St. Joseph’s an Old, Devout Community
By ALAN OLSON
More than 150 years after its founding in the rural hills of southern Marshall County, the families of St. Joseph’s Settlement still flock to their namesake church on the hill, though many members of the younger generations seem to have moved on.
Visiting the cemetery behind St. Joseph Church, located just beyond the boundaries of Proctor, one finds a wide field of headstones, many of which share last names — Esteps, Frohnapfels, Kuhns, Holmans and Klugs are among the most common names, as five or more generations of families with up to a dozen children were born, lived and were buried on the hill, where their descendants return every week.
Eloise Herrick, 102, has been an active member of the church community — and, by extension, the community at large — since she was a girl. Having been around for nearly 60 percent of the church’s lifespan, Herrick recalls the stark differences in the community from when she was a girl — but what hasn’t changed is how observant those members who still remain are.
“At one time, there were 60-some families, or more, at one time,” Herrick said. “People have always been very religious here. … It used to be really busy. There were 65 children at school out there.”
“It really is ingrained in your upbringing,” added her daughter, Rose Bridgeman. “Generation after generation.”
One tradition, no longer commonly observed, was to stop and pray when the church bells were run at 8 a.m., noon and 5 p.m., both women recalled from their youth.
Bridgeman recalls how her siblings would stay with relatives through the week in St. Joseph’s Settlement to attend church and school, only returning to their home in New Martinsville on weekends. Parishioner Ray Estep recalls walking to the church daily from his house, 7 miles from the hilltop site, but visible in the distance on a distant hillside — literally, uphill both ways.
The church draws a crowd of about 60 people for Sunday service, and around 40 for Tuesday and Thursday services — though, as one parishioner commented, the congregants are “a bunch of grayhairs” after many of the older generation’s children have left the area.
“A lot of the people quit going to church, and it just dwindled down,” Herrick said.
“There were a couple hundred people every week, back in the day. The women sat on one side, the men on the other,” Bridgeman said.
The diminishing population of the church concerns some, including parish secretary Denise Klug, but Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston spokesman Tim Bishop said the future of the parish is not currently in question, after a recent assessment determined St. Joseph Church to be in good standing.
“Right now, there are no plans to change the status of St. Joseph’s in Proctor,” Bishop said. “The diocese undertook a process called Joining Our Neighbors, that is underway right now. It affects several parishes, but St. Joseph’s Settlement was not among those, in the initial plan. I think we’re OK.”
Declining population aside, Klug said the church is financially viable, supported almost entirely through charity, donations from parishioners and other sources. The work required on buildings is often handled in-house, according to financial records.
In addition to the church, the grounds also include a rectory for the various resident priests who have officiated services over the decades, while a two-room school was in use from 1853 until its closure on May 19, 1984, when the last four eighth-grade students — Clem and Scott Frohnapfel, Tony Kernan and Lori South — received their diplomas.
Herrick recalls the education she received as a girl being quite good, though more recent attendees, including Estep and Klug, remember the German nuns who instructed the children as being highly strict and disciplinarian.
The community has a strong German heritage, founded by German immigrants, largely from Bavaria and Hesse — Herrick’s great-grandparents were German immigrants before settling in town. Written records from parishioners describe the cheap cost of land at the time — around 1 percent the cost per acre compared to land in Germany — as contributing to the tide of immigration, along with religious and political unrest. The land was initially purchased by Wheeling resident Isaac Hoge and Philadelphia resident Gunnin Bedford, who subsequently sold the land to German families for around $3 an acre.
The church was formally organized on June 5, 1853, during which time priests from Wheeling came to St. Joseph four times a year to hold Mass. That continued until Jan. 15, 1873, when the rectory was built, allowing St. Joseph to become an independent parish.
The church itself seats around 200 people and includes stained glass windows dedicated to former parishioners, hand-painted Stations of the Cross, and other statuary.