The history of St. Joseph Parish dates back to the arrival of the first Catholic family, the Jacob Schichtl family, who settled one mile east of Conway in 1874 on the Lewisburg Road, near what is now Freyaldenhoven’s Nursery.
In 1876, the Schichtl family was joined by other Catholic families, including the Lachowsky, Schneider, Weber, Wurtzelbach, Rappel and Erbach families. The spiritual needs of these families were attended by a secular priest, Father Brehm, who ministered to Catholic families from Little Rock to Fort Smith. The first Holy Mass was offered on an improvised alter in the Schichtl home.
In 1878, the Hiegel, Balmaz, Nahlen, Henze and Simon families settled in Faulkner County. Around this time, the Holy Ghost Fathers moved to Arkansas and established a foundation near Morrilton named Marienstadt. The Rev. Joseph Strub obtained permission from the Little Rock diocese to open a mission in Conway. Soon there were 90 Catholic families in the area.
The property of St. Joseph Catholic Church was one of the many land grants made by the Missouri Pacific Railroad Company to the Holy Ghost Fathers, the Benedictine Fathers and other organizations, attempting to encourage people to settle in this new area, which at the time was almost wilderness.
The first resident priest, Father John Wilms, was sent to Conway in 1878, accompanied by two Catholic Brothers, Leo and Genes. They helped construct the first church, a 60 x 30 feet frame building with an 80-foot bell tower, which was dedicated in 1879. St. Joseph School was also established that year at the corner of Deer and Locust streets in a building that once served as Col. Asa Robinson’s guest house.
The Sisters of St. Joseph, Catholic Order of Nuns, in Cluny, France were contacted and three arrived to teach at the school that same year. The nuns stayed in the rectory with the priests and brothers moving into private homes until a convent could be built a few blocks northwest of the church.
The last two decades of the 19th century were difficult times for the St. Joseph Parish. After a severe drought in 1881, followed by a typhoid epidemic, the number of Catholic families was reduced to 60. The church was destroyed by a tornado in 1883; Mass was held on the rectory’s porch until the church was rebuilt. In 1896, the nuns left, the struggling school closed, and the land was sold.
Father Laengst reopened the school in the parish hall in 1898 with Miss Katherine Herbert as the sole teacher for a time. The School Sisters of Notre Dame Catholic Order were then contacted to teach and three arrived in October 1898. A splendid new house was built for them.
During Father Peter Zell’s time as pastor, 1908-1924, electricity was installed, and a beautiful new parish hall was erected as well as school buildings. The St. Joseph Bazaar began in 1912 as parishioners and children created and sold handicrafts to raise funds.
The Gothic-style church, built in 1924, had many stained-glass windows. The altar was made by old world workmen in Tyrol, Austria. Parishioners donated the interior furnishings and equipment. Spiritan Hall was constructed in 1925 to match the new church and a new convent was erected in 1930.
Father Anthony Lachowsky, pastor from 1934 to 1950, was the first native son to serve his home parish. During his pastorate, St. Joseph High School was established as well as the Church and School of Good Shepherd established on Ingram Street for black Catholic families.
Under Father Anthony Lechner, pastor from 1951 to 1955, a new building for St. Joseph High School was completed, and a convent was erected for the Benedictine Sisters of the Good Shepherd School. In 1965, under Father Sylvester Dellert, pastor from 1955-1969, the Good Shepherd Kindergarten was initiated, and the gymnasium was completed. A new rectory was also built in 1966.
St. Joseph continued to modernize and expand in the 1970s as property west of the railroad tracks was purchased from George Schichtl. The church celebrated its centennial in 1978. A new church sanctuary was built in the early 1990s and in 2010, St. Joseph transitioned from the supervision of the Holy Ghost Fathers to the care of the Diocese of Little Rock.
The above information was compiled from a May 28, 1993 Log Cabin Democrat article, the church’s website, Faulkner County: Its Land and People (1986) and Faulkner Facts and Fiddlings, (Spring/Summer 2010).
Cindy Beckman is a local freelance history writer. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org