St. Joseph Catholic Church's two-building campus sits on approximately 21,500 square feet in downtown San Antonio. It's a small property for any venture that attracts more than 500 people on most weekends, but it looks even smaller as the massive Shops at Rivercenter Mall, the former Joske's building, stands at attention on the church's property lines immediately west, north, and east.
Despite these close quarters, the church has plans to fill what little space it has left with a new building and four parking spaces. But it's not just any building, said Fr. Mario Marzocchi, St. Joseph's energetic pastor.
"Every parish needs a gathering space," Fr. Marzocchi said on Friday after the Historic and Design Review Commission approved plans for the historic German Catholic Church's new parish hall called "Mother of the Americas."
The northern and eastern exterior walls of the two-story, 6,500-square-foot hall will be mere inches away at some points from the Rivercenter's facade, said Pastor Assistant Salvador Olvera, and should take less than a year to complete once fully funded. The church is accepting donations via PayPal here.
The design mimics the native-cut limestone metal roof of the 1868 church and rectory. When the church was built, it was only the fourth Catholic church in San Antonio on the eastern edge of the city, near the then-growing German immigrant neighborhood.
The city’s third oldest Catholic parish, St. Michael’s, was established by Polish immigrants just south of St. Joseph. The Polish Quarter and its church were razed to make way for HemisFair '68.
The new building will give the church space to spread out and expand its operations, Fr. Marzocchi said. An office, gift shop, community room, kitchen and common area will occupy the first floor while the second floor will feature more office space, a devotion chapel, meeting rooms, and more common areas. Included in the design is a 350-square-foot terrace that will have views of the small St. Joseph campus and Commerce Street.
These community and meeting rooms will also be used to provide "Faith Formation" classes for children, first communions, confirmations and other religious instruction including the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
Its proximity to downtown hotels, tourist activities, and convention halls, makes the church a welcome respite for visitors – Catholics or not – from all over the world, Fr. Marzocchi said, and it still has a small but active local membership.
The church hosts daily "Exposition of the most Blessed Sacrament" prayer sessions, hours designated for confessions/reconciliations, and Mass. More than 500 people visit St. Joseph Catholic Church each weekend to attend six masses: two on Saturday and four on Sunday. On every fourth Sunday and holidays the traditional San Antonio Liederkranz Choir performs, attracting standing-room only crowds.
"But we had no place to bring the people to have kielbasa afterwards," Fr. Marzocchi said with a smile. The "Mother of the Americas" will serve as a "family life center ... it's non-commercial, to be clear. We're not renting it out to make money."
St. Joseph has worked out a deal with Rivercenter so that parishioners or other visitors can validate their parking at the church when they leave. It seems only fair, after all, the church was there first.
Joske's retail store founders, family members, and its line of new owners started buying up land to expand the store in the early 1900s, including property from the Church. But when it eventually came to offer an estimated $200,000 for the property in 1945, "the German immigrants in the church said, 'Nein,'" Fr. Marzocchi explained. "'No we want to be here: it's our faith, it's a statement. We're not selling.' And so (Joske's) said, 'Okay, we'll build around you.'"
And so they did.
But if there is any animosity from those days, Fr. Marzocchi holds none of it, he said.
Rivercenter management was courteous enough to leave a path to the church while construction crews took over Commerce Street, Olvera said. That process gutted the Joske's building, turning the long-abandoned store into yet another modern wing of the mall.
"There was very good communication," Olvera said. "They contacted us all the time to see if everything was okay and (to let us know) what's going on."
The location of his church is complicated and small, but Fr. Marzocchi said there is absolutely no plan to move.
"We're centered here. Our prayer happens here and our hospitality happens here," he said.
Top image: Rendering of St. Joseph Catholic Church's new new parish hall, "Mother of the Americas," courtesy of Morkovsky + Associates Inc.