The tabernacle at St. Joseph Mission in Cloverdale (Courtesy St. Joseph Church)
The tabernacle at St. Joseph Mission in Cloverdale (Courtesy St. Joseph Church)
Winding into Cloverdale from the north, drivers on Highway 101 for a moment head directly at a charming white church and its lofty steeple. The stirring vision has inspired motorists for a century now.

St. Joseph Church marks its centennial Saturday, Aug. 13, with a 10:30 a.m. Mass celebrated by Archbishop Alexander Sample. A meal for parishioners is set for noon, followed by a public reception and church tours 2 – 4 p.m.

The 100-year-old building is holding up well, said Karen Petersen, a member of the mission for a decade. A parishioner donated generously for maintenance of the church, which now holds Mass each Sunday at 10:30. The church is a mission of Sacred Heart Parish in Tillamook.

From 1860 to 1891, coastal towns got periodic visits from archdiocesan priests posted in Grand Ronde. The clergymen said Mass in Catholic homes, including on the farm of Peter and Mary Jenck.

Mary was a beloved pioneer woman of Cloverdale and a staunch Catholic. Born in Luxembourg in 1851, she emigrated with family to the United States. She and her husband brought their family to the Oregon Coast in 1888 and homesteaded in the Nestucca River Valley. Mary’s kindness and charity endeared her to the lo-cals; she often nursed them in place of a doctor. It was her dream to build a church in her community.

In 1917, Benedictine Father Hildebrand Melchior became assistant pastor in Tillamook. He took an interest in the people of Cloverdale and supported Mary’s desire to have a church there, since Tillamook was a long and winding drive.

Local Catholics raised funds through sheer grit. They raffled off a hog, held card parties and went door to door for donations. Once the group raised enough for the land, the dairy farmers and other handymen, plus seminarians from Mount Angel, stepped forward to build the house of worship.

The church was dedicated Aug. 13, 1922. The Catholic Sentinel reported an attendance of 4,000. The Mount Angel Band played music at post-Mass festivities. The day included sports contests and speeches railing against a KKK-backed state bill that would outlaw private schools.

“It was a strong community,” said Peterson.

Father Hildebrand was the son of an architect and wanted to make the steeple as tall as possible. “I think people are still beckoned by that,” Peterson said.

The lofty spire, however, is the chink in the building’s armor. Buffeted by sometimes violent coastal weather, it requires periodic work.

Like the steeple, the community has endured. The stained glass windows are marked with the names of donors from years past, names still prevalent in southern Tillamook County, like Hurliman and Jenck. “These were the people who got the church going,” Peterson said.

Parishioners occasionally held picnics at Whalen Island on Sand Lake, leaving right after Sunday Mass.

To fund daily needs of the church and build community life, parishioners held food or “fancy work” sales. Other big fund-raisers were spaghetti or chicken dinners.

The church rarely has had a resident priest. “A lot of times we convinced priests to come by emphasizing the good fishing,” Peterson said.

For decades, Benedictines from Mount Angel served St. Joseph. Then for two decades, Jesuits from the Oregon province served here. Most recently, priests from Tillamook serve the small but zealous community.

As in every parish, getting people to come back after the pandemic has been a challenge. But there is a summer attendance bump as tourists head to the beach.

“We are very strong on keeping our little church going,” said Peterson.