St. Joseph in Bertha to celebrate 100 years of building community

Categories: Around the Diocese

May 23, 2014, edition
By Dee Goerge
For The Visitor

Father Henry Yzermans’ suggestion to name Bertha’s church after St. Joseph proved to be foretelling.

Like their “worker” patron, members of the western Todd County parish have pitched in to make the church what it is today as parishioners celebrate their 100th anniversary June 8.


In 1941, parish men used timbers, planks, wooden rollers and a tractor to move the 1914-era St. Joseph Church across the street to make room for a new brick church.

St. Joseph’s began as a mission church in 1913; early on, Father Yzermans celebrated Mass in homes for about a dozen families. After the parish incorporated July 15, 1914, the men built a small frame church with pews made of 2-by-4s.

“It looked like a little white schoolhouse,” said Mary Ann Hartman, 95, who joined the parish in 1943. She remembers when the church was moved across the street, put up on blocks and used for Mass while the brick church was built.

“Church moving day” in August 1951 was quite a feat, said Herman Hammel, 94. Men placed timbers, planks and wooden rollers under the 50-ton building and moved it forward slowly with a big tractor.

By mid-afternoon, with the church in the middle of the street, the sweat-drenched men stopped for lunch and iced tea served by the women. They finished the 400-foot journey before the sun set.

Bricklayers, with St. Joseph volunteers, finished the $46,000 church in time for a dedication by Bishop Peter Bartholome on June 3, 1952.

Men of the church continued to pitch in over the years — building a handicap-accessible ramp in 1984, then replacing it with a more permanent ramp in 2010, as well as many remodeling and maintenance projects.

Two men from the parish have become priests: Father Thomas Lamping (1984) and deceased Father Nathan Packard (1987).

Family friendly

“The beauty of this parish is the number of young families,” said Father Peter VanderWeyst, pastor of St. Joseph in Bertha, St. Joseph in Clarissa and Christ the King in Browerville.

In 2009, parish council minutes noted that St. Joseph Parish in Bertha had the highest percentage of 0 to 17 years old (35 percent) and smallest percentage of 65 and older (13 percent) in the diocese. The information was gleaned from the Minnesota State Demographic Office census and Glenmary Research Center data. Currently there are 108 registered families.

Religious education coordinator Elizabeth Schwartz has been helping educate young parishioners since 2005. She has fond memories of sisters teaching vacation Bible school when she grew up. Being in the presence of the religious sisters helped instill a passion for the Catholic faith, which she tries to pass on by writing vacation Bible school programs that include lessons about saints and the Mass.


St. Joseph Church in Bertha today.

During the school year, all students meet on Wednesday nights, breaking into classes in rooms at the church and rectory. Having elementary and high school students together is reminiscent of the 1980s when Father Alfred Kroll led faith formation classes with students and their parents. Now students share a meal before classes, and older students help clean up.

“It helps build community. It’s good for younger kids to see older kids helping out — to live life as Catholics and step up and help where it’s needed.” Schwartz said.

The parish’s welcoming attitude toward young children during Mass was one of the reasons pastoral council chairman Bill Hartman and his family started driving from Wadena to Bertha more than a decade ago.

“We’ve grown to like the people, and we like it because it’s a smaller church,” he said. “We feel comfortable there, and people pitch in.”

Parishioners take turns cleaning the church and bringing food for well-attended monthly fellowship gatherings after Mass. Young couples from the parish cluster meet regularly for spiritual “date nights.” Members of all ages pitch in at the annual parish festival, the second Sunday in August.

Hartman added that parishioners are excited about seeing former priests and meeting Bishop Donald Kettler at the celebration.

“I think he’ll see a young, vital community and that we need to keep the church going,” Hartman said. “We are raising a new generation of Catholic citizens.”

All Are Welcome

Parishioners of St. Joseph in Bertha have been busy preparing for the June 8 centennial celebration, according to Carol Rice, chair of the parish life committee.

Parishioners are eager to see past members who have moved away as well as friends from other churches at the centennial, Rice said. “St. Joseph’s is a small, quaint rural church, and members have been pretty close over the years.”

With live stream video and overflow seating in the basement, there will be room for everyone at the 4 p.m. Mass.

All are invited to stay for a light supper including pulled pork, potato salad and cake. Seating will be available in the basement and under a tent outdoors.

The church’s history will be on display in a slideshow, photos and memorabilia.