HISTORY OF SAINT JOSEPH PARISH
In 1934, Aztec, New Mexico was a village two blocks long with a motel on one end and a corner grocery store on the other end. Most of the population lived on scattered ranches. There were only four Catholic families among the citizenry of Aztec with the nearest Catholic church either in Blanco or Farmington. “Padre Celso” Koenig, O.F.M. occasionally celebrated Mass in Aztec in a mortuary. Padre Celso was pastor of both the Catholic church in Blanco and in Farmington.
One of the earliest accounts of life at St. Joseph Parish was written by the first permanent pastor of the church, Father Anthony Kroell, in the early 1950s.
“When in 1910, Father Albert Daeger, OFM, who later became the Archbishop of Santa Fe, was appointed pastor of the large area around Farmington and Blanco that took in numerous missions in the surrounding territory, Aztec was one of those missions.
Father Albert, or one of his assistants would say Mass at Aztec in the home of Mrs. Fortier about once a month. Mrs. Fortier would have liked to see a church built in Aztec in her day and she donated the property on which the church now stands, but it took till 1946, years after her death, till her ardent wish was realized. Around 1935, Mass began to be celebrated twice a month at Aztec.
Mass was celebrated also for a time in the old court house. Then, for about 10 years at the Hood Mortuary. Then, after that building was sold, Mass was celebrated for about a year in the home of Mr. Martin Trujillo, which at present, is the home of Mrs. J.C. Gomez.
Work was started on the new church on May 6, 1946. The first Mass in the new church was celebrated on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1946. The church was solemnly dedicated by the Most Rev. Bernard Espelage on January 1, 1947.
The Perpetual Novena in honor of St. Anthony of Padua was started in December 1951. Every Tuesday evening at 7:30, the Novena prayers, Rosary and Litany for peace in the world, a short sermon, and Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament. After Benediction, the individual blessing with the relic of St. Anthony is given. The Rosary and Litany were added to these services during the Marian Year. The purpose is for peace in the world.
The first evening Mass was celebrated on the Feast of the Assumption, 1953. Since then, a regular Sunday evening Mass is celebrated at 7 o’clock and Holy Days for workers and those who could not get to Mass in the morning.
In September 1954, one of the six Navajo Indian Dormitories was built in Aztec. These dormitories in New Mexico and Arizona are the Indian Bureau’s latest attempt to give the Navajo children an education. The dormitory at Aztec accommodates about 125 Navajo children. During the past year, about 20 of those were of the Catholic faith. Five of them were baptized here at St. Joseph’s Church during the year.
Besides the town of Aztec and its immediate surroundings, the territory of the parish runs north 15 miles to the Colorado state line. It also runs west about 7 miles.
Around 1910 when the Franciscan Friars came to this territory, there were in Aztec just several families. The size of the parish grew gradually and in 1945, the home of Mr. Trujillo, which was then used for celebrating Mass, was too small, and a move to build a church was begun. Gradually new parishioners came until now, there are about 500 souls in the parish. They comprise about 400 Spanish, 90 Anglo, and 10 Navajo Indian.
After the church was built and all available money that came to the parish by ordinary contributions and also special donations was paid, the parish had a debt of $19,500. Gradually, by the ordinary collections, by raffles, bazaars, dinners, bingos, and various other ways, the debt was gradually whittled down until recently, the last payment of the debt was made.
Now, the parish will build up a fund known as the Parish Building and Improvement Fund. The ultimate goal of this fund is to put a parochial school here at Aztec.
1953 was the record year at St. Joseph’s, Aztec for marriages. There were 13.
1954 was the record year for Baptisms. There were 41.
1955 is the record year for converts. So far, there were 9.”
Eventually the church roof gutters became a major problem because the roof was built directly onto the church walls, and the church building was surrounded by cottonwood trees.
