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From German to Spanish: Elgin church marks 125th anniversary

'Our church was built for 72 families now we're out control' said Father Jesus Dominguez St.Jospeh Catholic Church School Elg'It's

"Our church was built for 72 families and now we're out of control," said Father Jesus Dominguez of St.Jospeh Catholic Church and School in Elgin, "It's a blessing more and more are attending services." The church and its gowing congregation are in the process of celebrating its 125th anniversary. | Katherine Peters~Sun-Times Media

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Celebrations coming to
mark St. Joseph’s 125th

Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 15-16

Jubilee celebration in the church parking lot and gym. Mexican food and music, plus games for children, will be featured from noon to 10 p.m. Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Sixteen bands will perform, as will the Ballet Folklorico Huehuecoyotl from Elgin Community College.

Sept. 29

Rev. Jesus Dominguez will be officially installed as the parish’s pastor, with Monsignor Joseph Linster of the Rockford Diocese officiating.

Nov. 2

Gala 125th anniversary dinner/dance at The Seville banquet hall in Streamwood. Current parishioners and past members who have moved away are invited to swap stories and memories.

October through January 2013

“125 Rosaries.” The church is lining up 125 families each to say the Rosary once a day for 125 days.

For more information, call the church at 847-931-2800.

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Updated: October 15, 2012 9:10AM

This is another in a series of occasional stories about Fox Valley churches that are celebrating significant anniversaries.

ELGIN — Elgin was jammed with immigrants pouring into the city from the same foreign country. Many could speak English only sparingly or not at all, and the native-born English-speakers already here often looked down on them.

So the ones who belonged to the Roman Catholic Church banded together and started a congregation whose services would speak in their mother tongue — German.

But as St. Joseph Catholic Church and its thriving parochial school celebrate their 125th anniversary this fall, the congregation has gone on to evolve on a course surprisingly parallel to its city’s. While close to 100 percent of its members were recent German immigrants when it was founded in 1887, today 90 percent are Hispanic, and eight of its 11 weekend Masses are said in Spanish.

“St. Joseph has changed along with the city,” says member Greg Guerrero, who joined the parish in the 1990s. “It was started by what I call ‘pilgrims,’ people from Germany and Ireland. And now we have pilgrims who came from Spanish-speaking countries and Laos and the Philippines.”

Jane Barbosa, a member of the jubilee planning committee, said the congregation will celebrate the anniversary with two days of Mexican music, food and games this weekend and a dinner-dance on Nov. 2, plus 125 days of 125 families saying the Rosary.

A national parish

The chief of the three priests now assigned to the parish, the Rev. Jesus Dominguez, notes that the church was able to change with Elgin’s language and ethnicity because, unlike Elgin’s other Catholic churches, St. Joseph has always been a “national” parish rather than a geographic one.

If you live on Elgin’s east side and are an Anglo Catholic, you’re encouraged to attend St. Mary’s Church, just a few blocks south of St. Joseph. If you live on the city’s southwest side, your assigned parish is St. Laurence. If you reside on the northwest side, you’re assigned to St. Thomas More Church. But St. Joseph is free to attract worshippers who live anywhere.

In fact, Dominguez says, worshippers come here from places such as Bartlett, Schaumburg and Hanover Park, along with Carpentersville, South Elgin and St. Charles.

Befitting the congregation’s special mission, all three of its current priests grew up outside the United States. The newest, Dominguez, is a 42-year-old who grew up in Mexico but studied in a California seminary before being assigned to a church in Missouri and then, two years ago, to Elgin. He is fluent in both English and Spanish.

The Rev. Adaberto Sanchez, another Mexican immigrant, also is bilingual. But 73-year-old Rev. Leonardo Maldonado, who was 53 years old before he came to America from Ecuador, has more limited English skills.

Barbosa said that of all the past priests who pastored St. Joseph, beginning with the German-American Father Bernard Westharp in 1887, none left a bigger impact than Monsignor Henry Schryer. He served St. Joseph for 26 years, from 1957 to 1983, during the time of transition from what had become a mostly English-speaking group of Elginites with German ancestry to the arrival of the Hispanics. The Elgin Knights of Columbus chapter, which meets in the building where St. Joseph first assembled, is named after Schryer, who died in 1992.

“At first he had trouble with spicy Mexican food,” Barbosa says of the monsignor. “But by the end, it was ‘the spicier, the better.’ ”

Barbosa notes that three St. Joseph members have become judges, including her brother, Manuel Barbosa. Another seven have become priests.

Building, booming

The 1887 Germans named their new congregation St. Joseph after the earthly father of Jesus, perhaps as a counterpoint to what was then the only other Catholic church in town, St. Mary’s, which was named after Jesus’ mother.

At first they met in a brick building along Villa Court, just south of Chicago Street. Today that building is the Elgin Knights of Columbus Hall.

After a fundraising campaign (some things never change in church life), the congregation started work on a building on Division Street in 1899 and signed a contract in May 1903 to build the Romanesque-style stone church that now houses the congregation, along Division Street between Center and Geneva streets. The cost was $20,000.

“Now, I can’t even pave the parking lot for that,” Dominguez chuckles.

The first service was held in the new building on June 21, 1908.

“Father Joseph Rohde was known as the pastor who built the church,” Dominguez said. “When he died in 1914, he was buried beneath the altar. The Elgin Daily News wrote that 10,000 people came to pass by his bier.”

Parish numbers have zoomed along with Elgin’s Hispanic population. Barbosa said that when the first service was held in the current building, the parish consisted of 72 families. When the congregation celebrated its 100th birthday in 1987, it had 1,300 families. Now it has 2,200. And an average of 4,600 attend Mass each week, most of them on Saturday and/or Sunday.

Next generation

Barbosa said St. Joseph Catholic School started almost as soon as the church, meeting at first in the basement of what is now the K of C building. When the new church building was erected, the school got a wing of it.

In 1962, the current modern school was built just east of the current church, and the old school wing became church offices.

While many parochial schools have had trouble attracting enough students and making ends meet, St. Joseph School has been thriving. With classes taught entirely in English — and with the old-time nuns replaced by lay teachers — it now has 230 students in preschool through Grade 8. Another 1,200 kids who attend public schools learn about their faith each year through Christian Catholic Doctrine classes.

Road ahead

The biggest problem facing St. Joseph at 125 is a good one to have, Dominguez says — overcrowding due to the imbalance between a sanctuary that seats only 300 people on its main floor and a congregation that sends 4,600 people a week to fill those seats. That’s why no fewer than 11 Masses have to be held each weekend, three in English and eight in Spanish.

At some hours on Sunday, one service is going on in the sanctuary at the same time another service is being held in the school gym.

“This is a very old building that needs a lot of updates and repairs,” Barbosa said. “Father Jesus (Dominguez) has taken on a lot of the major challenges. He has put in a new parking lot and a new roof for the school.”

The church has bought the three houses along Division Street between the church and Center Street. Those will be torn down soon to make way for more parking space.

But many parishioners dream about someday replacing that century-old main building with a new church or a new wing — maybe one with a sanctuary big enough to hold everybody at once.

And ethnicity may change gradually, just as those original German-speakers learned to speak English.

“We say we are 90 percent Hispanic, and we share food and traditions. But that includes people who arrived here from another country two years ago and people whose families have been in this country for 40 years,” such as Barbosa’s, Dominguez said.

“I look on the congregation as ‘Spanish plus,’ ” Barbosa said.

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