A Brief History Of St. Joseph Catholic Church
Gilman/Issaquah, WA
(1896 - 2013)

First accounts of Roman Catholicism in Western Washington occurred when a Franciscan priest erected a cross at Point Grenville on the Pacific north of Gray's Harbor in 1775. However, Catholicism does not take root in Western Washington until 1824 when the Hudson Bay Company established a permanent Catholic settlement at Fort Vancouver on the Colombia River. In October of 1850, Rome established the diocese of Nisqually naming, Bishop A.M.A. Blanchet as its first bishop. He established his cathedral at St. James Church in Vancouver, Washington making it the first headquarters of the diocese of Western Washington. In 1883, Rome suppressed the diocese of Walla, Washington thereby making Nisqually the sole diocese of all of Washington

Were it not for the likes of an Irishman named Michael Donlan the history of St. Joseph's Parish in Issaquah might never have been realized. Michael Donlan, head of the Finians, was forced from his Irish home in 1866 at the tender age of 18 years. The Finians were a group which wanted Ireland to be a nation where both Protestant and Catholic could live in religious harmony. However, certain factions of the Irish government thought otherwise and Michael was forced to flee the country by boat. Armed with a Catholic Bible in one hand and a Protestant Bible in the other he promptly threw both overboard with the dream that in America the Irish could practice any religion they saw fit. Michael married Anne Murray in Lockport, New York where they began their family. The Donlan family lived in various areas of the United States before packing their wagon and homesteading to the Squak Valley on Good Friday of 1879. Fortune smiled on the Donlans as many of the neighboring families in the valley were also Catholic. It was also during 1879 that parishes were established in the cities of Aberdeen, Bellingham, Chehalis, Everett, Puyallup, Seattle, Snohomish, and Tacoma.

In 1883 Father Emanuel Domanez, from the flourishing lumber town of Snohomish, celebrated the first Mass in our area at the Michael Donlan home. The two day trip to Squak Valley was done with horse and buggy. Other families followed suit by having Mass said in their respective homes. Squak Valley was soon considered a "station church" (as opposed to a parish since Mass was celebrated infrequently). Fathers Gauy and later Father Peter Van Holderbeke persisted in keeping the Issaquah Catholic community a viable one.

As the area grew so did the number of parishioners and after a certain breakfast, a discussion as to the possibility of building a "real" church was broached. The people were greatly encouraged by Father Van Holderbeke response and support. In 1891 Peter McCloskey offered the land on Sunset Way (now the Cedar Apartments in the 400 block of East Sunset Way), Michael Donlan donated the lumber, and P.J. Maloney volunteered to build the church.

St. Joseph circa 1915 (courtesy of Issaquah Historical Society)In 1896 the church was completed and regular services were begun. Because of Michael's dedication to the building project he had the privilege of recommending the name of the church to the bishop (the name St. Joseph, was perhaps in deference to one of his twin sons named, Joseph). The Station Church of St. Joseph now had its own church building recognized by the diocese of Nisqually, Vancouver, Washington. Because of its location near the Gilman Coalmines the area was at this time known as Gilman.

 St. Joseph circa 1915 (courtesy of Issaquah Historical Society)

St. Joseph circa 1915 (courtesy of Issaquah Historical Society)

In 1903 Bishop O'Dea moved the diocese to the booming port city of Seattle. On September 11, 1907 the diocese was renamed for its principal city, Seattle.

Three years later, in 1910, Bishop O'Dea attached the title "Mission" to St. Joseph Church and its pastoral care fell to St. Anthony Church in Renton. From there, by rail, and later by automobile, would come the priests who would celebrate Mass on a bi-monthly basis. A year earlier, Fr. M. J. O'Callaghan purchased a lot adjacent to St. Anthony Church and had a permanent rectory built at a cost of $4,000 to house the priests of the parish and its mission.

Father Cammerman was assigned the position of pastor in 1910. He began a more extensive building phase for St. Anthony's Parish. The years from 1912 through 1919 were turbulent ones for both St. Anthony's and St. Joseph's mission. Four different priests served the parish from 1912 through 1919. Two of them, Father Albee Heelan and Father Deere, succumbed to the ravages of the influenza epidemic of 1918. They would die within three months of each other. St. Anthony's Parish had been served by more than 10 priests in less than 20 years. In 1919 Father Carey was made pastor and began what was to be a long career as pastor of the growing parish. He retired in 1948 having been in the Lord's service for 29 years. The golden years of his life were spent in his beloved Ireland where he died in January of 1973.

