St Joseph, the most chaste spouse of the Virgin Mary and the divinely appointed guardian of the Holy Family, whose faithful love and prompt obedience in his earthly life, was a model for all to follow. He was declared a Patron of the Universal Church 150 years ago in 1870. The Litany of St Joseph beautifully describes the many ways St Joseph’s intercession has been and continues to be sought by individuals and by the universal Church for protection.
The 31 years of Pope Pius IX’s papacy in the 19th century was marked by three pivotal events, all of which occurred in various years on Dec. 8. In 1854, Pope Pius IX formally declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, a feast celebrated annually on Dec. 8. In 1869, he commenced the First Vatican Council, again on Dec. 8. Finally, on Dec. 8, 1870, he declared St. Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church.
The year 1870 was a key year for the invocation of the protection of St. Joseph. The First Vatican Council, which had just opened a year prior, by October of 1870 was forced to abruptly adjourn. As the bishops fled to their native lands, the Franco-Prussian War erupted, resulting in the Kingdom of Italy occupying Rome and the overthrow of the Papal States. The papal lands, located in the central regions of the Italian peninsula, which had been supported by the Church for nearly 1,000 years, were in the aftermath of the events of 1870 reduced to just 0.2 square miles (today the region called Vatican City).
Along with the loss of land, monks and nuns also lost their rights to the monasteries. Thus, countless priests, sisters and brothers were forced into veritable homelessness. By 1873, almost all the convents in Rome were sequestered, forcing most nuns in Rome to survive on their own in various temporary lodgings. This meant that the daily rhythm of prayer and Mass within the city was entirely upended. Consecrated men and women, who had dedicated their life to prayer, now became orphans and found it difficult to even go to Mass.
Thus, 1870 was a most fitting year to declare St. Joseph as the Patron of the Universal Church. The Diocese of La Crosse was founded just two years prior. We, likewise, are placed under the patronage of St Joseph. Our beautiful cathedral, completed in 1962, bears his name and is dedicated to him under the title of St Joseph the Workman.
In our diocese, we currently have 15 churches dedicated in honor of St Joseph. The first of these churches to be dedicated in honor of this great saint were the parishes in Black River Falls, La Crosse, Menomonie, Prescott and St. Joseph Ridge. My own parish of St Joseph in Fairview was founded in 1870, the same year of the declaration of St. Joseph as the Patron of the Universal Church. St Joseph Parish in Fairview is celebrating 150 years this year; a great testament to the perseverance of Faith in our community.
Before the turn of the century, another seven churches were established in honor of St. Joseph for the parishes in Adams, Arkansaw, Boyd, Elk Mound, Kendall, Stevens Point and Stratford. Rock Falls and Galloway rounded out the number early in the next century. During this time, numerous convents, hospitals and schools were also dedicated in honor of St. Joseph.
As we celebrate the 150th year of the declaration of St Joseph as the Patron of the Universal Church, Bishop Callahan has also dedicated this year from May 1, 2020, to April 30, 2021, in honor of St. Joseph the Workman. Please keep in mind, that through all world events, we have a heavenly protector, who continues today to protect the Church and her faithful. History reveals countless times of upheaval; however, through it all, Christ and the Church remain and the Faith continues to spread. Please pray strongly for the gift of Faith in our lands. May the Faith in our communities always grow stronger.
Father Daniel Thelen
Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Alma Center and St. Joseph Parish in Fairview
Published November 2020 Catholic Life Issue