The story of Saint Joseph Church is not complete without telling about its people. It started with Bishop Alfred A. Curtis, Doctor of Divinity (D.D.), who invited the Society of Saint Joseph to Wilmington to administer to the African American community. The African American Catholics in Wilmington did not have a church of their own and were segregated from the white parishioners in other churches by Delaware's Jim Crow Laws.
The first Pastor was Father John de Ruyter, Society of St. Joseph (SSJ). Father de Ruyter started Saint Joseph Church with fifty parishioners that he found with the help of John Crawford. Father de Ruyter, SSJ, was able to raise funds to build Saint Joseph by preaching at other churches. Saint Joseph Mission was started on October 10, 1889. The cornerstone for the first St. Joseph Church was laid July 6, 1890, and Bishop Curtis, D.D., dedicated the church on October 5, 1890.
Father de Ruyter opened the first orphanage in the United States for African American boys on May 28, 1893. A Franciscan nun from Glen Riddle, Pennsylvannia staffed the orphanage. The orphanage was closed October 1, 1928. The men who grew up in this orphanage were later called "Home Boys". In 1946 they formed a club, which they named the "de Ruyter Men".
Many priests followed Father de Ruyter, one of who was Father Charles R. Uncles, SSJ, who was the first African American priest ordained in the United States. Father Uncles was assigned to Saint Joseph during the early 1900's. The next African American priest assigned to Saint Joseph was Father Chester C. Ball, SSJ, in 1941. During 1941, several events took place; the first statue of Saint Martin de Porres in the Diocese was given to Saint Joseph by Mrs. Irma Lawson; Father George G. Wilson was ordained a priest in the Society of the Divine Word (SVD). Father Wilson was a former "Home Boy" and the only Saint Joseph parishioner to become a priest.
Saint Joseph grew under Father Conrad Rebschner, SSJ, and two other missions arose. They were Our Mother of Mercy (1928) and Blessed Sacrament (1936). Saint Joseph School was established under Father Rebschner. On December 30, 1945, the interior of Saint Joseph was destroyed by fire. Services were held in the school until the new church was built. Many people contributed time and money to the rebuilding of the new church. The skylight from the old church was installed over the main altar at the back of the new church. Stained glass windows were donated by several families which included the Dineens and the McClaffertys. The marble railing was a gift from the "de Ruyter Men". Mrs. Clementine Owens, daughter of Mr. John Crawford, sold treats to the school students to raise money to rebuild Saint Joseph. The statues of Our Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph were transferred to the new church. During the fire, Mrs. Irma Lawson left her place of business to rescue the statue of Saint Martin de Porres. The new church was dedicated November 25, 1948.
Many of the activities that we enjoy at Saint Joseph today were started in the early days of the church. One example is the Annual Palm Sunday Breakfast. The Holy Name Men held its first Palm Sunday Breakfast in 1946 under the pastoral guidance of Father Charles Brown, SSJ.
In 1993, the Josephites left Saint Joseph and the Franciscans from the Holy Name Province assumed the leadership of Saint Joseph. Father Barry Langley, (OFM); Brother David Schlatter, OFM; and Deacon Henry Fulmer, OFM, were the first team of Franciscans. Henry Fulmer, was the first person to be ordained a deacon in Saint Joseph.
Father Barry Langley, OFM; and Brother David Schlatter, OFM, were reassigned in 2005, and Father John Frambes, OFM, became pastor until 2013. Father Paul Williams, OFM, is the current pastor of Saint Joseph. Father Paul Williams and Deacon Bob Cousar make up the Ministerial Staff at Saint Joseph Church.
Saint Joseph Church received a marker from the State of Delaware in recognition of its historical contributions. Saint Joseph has been placed on the United States National Registry. This church is the only African American Institution still residing on French Street after 100 years.
Just as Father de Ruyter deserves the credit for starting Saint Joseph Church, the credit for Saint Joseph School goes to Father Conrad Rebschner, SSJ. Father Rebschner was the fifth pastor of Saint Joseph Church (1927-1938). His goal was to bring more African American Souls to the Roman Catholic faith in the Wilmington Diocese. There were thirty "Mass" Catholics left upon Father Rebschner's arrival and four of them were children. The children became the altar servers. They became the first "Parish Altar" boys. They were Rudolph Jr., Reginald, Norman and Francis Koeller. Their father, Rudolph Koeller, Sr. was a "Home Boy". The orphanage was moved to Clayton, Delaware on April 1, 1928 by Father Rebschner in order to increase the membership at Saint Joseph Church. Father Rebschner used the orphanage building for a school, which was opened in September, 1928. The Glen Riddle Franciscan Nuns remained at Saint Joseph and taught the students, One of the first students to attend Saint Joseph's School was Herman H. Hollaway, Sr., who later became the first African American elected to the State of Delaware Senate. Saint Joseph's students integrated Delaware schools on September 4, 1950 with James Owens (grandson of John Crawford), Alfred Connell and Thomas Connell attending Salesianum School. Shortly afterwards Delores Gales and Rose Smith integrated Saint Elizabeth High School. Some other firsts from the students of Saint Joseph School:
- Felicia Callahan- first African American to become secretary to City of Wilmington Mayor John Babiaz.
- Delores Gales - first African American featured on News Journal Society Page when she married Leonard Williams.
- Virginia Laftland - first African American Business Director of Catholic Charities
Other Saint Joseph Students distinguished themselves in arts and sports, such as Dean Jenkins, musician who played with the great Jazz musician, Clifford Brown; and Earl Roles, who was inducted into the African American Sports Hall of Fame. Saint Joseph School closed in 1956, due to desegregation and changing residential patterns.