At the time of Abraham Lincoln's presidency, a little Catholic church opened its doors in Mariposa for the first time. Parishioners rang the church bell by pulling on ropes and used a wood stove for heat.
Today, St. Joseph's Catholic Church, with its white New England-style steeple, still stands on a hill on Bullion Street at the south end of town where Highways 49 and 140 converge. It's the same building that was dedicated by Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany on Jan. 18, 1863.
Gone is the wood stove. But the bell-ringing ropes remain as St. Joseph's still holds Mass and other activities with the longest continually used church building in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno. The congregation has about 385 registered families.
Diocese of Fresno Bishop Armando X. Ochoa plans to visit St. Joseph's on Friday -- exactly 150 years to the day of its dedication -- to celebrate a Sesquicentennial Anniversary Mass at 4 p.m.
Officials expect the crowd at church, which seats about 120 people, to be standing room only. Others in the church's social hall can watch the Mass via closed-circuit television. At 6 p.m. Friday, about 200 people will gather for an anniversary banquet at the Mariposa County Fairgrounds. The reservation deadline has passed.
Church officials are planning other anniversary events during the year, including a special Mass on the Feast Day of St. Joseph's, which is March 19.
The Rev. Stephen Bulfer, St. Joseph's priest for the past 18 years, says it is important that people celebrate St. Joseph's long role in the community.
"It means deep connections in this community -- and not just among the continuance of the pioneer families that first came here," he says. "There's so much history here that we continue to remind ourselves of it, and the celebration helps to transform our church understanding of it."
St. Joseph's serves as parish for all Mariposa County, excluding Yosemite National Park. It is a broad area for Bulfer to cover while administering Communion and sacraments to shut-ins.
"It's a lot of driving in the hills -- on a lot of dirt roads," Bulfer says.
But it's nothing compared to what was done by priests who ministered to people in the area -- mainly miners -- before St. Joseph's was built.
They traveled by horse and buggy. Without a church building, the priests gathered at "tent churches" with board floors and canvas attached as the roof and sides.
Then, R.S. Miller and Alex Deering, operators of the Mariposa Mine, donated the land upon which St. Joseph's rests. Construction began in fall 1862 and was completed that winter. The 1863 dedication made St. Joseph's the first permanent Catholic church in Mariposa County.
Throughout the years, the church has been maintained and improved. The tower has been reinforced with various woods; the tower and cross repainted; and the existing foundation reinforced by poured cement. In 1958, the church was lengthened by 18 feet, adding five rows of pews. In 2000, the interior was renovated.
The church, the rectory and cemetery are all listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Trent Williams, 68, says he has attended St. Joseph's "all my life." His parents, Winfred and Pearl Williams, were married in the church in 1937 -- on Jan. 18.
Williams' mother is now 96. But she isn't the oldest St. Joseph's parishioner. Marilena Casner, Rita Sciapita and Helen Ester Saulman all are 100.
Williams says he is grateful families have bonded at St. Joseph's over the years, helping one another and reaching out to the community.
"There has been a nucleus of families, where we have watched the generations grow up, marry and die, because we are such a small community," he says. "If our parents did it, we did it. There have been family ties. We're there for each other and for the other churches."
Beejee Allan also grew up in St. Joseph's.
Her mother, Gay Rowney, played the pump organ in church for years, then made the switch in the 1950s when the church got an electric organ. Her father, Harold Rowney, was active in the church's Holy Name Society, which helped with the Mass dialogue translations after the changes of Vatican II.
Allan moved away to go to college, then started a family. She was gone for about 30 years. She returned to Mariposa in the late 1980s -- and to St. Joseph's.
Allan still treasures all the little memories that make St. Joseph's charming.
Carl Kelley baked and brought the "most divine" cinnamon rolls to church, she says.
The women's Altar Society's enchilada sale, she says, featured "to-die-for" enchiladas.
And one of the nuns -- visiting from Atwater to teach catechism between Masses on Sundays -- drove so fast that kids at the church nicknamed her Hot-rod Annie.
"It was the way she peeled around the corner at Highway 140 and 49 -- and headed up the hill to church," Allan remembers. "We always prayed."