Saint Joseph Parish is South Bend’s oldest Catholic worshipping community. Initially called St. Alexis Chapel, it was established by Rev. Edward F. Sorin, CSC, as a mission chapel of Notre Dame. The first little building, which was both chapel and school, was erected in 1853 in the community of Lowell, at what is now the intersection of Hill and LaSalle.
By the next year the Sisters of the Holy Cross were teaching “girls and little boys” in the tiny building. In 1866, that first structure was replaced with a larger building named the Church of the Assumption. Two years later, when Rev. Julius Frere, CSC, became the first resident pastor, a parish census listed thirty-four French families (many from Canada), as well as six German and six Irish families. Since that time, twenty-four other members of Father Frere’s religious community have served as pastor.
The second church building burned to the ground in 1872. A third church was built nearby on the present site of Saint Joseph High School. By 1881, when the cornerstone for the fourth church was laid on the current site, the parish was known as Saint Joseph, and Lowell had been absorbed by the city of South Bend. The parish thrived, welcoming French, English, Irish, Italians, Southeast Asians, and all others as they came. Because of structural weaknesses, the handsome old Gothic church had to be demolished, and the current church was erected in 1965. Our current parish registration numbers about 900 families.
As the parish grew, so did the school. The school expanded into Assumption Academy, a boarding and day school, which in 1886 was replaced by a larger two-story building. By 1926 that structure was overflowing, and the present school was built.
The Sisters of the Holy Cross have been succeeded by lay teachers, and the growth and vitality of the school led to a $1.7 million renovation and expansion in 1999. A further expansion, including a new gymnasium and science, art, and music room, is planned to begin in 2015 as part of the Living Our Faith, Building Our Future Campaign. Unchanged throughout its existence are the school’s high standards. Saint Joseph School is the oldest continuously operating school in the city of South Bend, and was named a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence in 2011. The school building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.
Other parish buildings include the Congregation of Holy Cross Community Residence (rectory), which dates to 1907 with later additions, and the Ackles Parish Life Center, which was purchased and renovated in 2013 to replace the old parish center, which was originally built as a convent in 1958.
A word of explanation: One seldom hears a parishioner speak of Saint Joseph Parish; it is “Saint Joe.” This choice of name indicates the loving familiarity with which we regard our parish and its members. While our history is long and rich, we at “Saint Joe” focus not on our past but rather on each new day’s opportunities to give witness to our conviction that the Kingdom of God is at hand.