 Children and adults standing in front of St. Joseph Catholic Church, ca 1920. The priest next to the high official is Father Carey. Also present in the photo are Joseph Rutkowski (front row, far left), Joe Neukirchen (adult male in back row, beneath window), Joseph Donlan (directly in front of Joe Neukirchen), John Hircko (the closest to the front of the four boys between the Bishop and Father Carey), Mary Lotto (just behind the Bishop’s shoulder, the first of the little girls), Alice Neukirchen (back row, standing on something to make her the tallest in the back row, closest to the window on the right), Anne Rutkowski (directly behind the shorter girl in the front row), Marie Neukirchen (to Annie Rutkowski’s left), and Anna Suess (Mrs. Joe) Neukirchen (second from the right, wearing the white hat). [IHM photo 96-15-1] From Issaquah History Museum.

Children and adults standing in front of St. Joseph Catholic Church, ca 1920. The priest next to the high official is Father Carey. Also present in the photo are Joseph Rutkowski (front row, far left), Joe Neukirchen (adult male in back row, beneath window), Joseph Donlan (directly in front of Joe Neukirchen), John Hircko (the closest to the front of the four boys between the Bishop and Father Carey), Mary Lotto (just behind the Bishop’s shoulder, the first of the little girls), Alice Neukirchen (back row, standing on something to make her the tallest in the back row, closest to the window on the right), Anne Rutkowski (directly behind the shorter girl in the front row), Marie Neukirchen (to Annie Rutkowski’s left), and Anna Suess (Mrs. Joe) Neukirchen (second from the right, wearing the white hat). [IHM photo 96-15-1] From Issaquah History Museum.

The depression years of the 1930s were a quiet time in the annals of the St. Joseph mission. The late thirties and early forties saw the advent of the great conflicts of Europe and the world. December 7, 1941 would see our nation enter World War II. St. Joseph's mission was not unaffected. In the decade of the 40s the population of Renton would quadruple. There were now pressing needs to be met in the growing area, especially in the facilities of the parish community. After the war, burgeoning growth would occur on the Eastside because of the completion of a floating bridge across Lake Washington. The influx of people to the Eastside resulted in St. Joseph mission of Issaquah becoming the mission of Sacred Heart Church in Bellevue, Washington in 1949. Father Gerald Moore was made pastor of Sacred Heart Church in that same year.

Father Moore's notable contribution to the St. Joseph mission during his tenure was the acquisition of three portable classrooms on the grounds of the church for a CCD center. Members of the Sisters of Providence Heights College taught religion to the public elementary school children. In June of 1951 Seattle became an archdiocese and Thomas A. Connolly became the first archbishop. During this time, Archbishop Connolly renovated St. James Cathedral, built St. Thomas Seminary, and opened a host of new schools and churches.

Being the visionary that he was, Archbishop Connolly would recognize the potential for growth of the Eastside. In June of 1962 he would raise the status of St. Joseph Church from Mission to Parish! Father George McLean was made the resident pastor and Father Gerard Bussey, a Jesuit from Seattle University, was the assistant. On the third Sunday of June 1962, 422 people attended the two scheduled Masses in the old church and contributed $276.67 in the collection. By July 22, 1962, four scheduled Sunday Masses would be offered with the regular assistance of Jesuit priests from Seattle University.

It soon became apparent that a larger church was needed. George Rowley, owner and developer of Mountain Park Estates, offered property to the Archdiocese on which to build a church. Archbishop Connolly selected the site at 220 Mountain Park Blvd SW consisting of 7.7 acres. A report to the parish in the September 29, 1963 bulletin noted that $84,845 dollars had been pledged to the combined funds of budget and building. Bids for the new church were opened on March 17, 1964. This was also the year in which English became the official language of the Mass. The church's projected cost would be approximately $157,315, less than most average homes in 1996. It was designed by Johnston and Campanella, architects, and constructed by the Rudy Simone Construction Company. Seating capacity would accommodate 500 people.

