At 200 years old, St. Joseph in Erie points to farming roots as foundation of strong faith

Celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2019, St. Joseph Parish in Erie is the third-oldest continually operating parish in the Archdiocese of Detroit. The parish in the small farming community near the Ohio border traces its roots to legendary Detroit priest Fr. Gabriel Richard. The current church building has remained largest unchanged since 1851. (Patricia Drury | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Throughout two centuries, parishioners young and old have taken pride in rural parish's family-oriented legacy of service

ERIE — Over the course of 200 years, some things are bound to change. Nonetheless, as St. Joseph Parish in Erie celebrates its bicentennial year, its most senior parishioners insist it's what hasn't changed that's kept their community strong for two centuries.

“Since I can remember, St. Joseph’s has always been welcoming and family-oriented,” says 98-year old Angela LaPointe, a lifelong member of the parish. 

“The number of large families here at St. Joseph’s has been a blessing for decades,” insists Joan Cousino, 93, another lifelong parishioner. 

Like many of her fellow parishioners, LaPointe grew up on a farm in the southernmost corner of the Archdiocese of Detroit near Lake Erie, just 10 miles north of Toledo, Ohio. LaPointe is proud of her community’s rural heritage and points to community members' humble upbringing as a source of the parish’s unwavering faithfulness. 

“The farming families here in Erie are a different breed. They’re honest and so faith-filled,” LaPointe says. “They lead hard lives. It makes sense why they are so close to God. When you are dependent upon the rain, the sun, and so near to the earth, you have to trust in God.”

A farming community finds its roots

At 200, St. Joseph Parish in Erie is the third-oldest Catholic parish in the Archdiocese of Detroit, behind only Ste. Anne Parish in Detroit (318 years old) and St. Mary Parish (231) in nearby Monroe. 

St. Joseph Parish as depicted in an 1875 atlas. (From author's collection)

Even before the parish was founded in 1819, parishioners’ ancestors lived off the land. The first Catholic settlers in the area arrived in the late 1790s and constructed dwellings along tributaries and inlets, primarily along Bay Creek. These hearty French Canadian families not only relied on hunting, farming and trading with nearby Native Americans, they trusted in God’s providence and protection during harsh winters and bloody international conflicts.

Nevertheless, Erie’s earliest Catholics did not have a church to call their own. A handful of settlers might have traveled north by canoe to St. Antoine in Frenchtown (modern-day Monroe) for Sunday Mass, but such a trip would have been an all-day endeavor. More often than not, Mass was celebrated in local households. 

In 1819, a small log structure was built along the north coast of Bay Creek, and “St. Joseph Sur La Baie” was founded. The first missionary priest to say Mass at the log church was the legendary Fr. Gabriel Richard, then pastor of Ste. Anne in Detroit. The parish would continue to be served by itinerant Catholic pastors until 1833, when Fr. John DeBruyn became St. Joseph's first resident pastor.

In 1851, parishioners decided to construct a new brick church further inland from Bay Creek. The next year, Detroit Bishop Peter Paul LeFevere consecrated St. Joseph Catholic Church in Erie, and the area’s faithful have been worshiping at the site ever since. 

While the church’s exterior and structure remain essentially the same, the inside has changed quite a bit. The sanctuary has been repainted and reconfigured several times, and the altar rail was removed decades ago. Also gone are the confessional booths that were at various times situated in the front and back of the church. Many of the stained glass windows have been restored or replaced.

This postcard displays what the altar at St. Joseph Parish in Erie looked like in 1959. (Courtesy of Joan Cousino)

Perhaps the most iconic, lasting feature of St. Joseph is its walnut, straight-back bench pews. Over the years, parishioners have clamored for more comfortable seating, and at one point in the 1930s, a wooden furniture company offered to replace the pews for free. After some deep prayer and pondering, Fr. George Pare refused the offer. Fr. Pare’s “parting advice” for Fr. Lambert Lavoy, the pastor who succeeded him at St. Joseph, was to “never remove the pews from this edifice ... if you do, you will destroy the historicity of your church.”  

LaPointe remembers from her childhood in the 1920s and 30s that the pews used to be rented out. Some pews could be rented at 10 cents per person per week, while other pews could be reserved for the entire year. During the Great Depression, LaPointe recalls that her parents would sit separately in the 10-cent pews while she would join her grandparents, who had reserved an entire pew for the year. “I loved sitting with my grandma and grandpa during Mass,” LaPointe proudly shares.

