St. Joseph - A church, a community, a treasure

By Tom Kelly
Editor and Publisher

It is possible to be a casual visitor for years, as I have, to the western Louisiana Piney Woods community of Zwolle, on an upland backwater arm of Toledo Bend Reservoir and never pass the St. Joseph Catholic Church. It lies at the end of Hammond street, which leads off the avenue that until recently came through the downtown as U.S. Highway 171 (which has now bypassed Zwolle as a four-lane divided thoroughfare connecting the Louisiana cities of Lake Charles and Shreveport down the western side of the state). The church, as does the town it serves, dates its heritage to the 18th century French/Spanish period along what is now the Louisiana-Texas border region, and it is definitely not your basic small-town North Louisiana Piney Woods hill country church.

The incorporated Town of Zwolle, which last month elected long-time logger and timber man G.J. (Pie) Martinez as its Mayor, has an official population of a little over 1,700. The surrounding communities of Noble, Ebarb, Converse, and Belmont, plus the population along the Louisiana side of the Toledo reservoir, make up a network of families that are close-knit, hard-working, and largely involved in forestry and its related support industries and services. St. Joseph serves a parish of 1,100 families in this area, plus a mission at Ebarb. An earlier mission at Noble has been closed.

It was the unexpected funeral of A.T. (Bebee) Martinez, a veteran logger and timber buyer, and member of an extended family with deep connections in the region, that brought me last month to St. Joseph church, which I found filled to overflowing. (Separate story in this edition.) The memorial rites were befitting the man. The service produced an overwhelming sense of worship. The timeless ceremonies, the majestic music, and spoken words reminded me, the recovering Southern Baptist, that there is more than one way to invoke a sense of the holy. I knew I would return, to "turn aside," as one who contemplates a burning bush, and see this thing. Thus this writing.

St. Joseph church is situated on a 50-acre campus alongside the Kansas City Railroad track in the northeast quadrant of Zwolle, and contains the impressive sanctuary, a former elementary school building now used as the parish hall/activity center; an administration building, reconstructed from a former nuns' residence; the rectory (pastor's residence); and the large parish cemetery. Added artistic touches on the campus include the bell tower, which chimes the quarter hour regularly, a modern fountain, dedicated to the Gaul family, and a Queen of Peace statue near the grounds entrance. A stylized statue of Risen Christ overlooks the cemetery. The facade of the church incorporates a 41-foot glass cross which runs from the floor to the ceiling.

Inside the sanctuary, a series of faceted glass windows depicts stylized images beginning with St. Joseph with tools of his carpentry trade, symbols of the Virgin Mary, and key points in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The windows, imported from Paris, France, were installed in 1970, replacing the original glass windows. The traditional Stations of the Cross, hand carved in wood, and also imported from France are on either side of the sanctuary walls.

According to a history of the church parish first written in 1975, and updated in 2001, "The present St. Joseph Church, Fr. Robert Friend pastor (1944-1975), was dedicated April 28, 1957. Bishop Charles P. Greco of Alexandria blessed the new brick edifice, estimated at the time to be worth $200,000 . . . The new church, designed in 'English Contemporary style,' will seat 600 people. The plans were drawn according to specifications by Father Friend, by Neil-Somdal, architects of Shreveport. The contractor was Leon Roy of Natchitoches.

"Outstanding features of the church are the altar and sanctuary, the exposed laminated wood arch support, a Sacred Heart chapel seating 36, and a cry room enclosed with glass louvers. A 16-foot crucifix dominates the sanctuary above the solid oak altar."

The present pastor, Fr. Timothy Hurd, now in his ninth year at St. Joseph, says a renovation project is currently underway,"to prepare for the next decade," and the church is lucky to be able to work with the original architectural blueprints from the Somdal & Associates firm, which is still in operation in Shreveport fifty years later.

Father Tim, as he is familiarly known by the parishioners, is a native of Iowa, where he grew up on a farm. "Plenty of corn, and cows," he said. "Coming to the country was no surprise."