The gutters became clogged with leaves and debris, causing water to leak into the church. For two years the parishioners fought a losing battle to keep the gutters cleared. Father Francis Keehn, O.F.M., successor to Padre Eugenio, finally obtained rafters and braces to correct the structural deficiencies of the church roof, and Tranquilino Griego Sr., Martin Trujillo and Juan Padia did the work of repairing the church roof.
The next problem was drainage in the basement where the sump tended to back up. When that problem was corrected, Juan Padia began to run weekly Bingo games in the basement to raise money to pay for the church.
Father Anthony Kroell, O.F.M. became the first permanent pastor of Saint Joseph Church in 1947, and commenced a campaign to raise funds for a parish house, since resident pastors had to lived in the sacristy. Bishop Espelage helped in the campaign, matching dollar for dollar the funds raised by the parishioners.
Father Gerard Geier, O.F.M. succeeded Father Anthony as Pastor and completed the campaign for a parish house, buying the present rectory building. Father Gerard also installed a tile floor in the church and had the church parking lot paved.
Father Herbert Effler, O.F.M., succeeded Father Gerard as pastor in 1964 and immediately began a campaign to build a parish hall and saw his dream fulfilled. Father Herbert moved on in 1976 and was succeeded by Father Greg Petri, O.F.H. who remained for only one year. Father Greg was succeeded by Father Owen J. Gehring, O.F.M.
Father Owen organized the Saint Joseph Ladies Guild and the Saint Joseph Men’s Club and formalized the CCD and CYO organizations with regular certified teachers and coordinators. Shortly after Father arrived in Aztec he also reorganized and resurrected a Parish Choir with the help of Mr. and Mrs. George Powell and Mrs. Katie Evilsizer, a choir which is one of the best in the whole Diocese.
The current pastor is Father Kingsley George-Obilonu.
Through the Saint Joseph Ladies Guild the church has been re-painted both on the outside and the inside and wall-to-wall carpet has replaced the tile floor. Also the statues have been re-painted, the altar utensils re-goldplated, and new altar cloths and front-pieces purchased. Through the Saint Joseph Men’s Club the parish hall has been re-painted, an outdoor basketball court made behind the parish hall, a mini-park made from the basketball court to the highway, and Christmas baskets distributed to the poor of the community.
In the early 1980’s, one parishioner recalls that on Thanksgiving Day, the Saint Joseph Christian Concern for the Poor and Underprivileged Ministry persuaded nineteen parish families to cook their usual family Thanksgiving Dinner in the parish hall and to invite at least one or more guests who were non-relatives and who might not otherwise have a Thanksgiving dinner to share the meal with them. The idea caught on and many families who could not participate because of other commitments donated food as did also many of the merchants. Needless to say, the three long tables put together were laden with a delicious turkey dinner with all the “trimmings” and the eighty-sum people spent a wonderful dinner and afternoon together. A special TV cable was put in the hall so that the men could watch the football games before and after the dinner; and another TV was put in another classroom so that the kiddies could watch cassette movies and cartoons before and after eating. After the meal also, the Garcia Brothers played their guitars for the Ryan children to sing a melody of songs, after which the whole crowd joined in for a regular “Songfest” afternoon. Several elderly couples remarked to Father Owen that they had never spent such a wonderful Thanksgiving before in all their lives; while several old bachelors and widows commented that this was one Thanksgiving to remember. Everyone had a pleasant and enjoyable day which began with a Mass at 9:00 a.m. with a beautiful Liturgy put on by the CCD children and the Liturgy Committee.
Saint Joseph parish new numbers about 250 Catholic families and the population of the city has grown to over 6000. The main “downtown” section also has spread out to city size and is no longer the “sleepy village” of ranchers where the Catholics had to participate at Mass in a mortuary or in a private home. Saint Joseph parishioners can be proud of their parish which has carried on a tradition long established in the San Juan basin. It represents years of volunteer effort, service and sacrifice by many people, clergy and laity alike, both in and beyond Aztec.