This sign sits outside of St. John Parish in Valley View. Mass has not been celebrated at the parish since it closed in 2008. (Photo by Elaine Schad)
“That’s A.J. Schmitz’s pew,” said a parishioner musingly. “He sat right there every time.”
St. John Catholic Church swung open its doors in welcome, just like it has done thousands of times over the past 60-plus years, but this time was the last time. A.J.’s pew had an auction number on it, the visible sign that St. John Parish in Valley View would now become a part of the rich history of the Diocese of Fort Worth.
The memories rushed and wouldn’t stop that day. As a small child, I would join the many children who would dash across the parking lot to greet a smiling Father Anthony Gajda. We all knew he had candy in his pocket! Many years later I would delight in seeing my own small children do that same dash. Fr. Gajda was standing before my husband and me on our wedding day more than 37 years ago. He baptized our two oldest children. When Fr. Gajda went to be with the Lord following a brief illness, parishioners had to scurry to figure out how to have a large funeral in such a little building. The tent went up, a speaker was rigged, and the only other place besides his beloved Poland that Fr. Gajda loved so dearly, gave him a most loving farewell.
The pioneer families were well-represented on auction day. As World War II disrupted the lives of so many, the German prisoner of war camp, Camp Howze, was established in Cooke County. The Bierschenk family farm was one of the properties taken to build the camp. They briefly moved to Pilot Point but moved to Valley View shortly thereafter when an opportunity to purchase land arose.
The first order of business was to bring their Catholic faith along with them. Those founding families located the little church building in Sanger. They moved it, fixed it up, and got it ready for its first Mass on Jan. 3, 1946. St. John’s lived!
There were so many loving hands that helped during those days. Father William Botik (1946-48), the first pastor, hauled cement bricks from Pilot Point to build the rectory. Father Thomas Weinzapfel (1948-52) followed, establishing the parish religious education program. The Sisters of Divine Providence came from St. Peter’s in Lindsay to help teach the children.
Parishioners stand in front of their church building next to Father Victor Cruz, HGN, (far left), pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Gainesville, which is absorbing the community. (Photo by Elaine Schad)
Almost four acres still surrounds the church. Instead of mowing it or making it a parking lot, families would make sure the land was planted and harvested. It always made good conversation about mid-summer to see how much the wheat or crop of choice would sell for and have it posted to the revenue of the parish.
The forty-plus families banded together on many projects big and small. They built a Parish Hall and a hospitality room, where Lorene’s cake went over really big every week with a cup of coffee and some Scripture. Parishioners celebrated the parish’s Golden Anniversary in 1996 with great glee and with a little festival. The cake walks and pot lucks were happy times. And, of course, everyone knew that Alvin was the man to beat every time the St. John’s Men’s Club came together to play dominoes while the Altar Society women made sure the vestments, altar server garments, and altar cloths were always pristine.
While Fr. Gadja’s 32 years of service (1952-84) left an indelible mark, each pastor who graced St. John’s left a memory. Father Gerald Cooney’s (1984-1989) message, “Right is right when nobody’s right; wrong is wrong when everybody’s wrong,” was coupled with a major facelift to the parish buildings. While parishioners made sure the land was tilled and the pecans were gathered, Father Harry Fisher’s (1989-2000) farming background brought the parish landscape to life. If he wasn’t gardening outside, he’d be the only person to have tomato plants flourishing during the middle of the winter! He planted trees, picked up trash along the roadway, and replaced that old culvert that had always caused the water to divert in the wrong direction. Father Bart Landwermeyer (2000-01) had Spencer, one of the largest cats to walk the face of the earth. And who could ever forget Father Joseph Meledom (2001-08), who loved his native India, but who endeared himself to the parishioners, so much so that he still wears the black Texas cowboy hat they presented him.
“Is there any chance that we could still get a priest?” queried a parishioner to Peter Flynn, diocesan vice chancellor for administrative services and the diocese’s representative at the auction. “We have four priests who are now over 80 years old who are still pastors,” he said. That seemed to be the definitive answer that St. John’s as a parish would be no more.
A view of the outside of St. John Parish in Valley View in the early 1950s. (NTC Archives file photos)
It was evident that day, however, that St. John’s would live on, not only in the hearts of many, but also through the visible signs from a legacy of faith. Since it closed as a parish more than five years ago, the parish plant has been under the jurisdiction of the closest parish, St. Mary’s in Gainesville. St. Mary’s pastor Father Victor Cruz, HGN, has been a loving steward, gently guiding his new parishioners through what has been an emotional transition. The Marian statue which adorned the steeple of the church for many years has been repainted and placed in front of the St. Mary’s administrative offices. The St. John’s Chapel is now open in the former convent chapel at St. Mary’s. Entering the chapel, one sees that it is literally a “little St. John’s.” Much of the interior of the existing church has been moved into the smaller space, including the altar, pews, Stations of the Cross, and more.
Since it has been a tradition to celebrate Mass in the St. John’s section of the Valley View Cemetery every All Souls Day, Fr. Victor shared with those attending the auction that day a vision. “We’d like to use the funds to build an altar near Fr. Gajda’s grave and for the perpetual upkeep of the St. John’s section,” he said. Those present seemed comforted, yet another visual that their parish would continue to live in some way.
The new Bl. John Paul II Parish in Denton will become home to some of the St. John’s items used for the Mass. The stained-glass windows will adorn various homes throughout the area. The two nativities, the only two nativities to ever exist in the parish, will bring Christmas to life in the homes of their new caretakers.
Parishioners gathered for one last group photo. The picture frame housing the official establishment of the parish back in 1946, as part of the then Diocese of Dallas, was taken down and will become part of the diocesan archives. The small arch that had nestled around Our Lady during so many May crownings stood alone in the corner with its tiny roses still in place.
By day’s end, the two holy water fonts that blessed every visitor at the church entry remained for that last moment. “I’d love to have one of these,” Lisa said. “Jennifer’s teaching, and she would like to put this in her classroom,” she said. “I think I’ve got a Phillips in my pickup,” Billy said. St. John lives.
“That’s A.J. Schmitz’s pew,” said a parishioner musingly. “He sat right there every time.” St. John Catholic Church swung open its doors in welcome, just like it has done thousands of times over the past 60-plus years, but this time was the last time. A.J.’s pew had an auction number on it, the visible sign that St. John Parish in Valley View would now become a part of the rich history of the Diocese of Fort Worth.