In the 1850s, the founding families of St. Joseph in Red Wing – many of them German immigrants still fluent in English – welcomed into their homes a priest with a French accent who came on horseback to say mass every month.
Language must not have been a big deal, as Father Felix Tissot, who served Catholic missionary communities in Goodhue and Wabasha counties in southeastern Minnesota, tasked the 15 families, German and Irish, in 1862 to build a church.
In 1865, Bishop Thomas Grace dedicated his first modest wooden church, located in what is now the south-eastern corner of the archdiocese, appointing Father Christian Knauf as the first resident pastor. The parish boundaries extended north to Miesville, southwest to Goodhue, and southeast to the limits of Lake City. Saint Joseph became the patron, probably because the saint was particularly important to the Germans, said Father Thomas Kommers, current pastor.
The immigrant congregation, later joined by Polish immigrants and other Slavs, was determined that their parish be American.
“It’s quite remarkable,” said Father Kommers. “They wanted to honor their origins and where they came from and maintain some of their traditions, but most of all they wanted to be American Catholics.”
Frederick and Anna Busch and their eight children were among the first German families in the parish. From their family came Bishop Joseph Busch, who served as Bishop in Lead, South Dakota, and St. Cloud, Minnesota, as well as a Bishop, a religious sister, and perhaps more vocations. After Frederick’s death in 1908, Anna donated part of the land on which the current church stands to the parish, according to parish historian Jeff Grosso, a parishioner since 1981.
The land for the parish Calvary cemetery was sold to the parish in 1868 by Vital Bouiere, a member of the Dakota tribe.
As the parish grew, the 100-seat wooden church became too small. In 1877, Father John Stariha, as parish priest, oversaw the construction of a buff-colored stone cruciform church that could accommodate 400 people. Materials from the old church were used as an addition to the school that the parish had built in 1873.
In July 1890, tragedy erupted when the Sea Wing, a ship carrying around 215 passengers, overturned in Lake Pepin during a thunderstorm, and 98 were drowned, including eight parishioners of St. Joseph, said Grosso.
The ship was returning from an excursion to Lake City. The incident is still considered one of the worst maritime disasters in the headwaters of the Mississippi.
In 1960, parish leaders anticipated the growth of Red Wing and, under the leadership of Father H. Derham Ryan, planned several new buildings, including a new church.
The church was built during Vatican Council II and its first mass was celebrated in 1965, the year the council closed. His design anticipated the changes in the board. The 16-sided cylindrical structure is fan-shaped with seats that curve around the shrine. It was one of the first of its kind in the archdiocese, said Father Kommers, who is retiring after 18 years as pastor at the end of June.
A modern statue of Saint Joseph is mounted on a church wall. Another statue of Saint Joseph was removed from the stone church before it was demolished. The parish no longer has this statue and the leaders do not know that it still exists. The parish is restoring a large painting of Saint Joseph with the infant Jesus from the 1890s.
Although parish leaders predicted continued growth, the city did not develop as expected. In 2014, the parish school closed for good, Father Kommers said. St. Joseph now serves about 1,000 households, including 200 Latinos, the parish’s most recent immigrants, he said.
The parish generally honors Saint Joseph at mass on feast days. Father Kommers said he appreciates Saint Joseph’s role as a humble worker.
âMaybe part of it is apocryphal, but it’s still a very nice thing and I really think about the idea that it humiliates us all,â he said.
Saint Joseph is also an inspiration as a father, Grosso said.
âFor me, he is the ultimate father figure,â he said. âWhen you are a parent, you think about the things that Saint Joseph must have done. â¦ He is an example of what perseverance and fatherhood should look like.
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth story in a monthly series on 10 places in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis with links to Saint Joseph.
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