'Hope is what we need more than ever'

Renovation of historic St. Joseph Church in Marysville unites parishioners

More than two years ago, when Father Michal Olszewski started his ministry as parochial administrator of St. Joseph Parish in Marysville, he never envisioned he would be carrying out a $1.8 million restoration to the historic church in 2020, while also guiding his parishioners through COVID-19 restrictions on in-person worship.

St. Joseph Church has been a home for Yuba-Sutter Catholic faithful since it was built more than 165 years ago. Its steeple can be seen for miles, atop the building for which the cornerstone was laid in 1855.

Father Michal Olszewski stands outside historic St. Joseph Church in Marysville.

From June through October 2020, the church and parish facilities underwent extensive restoration and renovation. Among other issues, the steeple was in danger of falling down and would eventually pose a safety risk if not corrected, and the interior stained glass windows badly needed to be repaired.

The church “is one of the most beautiful buildings in the city,” Father Michal says. “Our main reason for the project was because of safety issues, but it also allowed us to preserve the church and pass on an improved facility to our future generations.

“There is nothing I found to unite people more than to have them come together on a common goal. So in the midst of the pandemic I chose to push the fundraising effort to renovate our church as well as other parish properties,” he notes. “I seized the opportunity to give people hope in the midst of struggle. The symbol of this hope became the renovation of our steeple and the historic stained glass windows.

“This was a great effort, especially in the midst of economic uncertainty exacerbated by the pandemic and the shutdown. People wanted something to believe in and something to keep their hope aflame. I was amazed at how they rallied around this project.”

The church received structural, safety and cosmetic upgrades. New lights were put up outside and a new roof was put on the church and gym. New fire alarms were installed and the main doors were restored. The interior and exterior of the church were painted and the stained-glass windows were refurbished by Bovard Studio in Iowa. Thanks to an additional donation, the church’s sacristy was also fitted with new stained glass windows and plaques were put up for commemoration.

Over the years, parishioners had collected $1 million to help with the restoration project. Then they formulated a plan for a fundraising campaign to raise the remaining $800,000. The campaign commitment weekend was to kick off in mid-March, right as the COVID-19 shelter in place order was announced.

“We postponed it a bit, but people generously contributed, so even in the pandemic it was a pleasant surprise,” Father Michal says. “It’s been so rewarding to see so many parishioners involved and contributing.”

Jackson Construction of Sacramento was the project manager. The new spire for the church steeple was lifted into place atop the church on Oct. 27, after Father Michal blessed it with holy water. “That was a historic moment for us,” he says.

Father Michal, who was ordained in his native Poland, has been a priest for 18 years, serving in the United States for the past 12 years. He previously was parochial administrator of Sacred Heart Parish in Maxwell and its missions in Williams and Arbuckle. St. Joseph has about 1,700 parishioners. In both parishes, he has enjoyed ministering to the Spanish-speaking community. “I dedicate myself to celebrating Mass in both English and Spanish,” he says.

When COVID-19 forced the suspension of in-person Masses, “it was a huge adjustment for me personally and for our community in general,” he says. “I am a very adaptable person and quickly came into my new role as an online priest, doing my best to connect with my people virtually. I embarked on ways to communicate with my people, trying to make sure they know I am with them, praying for them, and I didn’t forget about them. I looked for ways to communicate particularly with our older people, who aren’t as savvy with the Internet or social media, so they too would be included.”

Father Michal Olszewski with his parish staff: Deacon Rafael and Maria Moreno, Deacon Patrick and Liz Kearns, Anita O’Kelleyburchett, Dale Walker, Virginia Uriostegui, Gloria Mooney and Yesenia Castillo.

Father Michal reflects on parish life in the past year. “Our challenges are having to celebrate together with social distancing protocols, but we have ably adapted to this new reality. The joy comes from being able to gather together and not taking our ability to do that for granted, but seeing the ability to be together as a blessing and a gift. People have more patience with one another…and I have noticed more peace, acceptance and love in our community as a result of the pandemic. Because in the midst of sickness, death and fear, we are able to be together and celebrate our humanity, and not focus on our differences, but on that which binds and brings us together – our faith.

“In many ways their curiosity of seeing the renovated church building has brought them to the parish,” he adds. “They are proud to be members because the church stands, beautiful and gorgeous, as a symbol of hope in the midst of so much darkness. Our steeple is beaming with white colors to give off light that says, even in the midst of darkness, light wins. Our number one goal each week is to keep people socially distanced and safe, but gathered together so as not to feel isolated on the journey we call life.

“The pandemic has changed us for the better. We are closer to one another spiritually and bonded together with more love, forgiveness and acceptance, even though we have to be physically distanced. We long for the time of parish socials, dinners and gatherings, so I thank God that we won't see them simply as the norm in the future, but as gifts not to be taken for granted.

“What our people have accomplished even in the midst of a pandemic has filled our community with hope,” Father Michal concludes. “Hope is what we need more than ever when we face fear, worry and uncertainty. I am praying that we will accept the renewal and the future full of hope. The Lord has much in store for us as we move forward in faith.”

Catholic Herald Issue