On March 7, 1965, the first Mass was offered in the new church. It was also the baptismal day of Page Allison Ann Lamb, the first recipient of that Sacrament in the new St. Joseph Church. The parish continues to be deeply indebted to people and church organizations who contributed gifts. Julius Boehm, of Boehm's Chocolate Factory, Issaquah donated a life size hand-carved crucifix and a statue of Mary and Joseph imported from Italy (The sacred carvings were made by Conrad Moroder of St. Ulrich. Since the 17th century the Moroders have been renowned woodcarvers of sacred art). The altar linens used at the first Mass were a gift of the Altar Guild of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church of Issaquah. Beautiful, all-white vestments were given by the President of Seattle University, Father A. A. Lemieux, S.J. March 21, 1965, the first church dinner in the new parish hall was held. It honored St. Joseph and was served by the ladies Altar Society. Four-hundred parishioners attended, showing pride in their new facility. CCD classes were begun in March of 1965 as well. All classes were held in the four basement classrooms. In August of 1965 the three portable buildings from the old church were placed on the new church grounds and refurbished by the men in the Parish.

The times "they were a changing" in the late 60s and early 70s. This time, the country was being torn apart by differing views within its own boundaries. Words like napalm, Agent Orange, Hanoi, and Viet Nam were the topics of conversation. The youth of the nation was being torn apart physically as well as politically. "War is hell" was the cry of all despite their views. Father McLean, ever anxious to keep the youth loyal to the Catholic faith during the uncertain 60s and 70s, had the statues painted fluorescent and spotlighted with "black light." April 28, 1968 saw the beginning of a new era in parish governance, the Parish Council. On November 14, 1968 a steering committee was elected to direct the formation of St. Joseph Parish's first Parish Council formed in May of 1969.

In 1971 Sister Agnes Joseph Bates was hired as CCD coordinator to supplement and enrich the lay parish teachers. Father Anthony McGirl became pastor in 1975 and was at St. Joseph Parish until his death in 1982. Father Steven Rowan, a professor at Seattle University, was the associate pastor from 1977 until 1983. On July 1, 1982, Father Robert E. Russell became pastor of St. Joseph. Father Jim Eblen would serve as weekend assistant from 1983 until 1991. The combination of Fathers Russell and Eblen had an outstanding impact on the parish. They were truly catchers of God's people in their compassion, patience, and ability to understand the thinking of the 80s. During their time together the church would undergo extensive redecorating. Prior to the 25th Jubilee in 1988 the altar rails were removed, new carpeting was installed, the building was painted throughout and many other improvements were made. That year a new state of the art organ was installed.

In the late 80s the formation of a new church, Mary Queen of Peace on the Pine Lake Plateau, would decrease St. Joseph Parish's membership by one-third. Father Russell's time at St. Joseph Church would be short lived. After a lengthy illness he died on August 26, 1989. He was the second priest to die while in God's service at St. Joseph Church. Sister Sheila Lemieux was appointed by Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen to be the Parochial Minister in September of 1989. With the help of Father Eblen this team would guide a strong parish into the 90s. Sister Sheila remained in her position until 1990 helping in a time of transition. Father Patrick Clark was named pastor of St. Joseph Church in July of 1990. Under his leadership the Church was renovated and a beautiful gathering space was added. In addition, with his skilled leadership, a parish school serving the three parishes of Issaquah, Sammamish and Snoqualmie was formed.

In 2003, Father Robert Evenson was assigned to St. Joseph Church. With his diverse skills, extensive background in liturgy and evangelization, he continued the shepherding of the parish at a crucial time of unprecedented growth. Fr. Rob Evenson served St. Joseph until 2007.

An interim period ensued for nine months with various priests from around the Archdiocese and the universal Church helping to celebrate the sacraments and enrich the local community. On July 1st, 2008 Archbishop Brunett appointed Father Bryan Dolejsi as Priest Administrator of St. Joseph. Having been ordained for only 2 years, Fr. Bryan arrived to St. Joseph from Tacoma and began his first assignment as a Priest Administrator. In his three years at St. Joseph the parish continued to grow to well over 1300 households. Along with Father James Eblen who was serving once again as weekend assistant, a fifth Mass was added, 350 children were in the Catholic school, and nearly 300 other children were in Faith Formation (K-12). At the end of his three-year assignment, Fr. Bryan was named Vocation Director for the Archdiocese of Seattle.

Fr. Todd O. Strange, Priest AdministratorArchbishop Peter J. Sartain appointed Father Todd O. Strange as Priest Administrator of St. Joseph Church and School starting July 1, 2011. After having being ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Seattle in June of 2009, Fr. Todd came to St. Joseph from Lewis and Pacific counties where he served his first two years as a parochial vicar at a cluster of six parishes. He leads St. Joseph at a unique time in our history as we continue our rapid growth within our current facilities already maximized at both the parish and school campuses.