Fr. Hurd grew up as one of five siblings, children of a Catholic father and a Presbyterian mother. This was a time when mixed-faith marriages were not tolerated so easily as today, but his mother, a church organist in her own faith, emphasized to them that "The Baptists, the Methodist, the Lutherans, are not the enemy. The devil is the enemy." She also laid down some rules that Tim found difficult, but he complied; if you are a six-foot youth in Iowa, "They shoved a basketball in your hands, and said 'play!'" he recalls. OK, Mom said. There are too many dumb men out there; if you want to play sports, you must learn to play an instrument. He learned the organ. Each of the siblings learned an instrument. In response to the obvious question, Tim said, "No, we didn't get along well enough to play together."

After high school, Tim enrolled in St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, where he took a major in music performance--skills which he utilized in the recent funeral mass, singing at the family's request, "Because He Lives," in a rich, obviously well trained bass-baritone.

As a freshman at St. Ambrose, he was in class one day, when a man rushed into the room and asked, "Does anyone here play the organ?" Tim said he wasn't about to raise his hand--musicians might be suspect of foppishness. The visitor said, in an urgent tone, "Ok, here's what: There's a wedding happening near here within one hour. The organist who was to play has just been killed in a car accident. We'll pay $200 for anyone who can go and play the wedding." Tim's hand shot up. "I play the organ," he said. He played the event, cold turkey, and from there forward earned his college spending money as organist for the diocesan cathedral church in Davenport. Moms know.

There is still an organ in Fr. Tim's life, at St. Joseph church. It is an Allen electronic instrument, obviously top of the line, which fills the room with magnificent sound--at which I marveled during the recent funeral mass, my eyes searching for what I knew had to be real pipes. The "Jesu," the "Ave Maria," the "Ode to Joy" were overwhelming in the mood the music evoked for me; I learned in the recent visit that the organist on that day was Michael Kenney of Shreveport, home of the diocesan "mother ship." Fr. Tim blessed me again with a brief passage on the Allen instrument, using a computer disc on which he had digitally recorded some of his own playing. He said there are two things that make for the sound--the instrument, and the acoustics, of which there is an abundance in that 41-foot tall arched auditorium.

On a tour of the sanctuary, Fr. Tim led me to the small chapel just off the main room, where private rites are held for small groups. The altar, of burnished red oak, (see photograph on Page 13) is from a church in Iowa, which suffered a fire. Tim's father rescued the altar piece, and sent it to his son at Zwolle. The Crucifix once graced a Benedictine monastery in Belgium. While on holiday from his studies in Rome, Fr. Tim spotted the piece in a mom-and-pop antique shop in Brussels, bent and tarnished. He inquired about it, and the owner said, "Oh, it's bent." Tim said, "I can fix that," and the owner gave it to him. It is now restored and serving its role in the ceremonies of a real live church in Zwolle, Louisiana.

After school in Iowa, Fr. Tim was first stationed in Abbeville, in South Louisiana, where he worked as a teacher, spent three years in the Holy Land, then returned to Shreveport where he worked four years as a teacher. After making a decision to enter the priesthood, he studied in Rome, and was ordained in 1992. He spent ten years in the Monroe area, at Jesus the Good Shepherd Church, and as chancellor of St. Frederick High School. At St. Fredericks he once assigned students to go out into the community to find charitable works to do. One group of boys worked at the local animal shelter, cleaning cages and caring for the animals. One day, one of the senior boys knocked on Fr. Tim's door, and entered bearing in his arms a smallish black dog. The student told Fr. Tim, "All the dogs have been adopted except this one, and he's the best dog there. Can you take care of him until I can find someone to take him?" Of course, Tim took the dog. His name was, and still is Jake. I noticed Jake when Fr. Tim first met me on the parking lot at St. Joseph, and he stayed close by throughout our walking tour of the facilities--including the sanctuary, where he behaved with good Christian respect. Jake is now a bit older, a bit heavier, and moves a bit slower, but he's there for Fr. Tim.

I can only wish that my CeJay hound dog were a good Catholic.