated the reopening of the parish 50 years ago, but “the presence of Catholics in these hills that stretches all the way back to 1847 when Irish immigrants … prayed for and received the presence of God.”

“Since that time,” the archbishop continued, “people of many cultures and racial and ethnic lineage have found family and faith in community, and continue to do so.”

In recent parish history the greatest ethnic surge has been in the Hispanic population. Father Thein estimates 150 Hispanic families to be among the 500 parish households. A Spanish-language Mass is celebrated every Sunday. For the anniversary the first reading was in Spanish and Father Salazar translated the archbishop’s homily. Hymns led by the Hispanic choir spiced up the liturgy, eliciting praise from English-speaking parishioners.

“They bring something this parish has never seen,” 20-year-parishioner George Woods said. “A spirit, an enthusiasm. They need to be more with us.” And Father Thein commented, “Though separated by different language and culture, the catholicity of our faith came through.”

The restless melee of youngsters seated on the floor in front of the makeshift altar was further evidence of the vigor and potential of the parish. Forty catechists teach 210 elementary-age children in the parish.

Margie Bruner is a young mother of two with a third expected in June. She and her husband, Greg, came to Dalton two years ago from Winchester, TN. “There are a lot of young couples, and a lot of small children,” she said. “That makes it easier for us because we can relate to one another. We have the same interests.”

Such is St. Joseph’s now, a parish reborn in 1941 after 40 years of official extinction. The first St. Joseph’s, begun in the mid-1800s, was made up of Irish immigrants who came to Whitfield County in northwest Georgia to help construct the Western and Atlanta Railroad linking Atlanta and Chattanooga. By 1852 their numbers warranted purchasing land and building a church.

During the Civil War that building was burned by federal troops after it had been used as a military hospital for smallpox patients. The Sisters of Mercy established a school which stayed open five years. The Religious were recalled to Savannah in 1879 to help during a yellow fever epidemic.

In her recollection of growing up in Dalton in the second half of the 19th century, Kate Harben Jones speaks of “Irish people with a lot of lively, interesting children but they were CATHOLICS. These poor children had to go to Mass in the morning sometimes before anybody else was out of bed … They were not allowed to go to the same school as the neighbor children. Their school was the ‘convent.'”

Mrs. Jones’ extensive personal history was published in 1970 in Conasauga, a Whitfield County magazine.

A dwindling Catholic population and shortage of priests at the end of the century dictated closing St. Joseph’s in 1901. But signs of a nascent Catholic community began to reappear in Whitfield County. In the 1930s Father Joseph Cassidy, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Rome, extended his missionary activity to Dalton. With the help of a trio of matriarchs St. Joseph’s came to rebirth.

Effie, Frances and Alice Wrench opened their home for the celebration of Mass and when the Redemptorist priests came to re-establish the parish in 1941, they were on hand to welcome and help. According to a cousin, Rose Kerr Jordan, Alice Wrench was the backbone of a weekly effort to feed visiting priests and the sisters who came from Chattanooga each Saturday to teach catechism. In 1958, she received the papal award, Pro Deo et Pontifice, given for service to God and the Church. The statue of St. Joseph in front of the church was a gift from the Wrench sisters.

As part of the 50th anniversary celebration, Father Thein is compiling a history of the parish to be ready in the fall. In mid-September the annual parish picnic will bring the culturally diverse group together for another celebration of St. Joseph’s Catholic community in northwest Georgia.