St. Joseph Parish History
At the turn of the century, in the pioneering days of Imperial Valley, it was not easy to find a Catholic priest or a Catholic Church. In those early days, only one priest, Msgr. Henry Eummelen, a native of Lutterance, Holland, was assigned to serve the entire valley. Monsignor traveled between the larger communities of the Valley on weekends to say Mass and perform the other Sacraments. Holtville, however, was a very small community and Monsignor Eummelen came here very infrequently. A short announcement in the Holtville Tribune dated December 18th, 1908 states: "Rev. H. Eummelen announces Catholic services for Holtville on each 5th Sunday of the month." This meant, of course, that Monsignor celebrated Mass at the old Eagles Hall on the corner of 5th and Holt only 3 or 4 times a year!
In 1910 the entire block on which the church now stands was a vineyard, owned by a non-Roman Catholic H.J. Messinger. Mr. Messinger was a personal friend of Monsignor Eummelen and from this friendship the Roman Catholic community was given the land on which to build a church. Construction began in 1910 and was completed in time for Christmas Mass of the year. St. Joseph Catholic Church was dedicated on February 19th, 1911 by the Most Reverend Bishop Conaty of the Diocese of Los Angeles- Monterey, who at the time, was Ordinary for the Imperial Valley as well.
At first the pretty little church did not have a resident priest, so it was dedicated as a mission. It was not until 1914 that the Reverend Leo Garsse was assigned as pastor to the Holtville Church. Since there was no rectory on the property, Fr. Garsse lived in a small room attached to the sacristy of St. Francis Church in Imperial. He traveled to Holtville once a week to say Mass and perform the other Sacraments. The first baptism to be performed at St. Joseph's took place on March 15, 1914.
In 1936 the Diocese of San Diego was carved out from the larger Diocese of Los Angeles - Monterey. The first bishop of the new diocese was the Most Reverend Charles Francis Buddy. Early in his tenure, Bishop Buddy visited the Imperial Valley and ordered that "proper living quarters" be provided for all priests who serve in the desert area. Subsequently between 1936 and 1937, five new rectories, (all exactly alike), were built in El Centro, Brawley, Calexico Indio, and Holtville. Of the five rectories built, only St. Joseph;s in Holtville is still being used as the priest's house.
In 1946 a new pastor, Reverend Gerard Clark, was assigned to St. Joseph Church. Fr. clark firmly believed that every Catholic Church, no matter how small, must provide a system of education for its youth. His first wish was that St. Joseph's should have a parochial school. Bishop Buddy gave his blessing to the proposed school and work was begun on the new buildings in 1947. Fr. Clark traveled to St. Louis to ask the School Sisters of Notre Dame for their help in forming the new staff. They agreed to staff the school and during the process of construction, Mother Evangeline, of the Order, made two trips to Holtville to meet with Fr. Clark and to check on the progress of the new school. In October of 1948 the new school of St. Joseph's was proudly dedicated by Bishop Buddy. School opened that fall with an enrollment of 147 students. It served the entire community of Holtville until 1969 when high costs and dwindling enrollment forced its closure. Presently, the old school buildings are used for a wide-ranging program of religious instruction for youth & adults. It has been the site of many wonderful annual barbecues, potlucks and parish get-togethers.
By the mid 1950's it became obvious that the congregation at St. Joseph's had outgrown its pretty little church with seating capacity of only 120 people. Sentiment was high for the little church's preservation; but eventually sentiment had give way to progress. In 1959 it was decided to move services to the St. Joseph's School Hall and the old church building was ordered demolished as a hazard. Plans were formulated for a new church.
The Reverend Sean Murray (now Monsignor Murray), was pastor of St. Joseph's from 1960 until 1965. During this time, a building committee was formed from members of the parish to plan for the new church. It was decided that the corner of 6th and Maple was the best location for the church. However, the old convent for he sisters had to be removed from that location and transported to the place where the old church had stood. This was accomplished during the summer of 1962.
The working drawings for the new church were drawn up by Dr. John Wilding, a professor at San Diego State College, with the help of a parishioner, Mr. Joe Salontai. Mr, Victor Rodahl was the general contractor. Through the immense determination and sacrifice of the people of St. Joseph's, the new church was completed and ready for its first Mass on November 17th 1963. The following year May 27, 1964. The building was blessed and dedicated by the Most Reverend Francis J. Furey of San Diego. Bishop Furey also confirmed 100 adults and children at the dedication Mass. The total cost of the church building including furnishings, statues, air conditioning units and landscaping eas $116,480.00.
For many years after the building of the new church in Holtville, St. Joseph's was informally called "The Gem of the Valley", not only in recognition of its beautiful church and wonderful parish facilities; but also for the wonderful people who made up the parish. Through all the years of struggle and sacrifice, it was the people of St. Joseph who reflected the glory of God through the Church. Through these one hundred and six years, our parish has grown from a rough "Valley Mission Church" to its present statues as a vital part of the community of Holtville, and indeed, the Imperial Valley. We have been led by the Spirit of God through the capable hands of our Pastors and the dedicated sisters and valued teachers to the community of love that we are today. Parish leaders have carried their responsibilities unselfishly. Parishioners have been generous with their time and talent and financial support.