By Tony Gutiérrez, The Catholic Sun

WILLIAMS, Ariz. — About 5 million tourists pass through this small town just west of Flagstaff known as the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon,” with its other claim to fame being the last city on the Historic Route 66 to be bypassed by Interstate 40. But for one more month, Catholic tourists, among others, can also be pilgrims.

On June 22 of this year, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted officially decreed Williams’ only Catholic church — St. Joseph the Worker Parish — the official pilgrimage site for the Diocese of Phoenix during the Year of St. Joseph ending Dec. 8 this year, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.

UPDATE: Bishop Olmsted has extended the decree through May 1, 2022, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker.

Pastor Fr. Thielo Ramirez “and his parishioners were more than happy to host pilgrims. From everything I can tell, they have done a great job of showing Christian hospitality,” Bishop Olmsted told the Sun in an e-mail. “The Year of St. Joseph provides a golden opportunity to learn from the foster Father of Jesus how to be servants of the Son of God in the ordinary circumstances of our lives, whether it be in a carpenter’s shop or wherever we work and support our families.”

According to the decree, “for the Spiritual wellbeing of the people of God, and for the fostering of greater devotion among the faithful to St. Joseph,” pilgrims who visit the parish and kneel before the St. Joseph altar and statue and “pray fervently” to him, are also granted a plenary indulgence, once the three usual conditions are met: to go to Confession and Holy Communion, interiorly detached from sin, and pray for the intentions of the Holy Father.

According to the Code of Canon Law, an indulgence is “a remission before God of the temporal punishment for sin, the guilt of which is already forgiven” (992). A plenary indulgence is a remission of all punishment and can be applied to oneself or to someone who has died.

“We get a lot of visitors that come to Mass, which is a great witness. I thought it would be a great opportunity while they’re here to make it an official pilgrimage site and to receive the graces that come with it,” said Fr. Ramirez, who serves as pastor of St. Joseph, along with St. Anne Parish in Ash Fork and St. Francis Parish in Seligman.

When Fr. Ramirez was diagnosed with COVID-19 last year, he found himself reflecting on the example of his parish’s patron, noting that St. Joseph has no words recorded in Scripture but that he was great “because of his listening in silence.”

“The greatest thing I could do for my people was buckle down and pray and lift up my people in prayer. It had to be all rooted in that silence, in that intimacy with our Lord,” he said.

Pilgrims’ Journey

When pilgrims walk inside the narthex, they are greeted by a “rustic” stature of St. Joseph the Worker holding carpentry tools. Walking into the church, the St. Joseph altar is located to the right and just in front of the sanctuary. This statue depicts Joseph as the faster father of Jesus, holding him in his arm and carrying a staff topped with lilies — a symbol of his purity. In front of the statue is a vase of flowers, a copy of the decree, a guest book and copies of the Litany to St. Joseph and other prayers for pilgrims to pray when venerating the statue.

“The beauty of the saints is they always point us to the Lord, not just to themselves,” said Fr. Ramirez. “I think all these statues and images are very important in our spiritual life because our minds tend to wander, and we need all this help.”

Parishioners Pat and Sue Beckham moved to Williams this past June from Oregon, and he immediately went to work helping his new parish prepare to host pilgrims. He and other parishioners moved the statue — which had been near the tabernacle — to its temporary location.

“I’m excited about being a part of it,” he said. “If anybody wants to pray there, I’ll be glad to do it with them. It’s a neat thing to do. It was really insightful to realize St. Joseph is a big part of our Christian heritage.”

Pat has a deep devotion to St. Joseph and looks to him as a “great model of a father” and “a man I’d like to be like. When I hear stories about him, I think that’s the way God wanted fathers to be.”

In the choir loft is a giant stained-glass window of the Holy Family that — with the loft’s light left on — can be seen from the outside at night. Joseph has his arms wrapped around Mary and Jesus. Above them is another window — a circle containing the traditional image of St. Joseph: a lily and a carpenter’s square, though the square is metal.

“It’s a very modern depiction of a carpenter’s square,” noted Fr. Ramirez. “The idea is that even now in modern times St. Joseph has something to say about family life and listening to God and being a man of virtue and strength.”

Carol Delander, a former parish secretary who has attended St. Joseph for 45 years, provided the guest book for pilgrims to sign. As of Nov. 5, the church had received 129 pilgrims who signed the book.

Out of those who gave their location, 73 were from within the Diocese of Phoenix and another five came from the Diocese of Tucson. For those within the Diocese, 41 traveled from the Valley, 10 from Mohave County, two from Yavapai County and the rest from Coconino.

Thirty-nine pilgrims have visited from out of state, the vast majority — 21 — being from California. Other pilgrims came from Colorado, Florida, Hawai’i, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon and Texas.

“They come from all over the state and out of state. Being a tourist town, we have a lot of tourists that attend Mass here, so we’re really honored to have that happen, too,” Delander said. “We want to welcome people to come.”

Example of St. Joseph

A table in the narthex displays a collection of light blue T-shirts depicting a line drawing of Joseph holding Jesus. Parishioner Lea Echeverria designed the shirt as a way to promote the pilgrimage and as a parish fundraiser.

Fr. Ramirez said he chose a simple design “to show the simplicity of St. Joseph, and really the simplicity of our life here in Williams. We’re kind of secluded. We entertain a lot of visitors, even, in a simple way. I wanted something very simple to highlight our life here.”

Echeverria began designing and making T-shirts as a hobby when the COVID-19 pandemic began, she said. With her new talent, she approached Fr. Ramirez.

“I just really wanted to do something to give back because it’s such a small parish, and I wanted to donate my time and do something good for them,” she said. “People can purchase the shirt and take it with them, and people can connect to their memories when they visited the parish.”

Echeverria, who grew up in Flagstaff, has attended St. Joseph with her husband and three children for the last 15 years. She has also turned to the parish’s patron for intercession and guidance.

“Over the years, being married, I’ve always had a devotion to St. Joseph, just praying over my husband and asking him to help guide our family,” she said.

In his apostolic letter proclaiming the Year of St. Joseph, Pope Francis highlighted Joseph’s identity as a father, found in its title “Patris Corde,” or “With a Father’s Heart.”

“Above all, we men can learn from St. Joseph how to be fathers,” said Bishop Olmsted. “Wherever he was, in exile in Egypt or in his carpenter’s shop in Nazareth, Joseph protected, labored and courageously — yet tenderly — cared for the Son of God and His mother. May we men follow his example.”

Pilgrimages are innately associated with travel, making Williams an ideal location, says Fr. Ramirez, noting that even within the area people sometimes travel two hours to go to the grocery store, see a doctor or visit family and friends. Ultimately, a pilgrimage is a journey to Jesus Christ, he said.

Almost every time St. Joseph is depicted in Sacred Scripture, he’s “on the move,” Fr. Ramirez added. Indeed, St. Joseph took Mary with him to Bethlehem, fled to Egypt, returned to Nazareth and is finally seen during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover.

“That physical journey to something else helps us inwardly travel to the Lord — the sacrifices that come with that, the difficulties, inconveniences, all those things we can offer up to the Lord and allow our hearts to grow fonder and in more intimate union with the Him,” said Fr. Ramirez.

More Resources on the Year of St. Joseph