When the congregation met for one of the first times under the new roof of the freshly built St. Joseph the Worker Catholic church back in 1967, the mood was a little tense.
“The entire group only filled up the first three pews and they were incensed that Fr. Agnellus (Pickelle, the first Franciscan Friar to serve the parish) had built such a massive church that they’d never be able to fill,” said Fr. David Poirier, who currently presides over the Williams Road church that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. “Today, we fill the place five times every weekend.”
The church was actually dedicated in a ceremony on April 30, 1967. But due to a myriad of activities on the church calendar during the Easter period this year, the decision was made to hold the 50th anniversary celebrations in June.
Poirier said the congregation currently consists of 2,800 or so families which make up about 11,000 people. That’s a far cry from the day when Fr. Agnellus decided it was time to consider moving from the original site in Steveston.
But to where?
According to a pamphlet outlining the history of the church that was produced for the 50th anniversary, Fr. Agnellus asked the municipality of Richmond where the largest population growth was expected.
From that, it was decided that a church should be located somewhere around Williams Road, between No. 2 Road and the West Dyke. After all, in 1960 the population of that portion of Richmond was 8,429 and was forecast to rise to 18,116 by 1970 — 1975.
So, in 1961, the parish purchased 14.4 acres of farmland along Williams Road for $28,000 and rented it out to create an income stream until construction began.
In 1964, the original plans for the church called for a bell tower, a convent located to the rear of the church and a rectory. Estimated cost was $200,000.
With a mere 131 or so active families in the parish at that time, fundraising was a daunting task. Plus, the location was then considered to be in the middle of nowhere.
But a pledge campaign, started in early 1965, helped eventually raise enough to retire the cost of the land. Then the work started to get the actual church building constructed, with costs estimated at a larger than original estimate of just over $240,000.
With annual pledges starting to wane, a five-acre parcel of land at the rear of the property was sold to help with construction costs. And in 1966, work started on the building that some mistook, during the early construction phase, as an ice rink or collapsed barn.
The first mass was on Palm Sunday (March 19, 1967).
Since then, the parish has grown to include a rectory that was built beside the church in 1977. And the adjacent, K-Grade 7 school has been in operation for 29 years. Enrolment there is now 226 students.
The 50th anniversary celebrations kick off Friday (June 23) with a strawberry tea for the original parishioners.
“There are still a few left,” Poirier joked. “Plus, we included some of the older parishioners who were instrumental in establishing the church.”
On Saturday evening, the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, Michael Miller, will be on hand for an anniversary mass at 5 p.m., which will be followed by an anniversary dinner.
And on Sunday there will be a parish picnic on the St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Elementary School grounds.
Asked what he felt has been the reason for the parish’s enduring character, Poirier said much of it has to do with the commitment of its parishioners.
“Plus, there’s been a sell-off of Richmond’s farmland and the resulting development of neighbourhoods around the church,” Poirier added. “Even now, there are new housing starts every time you turn around.”