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Church purchase ends emotional rollercoaster for parishioners

St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church on the Southside has a new identity: The Society of St. Joseph of Bethlehem. Many changes within the Catholic Church ultimately provided a small group of church members the opportunity to buy the church from the Allentown Diocese, forming an independent nonprofit organization.

The problems for St. Joseph’s started in 2008 when the diocese determined that it was going to close and merge several local parishes. St. Joseph’s was one of the five churches that was being closed. Former parishioners started discussing purchasing the church. “St. Joseph’s parishioners fought and appealed that decision and ended up taking it to the Vatican,” said SSJB Board President Paula Kydoniefs. “The Vatican eventually ordered that the parish remain open for use with guidelines set in 2011 by then-Bishop John Barres. He gave the parish the ability to have an annual Mass and have funerals of former parishioners.”

This proved to be very infrequent and the diocese relisted the church for sale in 2023.

“It’s been an emotional roller coaster. A year ago we heard that the church was going to be sold on the open market, but the diocese told us if we came up with 175,000 quickly, we could buy it, and we did.” She said several minor miracles and maybe major miracles followed, with a benefactor - the James Stocklas Family Trust - quickly coming forward to donate the whole $175,000.

The SSJB became responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the church post-purchase, and although this is no longer a parish church, it is considered a chapel and is part of the Allentown Diocese. As such, St. Joseph’s must have two Masses a year, one on the feast day of St. Joseph and one on Oct. 28, the anniversary of the consecration of the church.

When you approach the dual-steepled, majestic structure one can’t help but see the scaffolding supporting the outside of this building. The cornerstone was placed in 1914 and construction finished in 1917. Presently the church is not suited for occupancy and inspectors have found several code deficiencies that need to be updated. Regulators did work with the community to develop a stopgap mitigation plan that allowed the church to celebrate St. Joseph’s feast day March 19.

St. Josephs has a special and unique history. Traditionally attended by the local Slovenian/Windish community, the church is a testament to the cultural and historical influences of all ethnic churches on Bethlehem’s Southside. Many of the families attending the Feast of St. Joseph Mass had lifelong ties to this church. Some fondly remembered first communions, weddings and catechism classes in its halls.

The Windish are descendants of Slovenes that migrated to Bethlehem at the beginning of the 20th century from Western Hungary. They were both Catholics and Protestants, depending on the region of Hungary they hail from.

Chaplain of SSJB The Rev. Brendon Laroche leads the Feast Day Mass of Saint Joseph at Saint Joseph's RC Church in Bethlehem. He is currently the Pastor of St. Ursula Church and on the board for SSJB.
PRESS PHOTOS BY JENN RAGO St. Joseph's RC Church in Southside Bethlehem looks forward to better days once building code deficiencies are addressed. The scaffolding can be seen on the outside providing support and safety.
SSJB VP and Treasurer Anne Keyser thanks the attendees at the Feast Day Mass for their support and encouraged them to continue supporting the SSJB that will continue caring for this old structure.
SSJB President Paula Kydoniefs regaled the history, traditions, and sense of community that she has known at St. Josephs.
The Rev. Brendon Laroche reveals the story of Joseph the worker, the husband of Mary and a parent to Jesus, and why this feast day is in his honor. Former church parishioners, friends and community gathered for this special service.