St. Joseph Parish, Paul celebrates anniversary

Father Kenneth Borowiak Special to the News-Press

In a chance meeting a century and a half ago, St. Joseph Parish in Paul was established. In the afternoon of Aug. 19, 1871, a horse with a rider came slowly up an elevation towards a little house in the peak of a hill south and west of Nebraska City. 

Great was the subsequent joy in that little house for the rider proved to be none other than Father Anthony Kasper, a Benedictine missionary priest and a close friend of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas and Catherine Durr whose marriage he had witnessed four years before in Minnesota. The Durrs were the residents of that small house.

Word was sent to mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters and neighbors that Father Kasper was at the Durr’s home and they all came at once.

Only three years earlier, Catherine and Thomas Durr had decided to move to southeast Nebraska.

After hours of visiting and reminiscing that afternoon it was decided that Father Kasper would celebrate Mass for all of the Catholics in the area. 

Thus, the Eucharist was the inauguration of St. Joseph Parish in Paul, Nebraska. That first Mass was celebrated Aug. 20, 1871. Perhaps those pioneer Catholics did not realize that their participation at Mass that late August morning in 1871 would be the nucleus of the parish, which is still the focal point of the Paul community.

One hundred fifty years to the day, on Aug. 20, 2021, current pastor Father Stephen Graeve will celebrate the Eucharist to mark that solemn occasion. There will be many similarities between the two dates. Mass will be celebrated at the same farm first settled by Joseph and Catherine Durr.

Parishioners are looking forward to the celebration. Longtime parishioner Dale Kreifels said, “Ours is a parish family. My grandfather Martin Kreifels hauled bricks from the railroad station in Paul to build the Church. I am proud to be a fourth generation parish family member.

“It is 150 years since the first Mass was celebrated here and it’s important to celebrate as a family. It’s what families do,” he added.

History of St. Joseph Parish

Descendants of the families that settled the Paul parish more than 150 years ago are members today. The names include, Heng, Sullivan, Kreifels, Ballermans, Houlihan, Carlin, Reblin, Durr, Ress, Schmitz and Komma. 

One family, Joseph and Catherine Durr, began to think of moving to Southeast Nebraska in 1868. Catherine’s father Peter Schmitz wrote to his daughter and son-in-law who at the time were living in Minnesota and encouraged them to move to southern Otoe County. 

The young couple was barely making a living with Joseph working as a teacher and he and his wife had a young daughter to take care of. After months of discussion, they decided that when the current school year was over that they would load up a covered wagon and be on their way to Nebraska. 

During that long trek to Nebraska Joseph and Catherine wondered what their new home would look like. 

They bought a small plot of land on one of the highest points in Otoe County and by 1869 they found themselves in a small, two room house with a tiny loft above located virtually where the current St. Joseph Church is. 

The parish campus, sits on a high hill overlooking the surrounding farmland for miles. The cemetery is immediately across the gravel road east from the front doors of the church.

The Durrs, like many other Catholic settlers, had a 10 mile one-way trip across the trackless, treeless prairie to the nearest church, St. Benedict at Kearney Hill near Nebraska City. Often the trip had to be made in an open lumber wagon as there were no spring seats nor buggies, which were considered luxuries for those who had money.

Despite the hardships, the early Catholic pioneers made the trip every time they could. The 10 mile one-way pilgrimage to St. Benedict Church was kept up for two years.

When Father Kasper arrived on the afternoon of Aug. 19, 1871, his visit sparked a conversation that ultimately resulted in the establishment of St. Joseph Parish, Paul.

After Father Kasper visited with Joseph and Catherine, word soon went out to neighboring Catholics that he was there. Father Kasper told them that he would celebrate Mass the next day Aug. 20, 1871.

Young neighbor boys on foot and horseback acted as messengers to neighboring Catholic families. The glad news was spread from house to house throughout the settlement. The next morning, before dawn, local Catholics were astir anticipating being part of the celebration of the Mass.

An altar was improvised from two old barrels and a board. A fine linen tablecloth, which was a cherished wedding gift, was draped over the board as well as lace curtains from the Durr home.

From Father Kasper’s saddlebags came his chalice, vestments along with candles, a crucifix and holy pictures. The makeshift altar was an element of beauty to the settler’s eyes.

Soon lumber wagons began pulling into the farmyard. Happy faces, cheery greetings marked the joyous occasion that it was.

Young and old all entered the little house to lay the foundation of what is now St. Joseph’s parish in Paul.

Following Mass. the parish record begins with the baptism of Mary Catherine Durr, daughter of Josephine and Catherine Durr. From this time on Father Emmanuel Hartig O.S.B., another pioneer priest and Father Kasper made regular visits to the mission.

The first St. Joseph Church was a 24’ x 40’ wood frame church completed in 1879 at a cost of $1,150. At the time St. Joseph parish consisted of 34 German families and five Irish families. A rectory was constructed in 1889 for $950. The parish received its first resident pastor in 1890.

A two-story Catholic school was constructed during the pastorate of Fr. Aloys Hahn (1894 – 1904).

The current church was dedicated by Bishop J. Henry Tihen May 30, 1916. The 125’ x 59’ church has two towers, one 130 feet high, the other 60 feet high. The art glass windows were imported from Munich, Germany. The cost of the new Gothic church with furnishings was $35,000.

A number of religious vocations have come from St. Joseph parish: one diocesan priest, two Ursuline Sisters, seven Franciscan Sisters and one sister of St. Joseph.

Reprinted with permission from the Southern Nebraska Register.

St. Joseph