MIFFLINTOWN - More than 50 years ago in rural Juniata County, a small community of believers began what some considered a hopeless cause - a Catholic parish.
Faced with prejudice from the community and no priest to serve them, the group persevered through the struggles to found St. Jude Thaddeus Catholic Church in Mifflintown.
Now celebrating its 50th year, the church today is much larger and more active in the community, said the Rev. Jeff Thoms, who serves St. Jude and Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Lewistown.
The effort to build a Catholic church in Juniata County goes back more than 150 years, Thoms said. St. John Neumann, a bishop of Philadelphia in the mid-1800s, mentioned Juniata County as a frontier area in his memoirs, Thoms said. However, it was not until the 1950s that the local Catholic community decided to build its first church, he said.
Because of anti-Catholic sentiments, the group purchased land saying that they planned to build a custard stand, Thoms said.
"When it became known that there was going to be a Catholic church built, someone burned a cross on the property," Thoms said.
Though met with obstacles of prejudice from the community, the group did not give up, Thoms said. The church building was completed and blessed on April 5, 1959, he said.
"Our patron (St. Jude Thaddeus) was chosen because of that environment," Thoms said, explaining that St. Jude is the saint of hopeless causes.
St. Jude was one of Jesus' chosen 12 disciples, Thoms said. Today he is referred to as St. Jude Thaddeus so as to not mix his name up with Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, he said.
The Mifflintown church remained a mission of Sacred Heart until Oct. 21, 1965, when it was declared a parish and was placed under the care of the Glenmary Fathers. When the fathers relinquished charge of the parish, the Oblates of St. Francis DeSales took up the challenge.
When the church's priest, the Rev. Thomas Rush died in 1988, St. Jude again became dependent on Sacred Heart to provide a priest. Much of the parish responsibility was give to Deacon John Rocco, who served the parish until his death in 2002.
Today, St. Jude has more than 165 families in attendance, including a large Hispanic population, Thoms said. To accommodate the growth, the congregation built a new sanctuary onto the existing church last year.
"There are many signs of hope," Thoms said of the congregation. "St. Jude has been coming through for us."
In addition to Sunday Mass, the church holds two Masses on Saturdays, one in Spanish and one in English.
Along with the growing congregation, the church also now has a better relationship with the community and other churches in the area, Thoms said.
"We've come a long way, not only co-existing with others as brother and sister Christians, but we have more of a sense of one family," Thoms said, referring to the community of churches in Juniata County. "These are signs of hope not only for St. Jude but also Juniata County."
Looking back over history, the congregation understands how the church forefathers brought the church to where it is today, Thoms said.
"We have a greater sense of who we are," Thoms said. "It not only helps our identity today but it gives us hope for the future in renewing the mission Jesus gave us to preach the gospel."
To celebrate their anniversary, the church will hold a special solemn evening prayer at 3 p.m. May 3 followed by a potluck dinner.