By Donnell Suggs
Matthew and Evah Buck got up from their seats at the right of the altar and began to sing. Father Victor Canela had asked them to sing Amazing Grace in honor of a pair of parishioners that needed prayer, and the Bucks, the St. Joseph Church, Bainbridge choir of two, dutifully obliged. The Bucks sang the first two verses of the hymn, and then sat back down. The entire time they sang, their eyes were on their children seated in the first pew. Just minutes earlier the boys were climbing the tree in front of the church. Now they were singing along with their parents.
Throughout Mass, Evah mouthed momisms prayerfully in their direction as the boys played and squirmed in their seats.
Family is a big part of what takes place at St. Joseph’s, and the Bucks are examples of the community that makes up the parish. In the year of St. Joseph, parishioners are proud of their patron saint, the man often referred to as St. Joseph the Worker. “I thought a lot about that when Pope Francis announced it,” said Matthew, who, along with his wife, has been a parishioner at St. Joseph’s for eight years. When the couple first moved to town, they volunteered to play music at Masses. Years later, they make up the entire choir, performing during multiple English Masses per week. “It gives me extra motivation, something extra special to work with,” said Matthew.
Following Mass, Maggie Adams, the parish council president, made her way towards the front of the church, greeting parishioners with a warm smile all the while. Adams joined the parish in 1989 when she moved to Bainbridge, and more than three decades later, she still walks around greeting people like she’s attending her first Mass. The St. Joseph’s family ethos is something she, too, takes immense pride in. “It feels wonderful,” she said of this being the year of St. Joseph. “It’s fulfilling; this is an awesome and generous church.”
According to Deacon Frank Penela, St. Joseph’s averages about 40-50 parishioners for Sunday Masses, and on the first Sunday of March, the congregation was hovering around that number. Along with the parishioners that came alone were families of three and four. Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, grandparents, and grandkids filled the pews. One of the parishioners that attended Mass as a party of one was Linda Cullifer. A lifelong parishioner – she was baptized at St. Joseph’s – she knows how special the association with St. Joseph is for a parish. “Joseph took care of Jesus and Mary. What better saint could we have?” asked Cullifer. “It’s wonderful.”
A friend and fellow lifelong parishioner, Valerie Bush, came over to say hello. She, too, was baptized at St. Joseph’s and feels a special closeness to the church’s patron. “When you talk about Joseph’s early life, we are kind of like that, too, here,” said Bush. “To be a Catholic in this community, in Bainbridge, people look to you as an example of the faith.”
The first St. Joseph’s Church building was consecrated on May 11, 1953. Five years later, to accommodate growth, ground was broken for the current St. Joseph’s Church. Then-Bishop of Savannah Thomas J. McDonough consecrated the church in 1958. From that point forward, the parish has been the meeting place for Catholics, not only in town but throughout the county.
A miniature Nativity is nestled amongst the shrubbery near a memorial marker for former parishioner Antonio Mendoza. The marker reads, “Those we love don’t go away. They walk beside us every day. Unseen, unheard, but always near, so loved, so missed, so very dear.”
Father Canela wanted to show us some of the church archives before noon Mass. The kitchen inside his modest rectory, located just feet from the church, was warm and smelled of cooked food. “The people bring me food all the time,” said Canela, a smile creased across his face. “Sometimes I have a kitchen full of food.”
While we waited, he went into an adjoining room and returned with a folder with black letters on the cover. Labeled “The History of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church,” the folder was full of photographs. One was of then-pastor Father Paul Feichter and Bishop McDonough in front of the church cornerstone. Others were of the parish grounds and parishioners. There were also old newspaper articles, yellowed by time, from The Post-Searchlight, the local weekly, and our own Southern Cross, that chronicled events like the parish’s First Communion class. That undated piece of newsprint had a photo of then-St. Joseph’s pastor Father Mark Angele, O.F.M., and six children in traditional white clothing for the occasion. “We want to celebrate St. Joseph the Worker because most of the people here in Bainbridge are workers,” said Canela. “They are not rich, they are not poor, they are workers like St. Joseph.”
Located in Decatur county, St. Joseph’s is the county’s sole Catholic parish. The congregation is diverse by necessity, and the parish offers multiple Masses in both English and Spanish.
The Hispanic parishioners make up a small, close-knit, and familial community. Father Canela and Father Rigoberto Chavez, the other priest at the parish, maintain a strong bond with the Hispanic community. “I feel that St. Joseph is a protector for the families of our church as he was for Mary and Jesus Christ,” said Chavez following an afternoon Spanish Mass.
The look back at the parish’s history through those nostalgic photos was further evidence of the spiritual foundation of the parish. Some of the families in the images are still attending Mass at St. Joseph’s. The photos also prove that not much has changed at the parish in terms of the physical foundation.
During Canela’s homily, he mentioned the church’s responsibility to represent St. Joseph wherever they go. “This church is dedicated to St. Joseph, our protector,” said Canela. “St. Joseph is our great intercessor. He provides for the church.”
And the church continues to provide for the families of St. Joseph’s Church, Bainbridge, just like St. Joseph did for his holy family. SC