May 12, 2017

A special transformation sets the stage for schoolchildren to join the Catholic faith

Father Christopher Wadelton, pastor of St. Philip Neri Parish in Indianapolis, baptizes Holy Cross Central School student Jada Brown during a school Mass in the chapel space for Holy Cross School in Indianapolis on April 20. Also pictured at left is Ruth Hittel, principal of the school. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Father Christopher Wadelton, pastor of St. Philip Neri Parish in Indianapolis, baptizes Holy Cross Central School student Jada Brown during a school Mass in the chapel space for Holy Cross School in Indianapolis on April 20. Also pictured at left is Ruth Hittel, principal of the school. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

It’s another Thursday, and Ruth Hittel is once again immersed in a dramatic transformation that reflects one of the main principles that guides her life:

“Never give up.”

It’s an attitude that she wants the 240 children at Holy Cross Central School in Indianapolis to embrace—students whose lives are touched by many challenges, including the reality that most of them live at or below the poverty level.

It’s also an attitude that marks the roots of the former Holy Cross Parish, paying honor to a time when Irish Catholics in this near eastside area jump-started their surge from their humble beginnings with a combined charge of faith, education and tenacity.

Hittel, the school’s principal, embraced that attitude again last fall when she was confronted by a dire situation involving the church that had long served as the setting for school Masses.

“The church officially closed last

May 15, due to the merger of the parish with St. Philip Neri Parish—and the physical condition of the church,” she says.

“A few years ago, a limestone arch on the front of the church came down. It was going to cost about $1.3 million to do all the repairs the church needed, and the money wasn’t there to make them. We were able to stay in the church until last October, but after that we couldn’t justify heating the church for just the school Mass once a week.”

So began the weekly, extensive efforts to create an inviting worship space for the students—a worship space that has helped continue the school’s trend of having “10 to 15 non-Catholic children choose to become Catholic every year.”

The transformation began in the gym when Hittel asked Kari Campbell—an artist and the school’s after-school care coordinator—to carry out the first part of her plan.

“We decided the stage of the gym would be the place of the altar, and we wanted the altar to be the focal point,” Hittel says. “I wanted to have a cross in the center part of the stage. We talked about the history of Holy Cross, and we decided upon a Celtic cross to represent the Irish heritage on which Holy Cross was founded.

“Kari painted a beautiful green Celtic cross with gold accents, and there’s a dove representing the Holy Spirit in the center of the cross. So that cross is always there.”

Another part of the transformation takes place every Thursday at 6 a.m. when Hittel and her husband Charles arrive at the school that is one of the Notre Dame Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) Academies in the archdiocese. An appropriate chapel space is created in the gym for use by the school.

They also add banners to frame the worship space. Their attention to detail even has an aromatic touch.

“When people think about a church, they think about the way it looks, the way it makes them feel, and even the smell of a church,” Hittel says. “So we also want the gym to not smell like a gym. We use ‘scent defusers,’ smells that make it seem like a church. At Christmas, it was cinnamon. During Advent, we did sandalwood.”

The transformation is designed with one goal in mind.

“We’re trying very hard to give our children a worship space that inspires them in their faith, and to help them think about what’s happening during the Mass.

“Fifty percent of my students aren’t Catholic, and they don’t know what to expect in church. We want them to feel the reverence that’s expected in a church setting. We want our non-Catholic children to aspire to be Catholic, and we want to inspire our Catholic children to be faithful Catholics.”

The approach works. This year, 10 non-Catholic children at Holy Cross have chosen to become Catholic. Eighth-grader Jada Brown was one of them.

“It just felt like something that needed to be done,” says Jada, who is 14. “Half of my classmates are baptized, and they said it’s a blessing. I think I’m going to get closer to God.”

Seeing six students be baptized recently was also a blessing for Hittel.

“It makes me feel like a proud mom,” Hittel says. “We don’t set out to force someone to choose the Catholic faith. We set out to model the Catholic faith so that the children want to become Catholic.”

She gives credit to Father Christopher Wadelton, the pastor of nearby St. Philip Neri Parish, who celebrates the school Mass at Holy Cross.

“Father Chris needs to be patted on the back because he relates so well to the children. His connection to the children is a big part of why the children choose to become Catholic.”

Father Wadelton also compliments Hittel on the way “she has gone above and beyond to create a very impressive, really beautiful” worship space for the children during the school Mass. Still, he believes those efforts are just part of the true beauty happening at Holy Cross—leading more children to the Catholic faith.

“Ruth lives her faith in such a positive and open manner that the kids are attracted to that. And that’s the way so many of the teachers are, too. The kids see it and recognize it. And they come on their own to ask to be baptized,” he says. “That’s really the beautiful part of the story. The Catholic culture is so strong around the school.”

For Hittel, it all comes back to the approach that has guided Holy Cross through its history.

“We didn’t want to give up.” †

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