August 23, 2019

Love of faith and community has guided parish for 150 years

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson shares a lighthearted moment with parishioners of St. Mary Parish in Mitchell during the celebration of the parish’s 150th anniversary on Aug. 11. (Submitted photo by Amy Marshek)

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson shares a lighthearted moment with parishioners of St. Mary Parish in Mitchell during the celebration of the parish’s 150th anniversary on Aug. 11. (Submitted photo by Amy Marshek)

By John Shaughnessy

Father Richard Eldred still remembers his mother’s words of reassurance when he made his way to the southern Indiana community of Mitchell to become the pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish 15 years ago.

Wondering how he would be greeted at his new assignment, Father Eldred felt uplifted when his mom noted that their family already had extended roots there.

“My mom said we had relatives buried in the town of Mitchell, and that the first baby baptized at

St. Mary’s—Margaret Anna Keane—was a distant cousin of mine,” Father Eldred recalls. “When I found that out, it was really exciting. I had far more roots than I really expected.”

Now, that feeling of being part of a special faith-filled family at St. Mary has grown exponentially for Father Eldred. And that feeling has taken on an even deeper essence for him and parishioners as they celebrate the small parish’s 150th anniversary this year.

“The strength of St. Mary’s and what’s kept it going are the families of the parish,” says its pastor. “They take great pride and ownership of St. Mary’s. The congregation has always made sure the parish has never faltered.”

That sentiment is also echoed by Jack Murphy, the great-great grandson of Colonel John Sheeks, a Protestant who donated the land where the first church of St. Mary Parish was built.

That donation of land was made in 1869, the year when the Keane child and four other babies were baptized into the Catholic faith in Mitchell. The 30 Catholics in town became the foundation of the parish that same year, according to a parish history.

That account also explained why having a church was so important to them.

“Two things must be remembered here: the Catholics were largely immigrants from Catholic European countries—the earliest from Ireland and later from Hungary, Serbia, Poland—and the Church of the mid-nineteenth century America was the center of all social activities.

“Religion was exceptionally and remarkably important to the people of this era, and isolation needed to be replaced by community. These zealous Catholics arranged for a priest to say Mass and celebrate the sacraments.”

Murphy says he doesn’t know much about the historical context of the parish, but he has been immersed in its emphasis on community ever since he was received into the full communion of the Church in the early 1980s.

“It’s amazing that in the small town that Mitchell is that this parish has survived as long as it has,” says the 70-year-old Murphy, who has been married for 47 years to Margaret “Muggs” Murphy. “I like the people there. A lot of them are our friends. They’re dedicated. That’s the kind of thing that helps hold the church together.”

The first church of the parish was built in 1871. The current church—constructed of limestone—was completed and dedicated in 1967. According to the parish history, that new church was built with the help of the life savings of its then-pastor, Father Meinrad Rouck. It was also erected in reaction to the overflow of Catholics who came to St. Mary for Mass while they were on vacation at nearby Spring Mill State Park during the 1960s.

“In the days when no Catholic would consider missing Mass on a Sunday during a vacation, walls of rubber could not have accommodated all who came from Spring Mill Park to fulfill their Sunday obligation,” the history noted. “The church could house only 110 people, and many Sundays saw upwards of 300 for Mass. Something needed to be done.”

St. Mary parishioner Joyce Daugherty remembers the transition from the old church to the new church from an unusual, even humorous perspective.

“I was in the first or second grade when they tore down the old church, and I was horrified,” recalls Daugherty. “I asked, ‘Where is God going to live now that they tore down his house?’ When they were building the new one, my dad told me, ‘This is where Jesus will live now. He has a new home.’ ”

Now the parish secretary, Daugherty describes the structure today as “a very comforting, warm church. You know God’s present here. I think it’s wonderful we get to celebrate 150 years.”

The official celebration of the parish’s landmark anniversary was on Aug. 11 when Archbishop Charles C. Thompson came to celebrate Mass at its church.

A community meal at the parish followed. And each family received a Christmas ornament featuring the image of the parish’s church. Once again, it was all a community effort.

“When we do something like this 150th anniversary, everyone pulls out all the stops,” says parishioner Amy Marshek. “The celebration was fabulous—a lot of excitement and energy. Very upbeat.

“It was fun to see the pews full, like a Christmas or Easter celebration. And everyone was excited that the archbishop would come down and celebrate with us. He went to every table and talked to everyone there. He was very at ease, with a great sense of humor. All around, there was just a happy feeling—a lot of smiles.”

For Marshek, the celebration was an extension of the special feeling she’s had for the parish ever since she and her family moved here from upstate New York 13 years ago. That’s when her husband John was transferred to the General Motors power train plant in nearby Bedford.

“When we first moved here, our son Trevor was in the third grade and our daughter Teagan was in pre-school,” she says about her children who are now 21 and 17. “The Catholic community here has seen them grow up, and people always want to know about them. That’s the way they are for all the kids. They embrace them. They are always trying to build up the young people and help them in any way they can.”

They did the same for her when she became interested in becoming a Catholic.

“When I came here, people said, ‘If you think about becoming a Catholic and want to talk about it, we can help you.’ That was a comfort. They just embrace their faith. When you’re going through any kind of up or down, they’re there for you.”

So were the parishioners of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Bedford when St. Mary celebrated its anniversary.

The two parishes share a youth minister and Father Eldred as a pastor, as part of their connection that is known as the Catholic Community of Lawrence County. There’s also a single parish council made up of members from both parishes, and children from both parishes attend the school at St. Vincent de Paul.

“There’s a unity between the two parishes,” says Father Eldred. “Both parishes support each other at social events. And the choirs of both parishes come together to sing at funerals.”

This time, it’s a different song—a song of celebration for St. Mary, its history and its people.

“The people here are very welcoming, hardworking and genuine,” Father Eldred says. “Some are farmers, some are factory workers, some work at the Crane Naval Base. It all comes together to create a wonderful, caring and faith-based community. I’m blessed to be here.

“The love of their faith has definitely been the cornerstone that has kept the parish going for 150 years.” †

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