One of the most notable priests during St. Joseph’s history was Fr. Lambert LaVoy, who served from 1952 until his “retirement” in 1965. A native of Erie, he first found employment as a young man at Ford Motor Company. Nonetheless, he left the Highland Park factory and entered Sacred Heart Seminary in 1923, becoming ordained 12 years later in Detroit. Though he was known as a stern leader and administrator, Fr. Lavoy guided St. Joseph’s flock with humor and wit. 

After retiring from parish ministry, the Erie priest remained incredibly active, serving as chaplain of Mercy Hospital in Monroe, visiting nursing homes and families throughout southeast Michigan in his 25-foot motorhome, and committing countless hours researching and writing Bay Settlement of Monroe County, a fascinating book that has helped local historians for decades. 

A historical marker outside St. Joseph Church in Erie describes the parish's founding in the early 19th century. (Patricia Drury | Special to Detroit Catholic) 

Just a few years before he passed away in 1989, Fr. Lavoy was quoted saying “I regret that I have but one life to live in the priesthood.” Cousino’s husband, Deacon Wesely Cousino — a deacon at St. Joseph for many years — was given the responsibility to make sure Fr. Lavoy’s requests for his funeral were met. “He was such a funny and holy man,” Joan Cousino recalls. “We were blessed to have him at St. Joseph and as a good friend.”  

A strong history of Catholic education

The parish also boasts one of the finest Catholic schools in the southern portion of the Archdiocese of Detroit. With more than 120 students enrolled — and growing — the future of St. Joseph School is bright. There were several points in its long and storied history, however, that were not as promising. The log church on Bay Creek actually served as the parish’s first school in 1826, but classes abruptly stopped just two years later. The school again briefly reopened in 1855, but didn't last.

Under the direction of Fr. Emil Wolstyn, the parish built a new school in 1914 just east of the church. Three expansions took place in the coming decades to accommodate an influx of schoolchildren during the mid-20th century. 

Cousino possesses many fond memories of her time as a student at St. Joseph in the 1930s.

“I loved recess, and back then we could play rough games like Red Rover that you can’t play anymore,” Cousino chuckled. The school also had a thriving musical program in the 1930s; Cousino played the piano, and her fellow classmates took up the violin, drums and other instruments. She also remembers her mother spearheading the local carpool for 21 years. “This was a time before seatbelts, so the kids really piled into the car,” Cousino recounts.

Children throw water balloons during St. Joseph's parish picnic July 27. (Joe Boggs | Special to Detroit Catholic)

St. Joseph’s own Deacon Ken Trabbic also attended the school from first grade until his eighth-grade graduation in 1966. It was during this period that the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), played a prominent role as teachers and administrators of the school. 

“They were very powerful and faithful ladies,” Deacon Trabbic, 67, recalls. “Wearing those habits, they commanded respect, and I was impressed by the commitment they demonstrated toward their vocation.” 

Demographic and financial challenges prompted the sudden closure of St. Joseph School in 1971, but the school reopened again in 1979, and has been providing exceptional faith-based education since.

Ministry to migrant workers, local farmers

St. Joseph possesses a rich heritage of active faith-based organizations, devotions, and community involvement. LaPointe joined the Altar Society in the 1960s and calls it “probably the most rewarding thing I ever did.” As one of the youngest members of the group, every month she took care of the altar and its linens, forming friendships with other parish women that lasted a lifetime. 

“They were all very loving and possessed so much practical wisdom that helped me spiritually,” Lapointe says.

In the late 1950s and early '60s, St. Joseph provided a summertime “mission” program for the migrant families that worked in the area’s tomato fields. Parish priests would come out to the farms and celebrate Mass for the local farmers and migrant workers — a key factor in his own eventual vocation.

Tilly Gutierrez, a close friend of Cousino's, was the only Spanish-speaking parishioner at the time, and became the parish's unofficial “liaison” to the migrant workers, Cousino recalls. 

Gutierrez didn't own a car, so Cousino would drive her friend to the fields to speak with the migrant workers, relaying their needs to the parish's pastoral staff. 

As St. Joseph's priests tended to the field workers, parishioners and clergy provided a “summer school” of sorts to the migrant children, teaching them not only academics, but a love for the Catholic Church and her sacraments. The parish also provided goods, food and resources for the workers, as well as daily transportation between the fields and church so workers could attend Mass. Weekly fiestas were held in the parish hall, where area residents came to know the traveling Hispanic families, some of whom became citizens and joined the parish. 

