MOUNT ANGEL — Just as Joe Bielenberg's heart beat for the last time, the bells began ringing at St. Mary Church here.
Family and friends say the timing was fitting. Bielenberg, who died Sept. 23 at a Mount Angel care center, was a hard-working farmer who gave at least as much to the Catholic Church as to his fields and livestock.
A funeral drew a crowd to Holy Rosary Mission in Crooked Finger, the small church Bielenberg served quietly but mightily for more than six decades.
The Catholic Sentinel, planning a profile, interviewed 93-year-old Bielenberg two weeks before his death.
He was born in Nampa, Idaho in 1918. The family moved to a farm in the Cascade foothills at Crooked Finger in 1931. Young Joe's service began soon at Holy Rosary, where he was an altar boy and charged with starting the fire early to warm the church before Mass. Of course, he had to milk the cows first.
He served in the Army during World War II, retiring as a captain from the 8th Armored Division, 20th Engineer Combat Battalion.
He married Josephine Wellnitz at St. Mary Church in Janesville, Wis. in 1948. In 1949, they moved west and settled back in the Crooked Finger area. Bielenberg operated a logging business briefly then became a farmer.
At Holy Rosary, he took over from his father as the one who took up the collection on Sundays. He would do that job for decades. He also became a trusted church lieutenant, especially with the arrival of Benedictine Father Hildebrand Melchior, a priest full of plans. It sometimes took Bielenberg's skill, strength and good sense to concretize the dreams.
Bielenberg helped the priest with background logistics for a massive pilgrimage for the 1954 Marian year declared by Pope Pius XII. Father Hildebrand had said that although Holy Rosary was small in numbers, the enthusiasm of its members would help them "do something big for Our Lady.”
"I really let myself go around the bend that day," Bielenberg said, chuckling and running a hand through his thin hair. "Father Hildebrand had a lot of ideas. He said 'Joe do this,' and 'Joe do that.'"
More than 5,000 Willamette Valley Catholics came to Crooked Finger that August day to pray for world peace and the conversion of Russia. They walked from a local farm almost a mile to Holy Rosary. Bielenberg had prepared the route — a cow path the rest of the year — even spraying it with water at the last moment to prevent dust. Families erected shrines along the way.
In a following year, Bielenberg led a crew that built a cabin as a new starting point for the pilgrimage. Eventually, it was Bielenberg who got the task of pacing the procession, walking in front at the right pace so the rosary timing went smoothly. He worked hard on the pilgrimages, but the experience was prayerful.
"We knew we were assisting people in devotion," he said.
Bielenberg involved his whole family of seven children in preparing the grounds. They cleared trails, hauled sawdust, hung banners, worked in food booths, cleaned up and stowed banners and benches for the next pilgrimage.
The event has taken place every year since 1954 and Joe and Josephine Bielenberg attended each one.
For many years Josephine cleaned and decorated the church, provided pies and cinnamon rolls for the pilgrimages and church socials, decorated a shrine for the August events and helped clean the grounds. She was an active member of the Altar Society and is also a Catholic Daughter member for more than 50 years.
In 1963, it became clear that Holy Rosary was too small. Bielenberg and a crew split the church in half, pulled the sides apart and built in between. Bielenberg would say with a smile that parishioners "stretched" the church by a good 20 feet.
Bielenberg was also a leader in reinforcing the base of the tower and digging a well. He cut the maple trees that were used to make the current church pews. He and a crew dug a basement and, when Father Hildebrand gave only two hours notice before a cement truck arrived, hastily but expertly fashioned forms for the pour.
"The basement walls are a little rough," Bielenberg explained.
When it came time for confirmation at Holy Rosary, Archbishop Howard would need to be picked up and taken into the country. The archbishop never learned to drive.
On the first trip Bielenberg felt shy. What does one say to an archbishop?
But the churchman had grown up on an Iowa farm so the two talked agriculture for the drive of more than an hour.
When it came time for a benefit dinner for the church, it was his cabbage used to make 150 gallons of sauerkraut. He designed the gazebo that was built in the grove of trees next to the church.
In recent years, Bielenberg would visit Kennedy High School, where he'd show students his war memorabilia and tell stories.
Over the decades, Bielenberg was active with the Knights of Columbus, American Legion and various school boards and community activities. In retirement, he spent hours in his woodshop making hop baskets, wagons, wagon wheels, shrines, Good Friday crosses, toys, and other wooden treasures for his family and friends.
In the 1990s, he and his brothers built a grotto near Holy Rosary that folks here say will be a place of prayer for centuries.
"I liked to do quite a few things," Bielenberg explained. "But I liked to do them in the background."
On the farm, Bielenberg grew sprouts, broccoli, snap beans, strawberries and grains, plus seed for parsnips, onions and sugar beets. He raised hogs and beef. Bielenberg did not gain great wealth for all his labor, but his work fed his family and he was satisfied with that. His son Ed now tends the family land.
Bielenberg, his blue eyes lively and friendly to the end, was surrounded by family when he died. He shared an easy and deep affection with his children and their families. He loved to tell stories and people loved to listen.
Bielenberg is survived by his wife, Josephine, and their seven children: David (Pegi) Bielenberg, Christine (Bob) Adelman, Timothy (Betty) Bielenberg, Bernard (Roxanne) Bielenberg, Diane (Pat) Blair, Therese (Mike) Swearingen, and Edward (Susan) Bielenberg. He is also survived by 23 grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren, his sister, Margaret Gersch, and many nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by siblings Tony, Fritz, and Agnes Bielenberg.