St. Helen Catholic Church in Orangefield celebrated 70 years since the building of the little white church, Sunday. Although the first mass took place Sept. 8, 1938, the Roman Catholic Church community in Orangefield is much older than that.

Settlers came to the area in the 1800s. There are indications of a mission church in the Oilla community in 1880 named St. Louis.

Visiting priests would travel by train to hold services. The present church is less than a half-mile from where the old train station sat on Terry Road, near the neighborhood frequently known as Bird’s Nest. Apparently the mission church closed around the turn of the century. There are indications that traveling priests continued to offer mass in people’s homes. More easily documented are services held in the Shiyou home in Orangefield from 1928-38.

Father Joe Berberich, associate pastor at St. Mary Church in Orange, began three mission churches in Orangefield, Bridge City and Vidor. There appears to be a little conflict as to when the mission was started in Orangefield. Some written history says it was started in 1937 with first masses held in an oil shed, but there is a first communion picture in the church archives dated 1935 with Burberich taken at a feed store that was previously Oscar Chesson’s old house. “Then used as first church house. Was near the old Bayou Bridge,” according to the caption.

Berberich supervised the building of the little white church that was built on Farm Road 105 for the princely sum of $5,000. The name St. Helen was chosen because half of the money for the church was donated by the Extension Home Mission Society in memory of a Mrs. Helen Kelly.

The first mass was celebrated on the same day the Rainbow Bridge was dedicated. The bridge spans the Neches River connecting Orange and Jefferson counties.

It is stated in some of the written copy that brothers Thomas “Tick” and Wade Granger, along with their sister, Irma Gene, received their First Communion at that mass. Irma Gene is listed in a First Communion picture dated 1941.

“Tick” is now in a nursing home. Wade and Irma Gene are deceased.

The building was dedicated by Bishop Christopher E. Byrne in special ceremonies on March 22, 1939. Until recently, it was the only building remaining from the oil boom days. It had to be torn down this year because of extensive damage from Hurricane Rita in 2005, as well as an excessive amount of asbestos in the building.

St. Helen remained a mission of St. Mary until 1946, when it was turned over to St. Henry in Bridge City and its resident pastor, Father Timothy Cronin. Later Father Herman Vincent looked after the little church.

In 1967 the building was remodeled, dropping the high ceiling. Central air conditioning was installed.

The building was rededicated by Bishop Vincent Harris, first bishop of Beaumont, on Sept. 15, 1967 one week after the anniversary of the first mass. There were between 70 to 80 families attending mass at that time. Many of the parishioners were descendants from the earliest settlers in the area. That still holds true today.

St. Helen had many full time and temporary administrators between 1973 and 1980, including the Revs. William Kennelly, Roland Maarschalkerweerd and Tom Phelan.

In 1980, St. Helen attained full parish status. The Rev. Patrick Turner became St. Helen Church’s first pastor. It was also “Father Pat’s” first assignment as a pastor.

During that time the parish made plans to move to the present site on the Farm Road 1442 extension. The road was yet to be built, but was promised. The church would then be located in the center and the expected growth pattern of Orange County.

Four acres were given by the Granger family. The home of Winfield and Martha Granger on Jap Lane was purchased to serve as the rectory. Three more acres were purchased from Paul and Jewel Cormier. The Cormiers donated an additional 15 acres bringing the total property to 22 acres. What was unusual about the gift was the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Cormier were Baptists.

The church dedicated a rock that marked the site of the new church on June 1, 1986.

The Rev. Timothy Deeter was named Orangefield’s second pastor in 1987 and worked tirelessly lobbying to get the promised 1442 extension built. Upon completion of the road, Deeter was recognized for his efforts by Congressman Ron Lewis with a proclamation naming that portion of FM 1442, Deeter Road, though there were never any signs with that name erected.

The current parish hall, with meeting rooms, kitchen and offices were built, quickly followed by classrooms. Expenses were kept down by a significant amount of the labor being performed by church members.

The original bell that was made in the late 1800s and the original altar were installed at the new church and are still in use today.
On the feast day of St. Helen, Aug.18, 1990, the last Eucharist was celebrated in the old church on Highway 105. A Latin Requiem Mass in the Tridentine rite was offered by Deeter in memory of all deceased parishioners.

Among those attending were “Tick” and Wade Granger and sister, Irma Gene Bell.

On the next day, August 19, the new building was dedicated by Bishop Bernard J. Ganter.

Since that time, anniversary celebrations have centered on the Feast Day of St. Helen in August, instead of the original month of September.

The building has served as the temporary church until the new one is built. It was expected to be built just a few years later, but a moratorium was put on new construction until the current building was paid for.

A note-burning ceremony took place Jan. 25, 2004, under direction of Bishop Curtis Guillory of Beaumont and then administrator the Rev. Philip Payyappilli. St. Helen is now ready to enter the next phase under the leadership of the Rev. George Kidangen.

About Penny LeLeux

Penny has worked at The Record Newspapers since 2006. A member of the editorial staff, she has "done everything but print it." Most frequently she writes entertainment reviews and human interest stories, with a little paranormal thrown in from time to time.She has been a lifelong member of the Orangefield community.