St. Joseph and Sacred Heart
In 1887 Assumption Church was overcrowded at each of the Sunday Masses. The Catholic population was growing as Topeka grew. For more than a year the pastor and the people had been discussing the need for a new parish in the city. Volga Germans were coming in increasing numbers. Bishop Fink visited with the priests and people in Topeka and agreed that a parish for the German-speaking peoples would provide for their needs and serve as a second parish in the city.
Bishop Fink appointed the newly ordained Father Francis Henry as pastor. He celebrated his first Mass of the new parish in Assumption Church on February 13, 1887. The people chose the name of St Joseph and the bishop approved.
Topeka and St. Joseph Church-parish became a savior and a home for the more than 20,000 Volga Germans. It was a blessed and welcome home for the many that stayed in Topeka and the many more who continued their journey from Russia to western Kansas.
By December of 1887, a two-story brick building with two schoolrooms and the pastor’s quarters on the first floor and a church on the second floor was dedicated. Construction of the current church began in the summer of 1898 and it was dedicated in 1900. A new school was erected on the site of the first building and completed in 1913. Classes were held until 1970 when it was closed due to low enrollment. Since then it has been used for religious education classes and by Let’s Help, an organization that provides for the needy.
In 1916, discussion regarding the formation of a second national church was begun. This was due to the size of St. Joseph Parish and the distance from it. Many of the parishioners had begun to settle in the Oakland community and had to walk the considerable distance to St. Joseph, a hardship for the elderly and the children. Father Henry called a meeting in January of 1917 and a committee was appointed to raise $10,000 in favor of the movement.
Bishop Ward appointed Father George Eckert as pastor to the new parish in May of 1919 and plans were drawn for the proposed church-school building. Mass was celebrated by Father Eckert for the first time on April 1, 1920 at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. Sunday Masses continued to be held at St. Joseph’s church with weekday Masses celebrated in a small Pentecostal chapel on Twiss.
The combined church-school building was dedicated in May of 1921 with the church situated on the first floor, and the second and third floors were used for school purposes. Later, the third floor was converted into living quarters for the teaching sisters.
Plans and monies collected for a separate church building were postponed by several disasters, the first of which was a severe strike in 1922 at the Santa Fe Railroad where many parishioners were employed. The Great Depression in the Thirties as well as a boiler explosion was another setback. These misfortunes were followed by the Flood of 1951, which caused much water damage to the basement church. Bids were let in February of 1966 to begin construction of the separate church building. In yet another disaster, the Tornado of June 1966, the church construction suffered some damage. But far worse was damage to many parishioners’ homes. The new church was dedicated on June 25, 1967. The church-school building still serves as a school with all three floors in use for educational purposes.
Through the years, the ties between St. Joseph and Sacred Heart congregations have remained close. Many parishioners are related by blood or by marriage. And we are bound by our shared German heritage, even as we welcome other ethnicities, other peoples who share our feelings of fervent and conservative Catholicism. When the Archdiocese proposed parish mergers in Topeka (and throughout the diocese), the merge of Saint Joseph and Sacred Heart parishes was a natural and almost foregone conclusion.
Today, we attend Mass together and we work together to continue our Catholic education program for the children of the parish. This we accomplished with the merger of the elementary schools of Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Guadalupe parishes. This unification of three parishes by sharing common goals, those of ministering to ethnic communities, Catholic education for children, and looking to the spiritual welfare of Catholics in the northeastern section of Topeka, is simply an outstanding example of Christian perseverance and community effort.