After additional research, Kleber showed St. Joseph actually had been founded 10 years earlier — Sept. 29, 1841, to be exact. His findings persuaded the diocese to change its official records last year. The news also launched the parish into planning for a 175th anniversary celebration this year.
Parishioners and their pastor, the Rev. William Kummer, decided to combine the 175th celebration with the parish's annual Fall Festival, which opens at noon Saturday at the parish, 11337 Old Decatur Road S., south of Fort Wayne.
The 175th anniversary events will include a display of historic photos organized by Carol Sorg, which will be set up in the church entry area. Kleber and parish member Darrell Will plan to lead walking tours of the grounds at 2 and 5 p.m. to highlight points of historic interest. John Schreiber created a video on early parishioners and where they lived, which will be shown at 3 and 5:30 p.m. in the historic church.
Kummer also will celebrate Mass outside under a tent at 4 p.m.
St. Joseph parish has an interesting history, even aside from the mix-up over its founding date.
A group of German immigrants came to Allen County about 1834 and bought land near each other in what is now the Hessen Cassel area south of Fort Wayne, said Kleber, a retired research scientist who has written a book about the parish, “History of the St. Joseph Catholic Church Parish at Hessen Cassel, Indiana.” The settlers, most of whom were Catholic, then sent for their families to join them.
At that time, the nearest Catholic Church was St. Augustine in downtown Fort Wayne, the predecessor of what is now the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Kleber said. In that day, getting to downtown Fort Wayne was a full day's ride through what largely was wilderness, added Will, who is helping to coordinate the 175th anniversary events.
The settlers at Hessen Cassel relied on the visits of missionary priests, who would pass through the area occasionally to celebrate Mass and baptize children, Kleber said.
In 1841, however, 20 families organized themselves, worked to build a log church and pledged money to pay for a missionary priest to come on a more regular basis, Kleber said. That makes the parish the second oldest Catholic parish in Allen County, behind what is now the Cathedral parish.
For the next 20 years, the missionary priest came about once a month, Kleber said.
In 1857, parish members started building a brick church, which still stands and contains the oldest part of the current sanctuary, he said. The current church steeple was added in 1875. The parish later added more seating in wings constructed on the east and west sides of the 1857 church, and the entry area on the south side of the building.
A frugal group, they installed stained-glass windows in the 1857 church — which still are there today — they purchased from a Protestant Church in Germany, Kleber said. They turned the former log church, which they had moved farther north and east on the property to make room for the new church, into living quarters for a priest.
Life here became almost a carbon copy of the village life they had left behind in Germany, Kleber said. That included a big parish festival held annually on the date the church was organized — the origin of the parish's modern-day Fall Festival.
The parish also had a cemetery and later a school, Will said. Bodies in the original cemetery later were moved to the larger site of the current cemetery north of the church. The oldest tombstone dates to 1834, he said.
Despite the strong German heritage of its members and the fact Mass was celebrated in the German language for decades, the parish early on attracted a few members who were Irish immigrants, Kleber said. The families got along so well that, in 1907, the parish dedicated two statues — one of St. Boniface, the patron saint of Germany, and one of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Immigrant families from Switzerland also joined the parish.
Parish members also had a good relationship with members of the Miami Nation of Indians, who lived south of the nearby St. Marys River until the U.S. government forced most of them to move in 1846 to a reservation in the West, Kleber said.
Today, about 400 families belong to St. Joseph parish, Will said.
As in the past, "The people in this parish are very giving," he said.
And just as with many of their ancestors, Kleber added, it remains a very close-knit community.
More InformationCombined celebrations
WHAT: St. Joseph Catholic Church in Hessen Cassel will celebrate its 175th anniversary with special activities in conjunction with the parish's annual Fall Festival, the latter of which includes a car show, rides, food and more.
WHEN: Festival opens at noon Saturday. Docent-led historical walking tours offered 2 and 5 p.m.; video on early parishioners at 3 and 5:30 p.m.; and display of historic photos in the church entry area. Mass also will be celebrated outdoors at 4 p.m.
WHERE: 11337 Old Decatur Road S., off U.S. 27 just south of Interstate 469
COST: Free admission