St. Joseph's Catholic Church home to ‘hardy souls’ for 150 years

For members of St. Joseph’s, renovating the church in time for its big birthday was a labor of love

kmoeller@idahostatesman.comNovember 18, 2013 

Perched on a hillside above Idaho City’s main drag, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church endures.

The small white church was built in November 1863 — when Idaho City was a mining boomtown and one of the largest cities in the Northwest. The church was destroyed by fire four years later.

But the town got right to work rebuilding, and Mass was celebrated within a month of the fire. The building didn’t have a foundation. That wasn’t added until 1980.

It’s the oldest continuously operating Catholic church in Idaho, and among the oldest of any denomination, said Mike Brown, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise.

“It’s more than just a building. It represents the heart, blood and spirit of the people. It’s a visible sign of their commitment,” Brown said. Jesuits founded Idaho’s oldest church building, the Mission of the Sacred Heart in Cataldo, and a pair of diocesan priests from Oregon founded St. Joseph's.

To prepare for the church’s sesquicentennial celebration service Sunday, members spent two years and about $70,000 renovating the interior. The restored decor reflects how it might have looked in the early 1900s.

Some longtime members had concerns about the renovation.

“I like old things. We’d been going there for a long time, and I didn’t want to see it change,” said Doug Keith, 66, a retired electrician and contractor who’s attended services at St. Joseph’s since he was 3. “But it changed for the better. They did a beautiful job of bringing it back to period.”

The Boisean’s grandparents bought a house in Centerville in 1950, and his parents later built a house in the area. He has fond memories of ringing the church bell before and after services.

“Grandmother would drag us over the hill on Sundays,” recalled Keith.

Keith and his wife, Jean, upgraded the building’s antiquated electrical system as part of the top-to-bottom renovation.


Most church members participated in the renovation, which required thousands of volunteer hours to finish. About a dozen were involved in ripping out carpet glued to the wood floor in the sanctuary.

“It was three days worth of rocking and rolling,” joked Peg Wuelfing, a Wilderness Ranch resident who has attended the church for about a decade.

The floor, which had been painted several times over the years, had to be sanded. Wuelfing said she also painted the new wainscotting in the nave.

The original pine pews were taken to a professional for refinishing. The square hand-made nails in the pews were removed.

Church records showed that a sage green-and-white wallpaper was hung in 1913; some of it was found in the wall. A good match for that historical wallpaper was found through a London company. The new wallpaper adds color to the walls.

Some other additions: new ceiling lights (in the Arts and Crafts style, popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s); a platform to raise the altar above the nave; and handmade wood frames for the pictures of the Stations of the Cross.


About 40 families are active in St. Joseph’s, and the number fluctuates with the area’s seasonal residents, said John Fiedler, a 72-year-old Wilderness Ranch resident and history buff who has been attending services at Saint Joseph’s for 23 years.

Several inches of snow fell in Idaho City Friday and Saturday, but Idaho 21 and other major roads were dry and clear Sunday morning. More than 90 people packed into the church for the sesquicentennial service, which began with the singing of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Monsignor Dennis Wassmuth, pastor for the past 15 years, praised Fiedler for organizing the day’s celebration. Church-goers received a special 16-page program that had the liturgy, church history, poetry and photos.

Fiedler invited Gov. Butch Otter, who was unable to attend. The governor and his wife are on a trade mission to Moscow.

“That’s the one in Russia, not the one in north Idaho,” Fiedler said, before reading a letter from the governor.

Sunday’s service was led by Bishop Michael Driscoll, and one of the attendees was the Rev. Joseph Muha. Now retired, Muha led Christmas Mass at the church last year.

“By the way, what are you doing this Christmas?” Wassmuth asked Muha as they stood outside the church.

“I’m on a ship,” Muha said. Since retiring nine years ago, the Boisean has worked on 39 cruise ships, he said. “I help wherever needed.”

St. Joseph’s is part of Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in Boise. The small church doesn’t have a full-time priest. Services are held at the church every Sunday and are typically led by Wassmuth or a church deacon.

Pierce Murphy, former Boise community ombudsman, was a deacon who led services at St. Joseph’s monthly for about a decade. Murphy took a job in Seattle this past summer, but he’s still a deacon for Our Lady of the Rosary when he’s in Boise visiting family.

“I love going up there. The people are just so nice,” said Murphy. “As a deacon, you feel like you’re really needed.”

Murphy, who was invited to serve as the homilist at the sesquicentennial service, enjoys the historic feel of St. Joseph’s.

“You can just imagine these hardy souls in Idaho City who gathered there 150 years ago,” he said.

In his homily, Murphy advised church members not to get too caught up in the building itself. He told them they are “the temple, the presence of God in the world.”

“Let’s marvel at it, let’s celebrate all of its beauty, sparkle and charm. Let’s not think this is where we leave Christ today. ... Let’s take him with us out into the world.”

Katy Moeller: 377-6413

Editor's note: This story has been corrected from its original published version. Doug Keith and his wife, Jean, upgraded the building’s antiquated electrical system as part of the top-to-bottom renovation. Also, St. Joseph's was founded by a pair of diocesan priests from Oregon, not Jesuit missionaries.

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