Capsule gives a glimpse of Killeen parish’s roots

Father Chris Downey (right), pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Killeen, and parishioner Mark Voltin go through the items of a time capsule recently found in the original church built in 1954. (Photo by Ricardo Gandara)

By Ricardo Gandara

Holding a business card-size church donation envelope with the name Jerome Schwertner, Mark Voltin’s first thought was he was “a pillar of our church.”
The memories come back like yesterday for Voltin, 94, one of the original parishioners of St. Joseph Parish in Killeen. “Mr. Schwertner was a good, all around construction guy,” he said.
Spread out on a coffee table in the office of Father Chris Downey, the pastor of St. Joseph Parish, lay a wealth of mementos from the 1950s — newspapers of the day, an Irish rosary, a Mexican coin, many photos and Schwertner’s donation envelope that had a 50-cent coin and a 1924 silver dollar. 
The items, recently found in a time capsule embedded in a Texas granite dedication stone, tell the story of St. Joseph Parish, founded and built in 1954. 
“And I don’t know what we were doing, but I look awfully interested,” said Voltin, holding a black and white photo that shows four neatly dressed men poring over a piece of paper during a meeting. 
The articles in the time capsule — made of copper about the size of a cigar box — make it clear that churches were segregated in the 1950s and Catholics were in the minority.
“It’s nostalgic. I don’t focus on the racial part of it at the time because it mitigates the goodness,” said Father Downey, rifling through the items. “I have to believe there was community. Catholicism bonded them.”
Voltin was 31 at the time and served as an elementary school principal. He and wife, Phyliss, had just begun raising their four sons.
The time capsule was found by workers preparing for the demolition of the original church. It was stuffed with newspapers of the day, church pamphlets, religious articles and a register of the families who were members.
“All of this is interesting and random,” said Father Downey, who was particularly intrigued by the church registry. The 130 members were alphabetically listed and neatly handwritten on the front and back of ruled notebook paper. Among the last names were Morin, Mangerich and Tomjack. 
“What I see is a lot of the sweat equity that went into building the church. People were faithful. People left (the community) and still sent money back to build the church,” Father Downey said.
The small original church was intended to be temporary. It eventually transitioned to a parish center and then a storage building. In the 1980s, the old church became uninhabitable and just sat there. Now, it’s being demolished as a parking lot is being expanded. The present church at the same location was built in 1960. 
According to the parish’s historical records, there was no Catholic church in Killeen until 1942, “The nearest Catholic parish was over 30 miles away in Lampasas, too far for families to travel for Sunday Mass. The priest assigned to St. Mary’s Parish in Lampasas wrote to the Galveston Diocese and got permission to establish a mission church in Killeen to meet the spiritual needs of these families. Within a few months the Sacred Heart Mission could be seen from Highway 190.”
Then came Father Francis Webber who in 1953 saw the need for another church. He bargained for 10 acres of cornfields outside Killeen. Thus the doors to St. Joseph Parish opened in 1954 to about 100 families, primarily active and former soldiers from Fort Hood. Two Masses were held. 
“It was a different time then,” said Voltin, who noted that soldiers attended services with their Japanese and German wives.
Since then, Killeen has transitioned significantly. Many older white parishioners have moved to neighboring Harker Heights, Father Downey said. 
“Now, Mexican immigrants, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos and Pacific Islanders are 7 out of 10 church members, a shifting demographic of our church,” Father Downey said. About 2,300 families belong to the parish.
But a lot remains the same for Voltin. He still attends Mass every Saturday with his wife Phyliss. 
“There’s good people here. It’s always been that way,” he said.