Living His story: St. Joseph Parish in Rhineland celebrates 125 years
RHINELAND — Laura Myers is working diligently every day to compile a 125th anniversary history book — full of significant details and photographs — about her beloved parish, St. Joseph Church in Rhineland. For Myers and many of the more than 200 faithful who attend St. Joseph, the background of the parish is interwoven with their own family histories.
Myers said that in 1898, her maternal grandmother’s family left home in Nebraska with plans to relocate. They resided in New Mexico for a year and ultimately traveled to Rhineland, where the family settled permanently.
“My grandmother drove one of the family wagons at the age of 10, while her dad drove the other one,” Myers explained. “Rhineland came to be home to them due to the German culture and faith that they found here.”
Father Joseph Reisdorff, a visionary priest, helped people find that kind of spiritual environment on March 19, 1895 — the feast day of St. Joseph — when he transformed 12,000 acres of fertile soil in Knox County into a German-Catholic colony. His efforts eventually led to a thriving Catholic community in Rhineland, located about 165 miles northwest of Fort Worth.
While parishioners of St. Joseph planned this year to celebrate the 125th anniversary of their parish’s 1895 founding, COVID-19 safety concerns have necessitated delaying the event until April 2021.
In the interim, parishioners are taking time to remember people like Fr. Reisdorff, who worked tirelessly to establish their rural parish.
A native of Rhine Province in Germany, Fr. Reisdorff hailed from a Catholic region blessed with rich soil.
In his drive to help develop Christ’s Church in Texas, the priest sought to create such a place in Knox County. A few years earlier, in 1892, he helped establish a Catholic community in Windthorst, where he celebrated the first Mass in that new parish.
Responding to Fr. Reisdorff’s advertisements in newspapers in the United States and Germany, settlers began arriving in Rhineland eager to sow the seeds of opportunity that had been planted in their minds after reading and hearing about the available land in Texas.
Before long, the number of settlers outgrew the space at the early colony house where the priest was celebrating Mass. A wooden church, along with a school staffed by the Benedictine Sisters from Jonesboro, Arkansas, was soon built and stood for about 25 years.
Construction of the current church, which started in 1927, was interrupted by economic hardships of the Great Depression and the perils of uncertainty during World War II. Finally completed in 1951, the German Gothic-style structure now stands as one of the most beautiful country churches in Texas.
“People here know it as ‘The Cathedral in the Cotton Patch,’” parishioner and church secretary Mary Denise Groves said. A lifelong resident of Rhineland, Groves continued, “The tradition, the architecture, everything about this church, you just feel holy when you enter it. You feel the presence of the Lord here.”
Most of the material for the church was donated by a generous business community, and work on the church was undertaken by talented parishioners. The church contains tens of thousands of handmade bricks.
Beautiful cut-glass windows were later installed, beginning in 1972, bringing holy artistic themes to life throughout the church. Windows in the nave, the central part of the church, depict the life of Christ, including His birth, transfiguration, and crucifixion. Sanctuary windows represent the themes found in the Bible related to bread and wine.
Other windows depict saints important to the Catholic Church and to the Rhineland community. They include Saint Isidore, patron of farmers, and Saint Benedict, founder of the Benedictines, who served St. Joseph as priests and sisters for decades.
Longtime parishioner Mary Birkenfeld moved to Rhineland from nearby Bomarton in 1953, just a few years after the final completion of St. Joseph’s present church. Its spiritual grandeur never ceases to inspire her.
“Whenever I enter the church, I just feel a reverence wherever I look. It’s beautiful and it’s alive.”
The aura of St. Joseph has also captivated Janet Dillard, who has been spiritually enriched by the church her entire life. “This is home and always has been home for me,” Dillard said. As director of religious education and youth ministry leader, Dillard said parishioners wear many hats at St. Joseph. Under the guidance of Pastor John Perikomalayil, HGN, parishioners are involved in myriad ministries. “We just do whatever Father wants,” Dillard said.
Billie Myers agreed. He serves as an acolyte, finance council chairman, and Grand Knight of the local Rhineland Knights of Columbus Council #1766. “This parish is like a family, and that’s what makes it so special,” he said.
Myers’ fellow Knight, Magdaleno “Leno” Hernandez, is also an acolyte at St. Joseph. In addition, he serves as sacristan, lector, Eucharistic minister, RCIA director, and head of baptismal preparation. “Everybody gets along here and we take care of anything that needs to be done,” Hernandez said.
Valera Hertel, who serves as sacristan for daily Masses, is someone who has remained active at St. Joseph her entire life. She was baptized in the unfinished church in 1938. “We all love our church and we adore Fr. John,” she said.
“He has brought back so many traditions in the church, and we have needed that,” Hertel continued. Those traditions have included Stations of the Cross, Eucharistic Adoration, and a weekly novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
Fr. Perikomalayil, a native of India, said he has always felt welcome by the local parish community. As an HGN religious order priest, Fr. Perikomalayil’s first assignment outside of India was in the Diocese of Fort Worth for St. Joseph in Rhineland and Santa Rosa in nearby Knox City.
Fr. Perikomalayil has been known to do whatever it takes for the church, parishioners said, stating that they have seen him mowing the lawn on the church grounds, stacking chairs and tables, and even weeding the flower beds.
“I grew up in a rural area in India,” the priest said. “My parents were farmers and I can easily relate to a farming community. Before I became a priest, I actually wanted to be a farmer, but God had a different plan for me.”
Fr. Perikomalayil now enjoys living out his order’s charism for the faithful at St. Joseph. That spiritual gift calls for the Heralds of Good News to “train and supply zealous, dedicated, hardworking, and saintly missionaries to proclaim the Good News of the Lord.”
“That’s exactly what we do here at St. Joseph’s,” he said.