Debbie Croft: Mariposa church marks 150 years

January 11, 2013 


This month marks the Sesquicentennial anniversary of a Mariposa icon: St. Joseph's Catholic Church.

At times she stands tall, like a bride on a carpet of green, with wooded attendants dressed in springtime's blossoms. Other times her frame is dusted with winter's snow, as whipped cream clouds glow lavender and pink in the background.

For those coming from the Central Valley on Highway 140, this prim and proper house of worship catches the eye, one of the first landmarks in view when approaching the town.

St. Joseph's New England-style, Carpenter Gothic church building has been memorialized in photographs and in print countless times since it was first erected 150 years ago.

According to Mariposa County records, construction of the building began in 1862, following the donation of property by R.S. Miller.

The defining features of the historic character of this edifice include the following:

A rectangular floor plan with a central sanctuary

Front gable and steeply pitched gable roof

Horizontal clapboard exterior siding, made of hand-planed and milled sugar pine

A symmetrical tower and steeple with a low wooden railing encompassing the edge

Lancet arched windows with colored glass top lights

Spires on upper front corners of the building and each corner of the tower

Wooden double-entry doors placed centrally underneath the front gable

The church is situated on a gentle slope of land facing west, overlooking Mariposa Creek and the south end of town.

Construction was completed late in the year 1862. The new building was dedicated Jan. 18, 1863. It is the oldest church building still in use within the Fresno Diocese.

A bell was cast at the time of construction, and this remains in place. Leroy Radanovich, local historian, photographer and St. Joseph's parishioner, says: "It is rung 15 minutes before each Mass and at the beginning of each mass."

The cemetery, rectory (priest's residence and church office) and landscaping were added later. Initially board fencing, and eventually wire fencing, were put up to keep livestock and other animals off the church grounds.

The Stockton Daily Independent Newspaper on Friday, Jan. 23, 1863, had this to report:

"During the last year, says the 'Gazette,' many improvements have been made in Mariposa -- many of them being of special importance, as indicating the growth and prosperity of that place. But there has been erected no structure deserving so much credit, or adding so much to the beauty of the place as the new Catholic church. The enterprising citizens who have labored and worked and accomplished this are deserving of all credit. It exhibits an energy, a religious devotion, truly admirable and worthy (sic) the commendation of all good people" (from www.

For the first 90 years or so, the property looked much the same as it did in the 1800s. But since 1952, sidewalks were added, retaining walls were built, a metal roof replaced the old shingle roof. Numerous repairs and renovations have also been made.

Before construction, serv- ices were held outdoors or in makeshift structures.

Rev. Louis A. Auger was the parish priest in the 1860s, succeeding the Rev. Louis Lootens. Both traveled between the towns of Sonora, La Grange, Coulterville, Mount Bullion, Hornitos, Bear Valley and Mariposa, holding services for miners and Catholic community members.

During the 150 years since the church's dedication, more than 30 men have pastored at St. Joseph's.

Currently Rev. Stephen C. Bulfer oversees the

parishoners, serving since 1994. Under his leadership, the church operates many community outreach programs.

On Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, Mass will be held at 4 p.m. to begin the celebration of the dedication anniversary. Bishop Armando Ochoa will preside. A banquet at the county fairgrounds will follow at 6 p.m.

For more information, please contact the church at (209) 966-2522 or St. Joseph's sits at 4985 Bullion St.

St. Joseph's Catholic Church is one of two buildings in Mariposa listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The book, "150 Years of St. Joseph's Church," will be available soon.

Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. She can be reached at

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