Many of the stained glass windows inside St. Joseph Church have been restored, but the simple brick charm of the rural Erie parish still evokes its farming roots. (Patricia Drury | Special to Detroit Catholic)

For Deacon Trabbic, the kindness of the parish's pastors made a lasting personal impression. As a young student learning Latin at St. Joseph, he recalls being stricken with rheumatic fever, which kept him from school for several weeks. Fr. Jorissen, then pastor at St. Joseph, made visits out to his family farm to give him personal instruction. 

“He took time out of his busy schedule and was so generous,” Deacon Trabbic says. “I was able to keep pace with the rest of the class.” Through altar serving and family dinners with St. Joseph’s pastors, Deacon Trabbic came to realize in his teen years that the priests “were not just devoted men who strove for holiness, but real men — flaws and all — who gave their lives to Christ and his Church.” 

The kindness of St. Joseph's priests led Deacon Trabbic to consider the priesthood — a vocation that ultimately wasn't meant to be — but he fondly recalls the parish's semi-annual 40 Hours' Eucharistic devotion as pivotal to his vocational discernment. 

“I was very impressed by the pure devotion of the parish, and it caused me to look seriously at the priesthood,” Deacon Trabbic said. After several years at Sacred Heart Seminary, he ultimately decided God was not calling him to become a priest, and he came back home to work on the family farm. Sure enough, while participating in devotions to Our Mother of Perpetual Help before Mass, Deacon Trabbic met his wife, Sharon, in the pews participating in these same faith-based activities.

Celebrating two centuries of devotion

Along with these spiritual devotions, parishioners still cherish their festival, which, for the past 50 years, has taken place on Labor Day weekend. 

“It’s been going on since I can remember,” says LaPointe, recalling festival organizers driving around the community in their old Model T to ask for donations. Many farming families didn’t have much to give, but would freely donate “dozens of chickens, pies, and other items,” LaPointe adds. 

Cousino remembers the countless chicken dinners the parish used to serve at the festival in an old building across from the church. “The chickens would be cooked on a lower level, and we would carry them up the stairs, over and over. It was exhausting,” Cousino recalled. Today, the family festival sells hundreds of perch and chicken dinners while also hosting basketball, softball and cornhole tournaments. Carnival games and rides captivate children, while adults enjoy live entertainment.

Fr. Mark Prill, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Erie, and parishioner Yvonne Bellestri look through a yearbook unearthed from a time capsule created in 1994 in July. In celebration of the parish's 200th anniversary, parishioners are creating a new time capsule to be opened in 25 years. (Sydney Nimeth | Monroe Evening News)

Along with the upcoming festival, numerous events have been scheduled to commemorate the parish's 200th anniversary. Family picnics, historical marker presentations and time capsule openings have brought parishioners and local Catholics together in prayers of thanksgiving and fellowship. The bicentennial celebration will culminate on Saturday, Oct. 19, with a special Mass celebrated by Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron. A dinner and reception will follow.

For Deacon Trabbic, Cousino and LaPointe, as well as countless other current and past parishioners, St. Joseph Parish remains a “home away from home.” 

“As St. Joseph grew decades ago, it was not a coincidence that it was at its strongest when families devoted themselves to the Blessed Mother, our patron, St. Joseph, and Christ fully present in the Blessed Sacrament,” Deacon Trabbic said.

Having been a parishioner all her life, LaPointe believes it was members' deep involvement in parish life that led to such a strong sense of community — a hope she keeps for future generations.

“Young people need to become more involved, but they are way too busy with other things that aren’t nearly as important,” LaPointe says. “That’s what made us so faith-filled: we were all involved in the church. You have to involve yourself, that is how your faith becomes stronger.”

When Cousino was young, “I wished I lived across the street so I could go to Mass every day,” she remembers. She hopes and prays that younger parishioners develop those same feeling toward the Mass and the historic parish.

Future generations of Catholics in southeastern Michigan — not just those who reside in Erie — can certainly draw lessons from the history of this faith community. With incredible sacrifice, devoted clergy and laypeople, and unceasing prayer, St. Joseph has stood tall as a bulwark of Catholicism in southeast Michigan. As it looks toward the future, Catholics in Erie hope their faithfulness today will sustain their beloved parish for generations to come. 

This photograph reveals what the interior of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Erie looked like in 1912. The occasion displayed in this picture was the funeral of several members of the Cousino family that died in an early, tragic automobile accident. (Courtesy of Monroe County Museum Archives)

Joe Boggs is a public high school teacher, historian and co-chairman of the Monroe Vicariate Evangelization and Catechesis Committee. Contact him at [email protected].