Mass In The 'Wild West'

St. Philip's grows for 50 years under guiding hands of priests, parishioners


In the mid-1950s, the Ceolin family were frequent campers in the Rim Country.

On a Sunday, before they headed back to the Valley, the Ceolins stopped to observe Catholic Mass.


Father McMahon visited St. Philip the Apostle Catholic Church recently, as part of its 50th anniversary celebration. He was the church's first priest. "Father McMahon was a good storyteller, and Sister Celine, who was there with him, sang beautifully," said Jesus Castillo, a parishioner of three years. "The 50th anniversary was something people will remember for a long time and now the new people know the story of how the church began."

"I remember Masses said under the trees next to the women's club on Main Street and, once, in the log building that was the original Presbyterian Church," Sante Ceolin said.

After years of holding Mass without a building, on May 18, 1957, Bishop Gercke of the Tucson Diocese entrusted Father John McMahon with the task of building the first Roman Catholic Church in Payson -- to be named after St. Philip the Apostle.

Raised on a farm in Ireland, McMahon was no stranger to work and excited at having his first parish in the "Wild West."

McMahon negotiated with the Forest Service to lease land that the church was eventually able to buy.

The main funds to build the church came from a fund-raising appeal made to parishioners of a Catholic Church in Chicago, Ill., where his cousin served as priest.

There were many people, local and statewide, who helped as well, including Mr. Borgman, Payson's postman. Finley Plumbing in Phoenix offered their services for free and friends in Tucson did the masonry.

The first priest of St. Philip's confessed to his "rascally" spirit when it came to naming the street and putting the parish, literally, on the map.

He got an old map of Payson, wrote in the name of the street, then went to Globe and ran off copies of the "new" Payson map. Then he put copies in all the real estate offices.

"Many a time I look back and laugh," said McMahon, now a monsignor. "We must have joy in our lives."

McMahon counted his two-year tenure in Payson as "the most memorable" of his priesthood at the church's silver anniversary.

"Along with pleasant memories of beautiful people, I have fond recollections of the challenges of working with the Forest Service to obtain the 10 acres, gathering funds, and building the church," McMahon wrote in a letter to Father Deenihan, the priest at St. Philip's in 1982.

Parishioners dedicated their new building Nov. 16, 1958.

Longtime members

Sante Ceolin and his wife, Odette, became full-time parishioners of the Payson church in 1976.

"St. Philip's is special because it is the place where we spent the most time with family. It's where I have the most spiritual attachment," Ceolin said.

"We saw so many young people, like Caroline and Dick Beeler," he added, with tears in his eyes. "We watched their children grow up and have children of their own."

Each of the more than a dozen priests over the years brought a different personality to the pulpit.

"I was close to all the priests as far as that goes, but Father John Howard became a close family friend," Caroline Beeler said. "He was a friend we went on vacation with, he loaned my husband money for our home and got me a job cleaning the church."

It is a job Beeler still holds.

Father Paul LaRocque and Father Joseph Krause are two men of God Ceolin recalls with affection.

"Father LaRocque was always joking and laughing at his own jokes," Ceolin said. LaRocque was outgoing and involved with his parishioners and like groups.

And, he spoke Ceolin's native tongue -- French.

"Father Krause was not so easy in a group, but one-on-one he was a wonderful person to talk to and get spiritual help," Ceolin said.

Monica Savage remembers Krause as a priest who was "really good with younger and older people and brought life to the church."

During the summertime when Savage was a child, the nuns would come to St. Philip's. The nuns made crafts with the children and took them on camping trips.

The church continued to be involved in the growing town.

"Our St. Vincent de Paul Society had a pantry for the needy," Ceolin said.

When the couple who ran the community "food bank" out of the Payson Women's Club for more than a decade wanted someone to take the operation over, the Society did.

"In the early days of the food bank our resources were limited," Ceolin said. "If we saw six or eight clients a week, it was a lot."

The food bank has a new building on the grounds of the church.

Now, in addition to local volunteers, the United Way and St. Mary's are involved in the food bank that assists the needy with more than $200,000 worth of aid each year.

Women in the congregation formed the Mystical Rosary Solidarity. The Solidarity holds confirmation and funeral dinners, and helps wherever the current priest sees a need.

Other additions came over the years as there was a need. Parishioners began building Our Lady of Fatima, Queen of Peace shrine in 1968, as people prayed for an end to the Vietnam War.

In 1992, Dave Engleman, as the parish council president, and his fellows, saw a need for a parish hall. The project was completed that same year.

"St. Philip's is deeply involved in the community and Payson is a special place," Ceolin said. "I can't separate my feelings for the church from my feelings for this community."

In the span of 50 years, the congregation has grown from a mission church, supported by the Diocese, to a church with a mission church of its own in Young.

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