Unlike many Catholic parishes, the congregation that gathers at St. Nicholas’ tiny brick church on a hilltop in rural Carver is undergoing a renaissance.

Every Sunday at noon, families squeeze into its pews, sit on the stairs, or stand hip to shoulder at the back of the church.

After adding a mass for Spanish-speakers four years ago, the parish has doubled in size to more than 400 families. Several large projects — much of the work done by parishioners — have accompanied the growth, including an elaborate prayer garden with a grotto and a total church renovation that preserved the building’s 1868 charm.

“We kind of created a family-like church,” said the Rev. Thomas Joseph, St. Nicholas’ priest for eight years. “I fell in love with this place.”

Many credit Joseph with creating the new energy and a sense of community, uniting long-standing parishioners of European descent with Latino newcomers.

The older parishioners love the church deeply, Joseph said. “At the same time they have embraced the new immigrants.”

Christian Nava, 17, comes from Farmington to attend the Spanish mass.

“It’s a really important place for people,” Nava said as he vacuumed the carpet after mass recently. “You’ve got to treat it the way it treats you.”

‘Like day and night’

Joseph came to Carver eight years ago from Divine Mercy in Faribault, a much bigger parish and school. St. Nicholas’ small size shocked him.

“It was like day and night,” Joseph said.

He grew to appreciate the place, he said, especially the people.

“Once you try your best as a priest, the people lift you up,” Joseph explained.

The church began seeing rapid growth several years ago that it wasn’t prepared for, said Jodee Korkowski, parish administrator. The newcomers were largely from Mexico, but also from Peru, Colombia and other Spanish-speaking countries. Korkowski noted that Carver is a growing community with new housing popping up regularly.

Joseph, who was born in India and speaks four languages, including Spanish, thought it made sense to offer a service the newcomers would understand.

Parishioner Isis Eddy and others like her appreciated the gesture. “I find a connection because [Thomas] is not an English-speaker, like me,” she said.

Even though seminarians are now required to learn some Spanish, it can still be challenging to find Spanish-speaking priests, said Robert Kennedy, chairman of the Catholic Studies Department at the University of St. Thomas.

Twenty-three of the 187 churches in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis offer masses in Spanish, said Tom Halden, archdiocese spokesman.

Rebuilding together

The parish has undertaken two major projects since 2011, when a visitor walked into the church and spotted a problem: the ceiling was caving in, Korkowski said.

The beams and roof system were replaced and the interior was remodeled, from the woodwork to the period doors. Many renovations were guided by a 1940s photo of the church. The brickwork was restored at a cost of $100,000, Korkowski said, and the bell tower got a new foundation. The work received an award in October from the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota.

Another endeavor was a prayer garden that cost $50,000 to $70,000, which includes a stone grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. Much of the work was done by parishioners, said Jerry Anderson, head of the garden committee.

Plans quickly escalated from a few rocks and plants to a grander vision, Anderson said, because of Joseph’s ambition. He sometimes walks outside to incorporate the garden into the mass.

“It morphed from the grotto concept to embracing all of our church,” said Anderson. “It encompasses what traditional, old parishioners wanted, plus I think it put some things out there for the new generation.”