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You may have heard his story before, the story of a boy raised in a southern Indiana community and parish who grew into a man whose courage and vision helped change the world, but it’s worth repeating:
He was born in New Albany in 1892, grew up at St. Mary Parish and knew as a young boy, “I simply wanted to be a priest.”
He was ordained in 1917 after graduating from St. Meinrad College and Seminary, and brought many gifts to his ministry. He was appointed auxiliary bishop of the then Diocese of Indianapolis in 1933, then became bishop of the diocese in 1934 and, later, was appointed the first archbishop of the newly-formed Archdiocese of Indianapolis in 1944.
He was named to lead the Archdiocese of St. Louis in 1946, where as its archbishop he continued to champion the rights of African-Americans just as he had done in Indiana.
In 1937, he had ordered the integration of Catholic schools in Indianapolis. Ten years later, amid protests, he desegregated Catholic schools in St. Louis—seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court ended segregation in public schools.
In 1961, he was elevated to the rank of cardinal by Pope John XXIII, and is the only cardinal to hail from Indiana. He also was a participant in all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council.
While he championed human dignity and religious tolerance, his simple approach to life was: “Work had … pray hard … don’t worry.”
We, of course, are talking about Cardinal Joseph Elmer Ritter, who as a visionary and man of courage did so much for the Church—and society—until his death in 1967.
While Catholics and people of faith have embraced Cardinal Ritter’s life and legacy for decades, we find it fitting that the Indiana Historical Bureau, Cardinal Ritter Birthplace Foundation and Cardinal Ritter Knights of Columbus Council #1221 in New Albany have now paid tribute to his life and ties here.
The Indiana state historical marker dedicated on July 22 at Cardinal Ritter’s birthplace on Oak Street in New Albany will serve as another reminder to people of all walks of life about what a difference one person of vision and courage can make in the world. The foundation is also working to restore the home for use as a community center and site for nonprofit organizations to carry on Cardinal Ritter’s legacy of service.
As we also learned at Sunday’s dedication ceremony, historical markers commemorate significant Indiana individuals, places and events, and they help communities throughout Indiana promote, preserve and present their history for the education and enjoyment of residents and tourists of all ages.
Via the Internet, that history reaches a worldwide audience.
What we find just as affirming is the fact that, in a society where securalism has become a buzzword for so many pundits in our day and time, Indiana state officials have not shied away from remembering how faith is a big part of thousands of citizens’ everyday lives.
It was only last summer that Gov. Mitch Daniels hung a portrait of St. Theodora Guérin on the south wall of his office at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis, and said of her, “She obviously came as near to perfection as any fallen human can.”
And last fall, a portion of U.S. 150 near St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Ind., was renamed St. Mother Theodore Guérin Memorial Highway in honor of the state’s first saint.
What those actions—and the Cardinal Ritter historical marker—demonstrate is what a big part religion plays in our state and its history.
As Catholics and people of faith, it’s something we should all be proud of. And as people striving to emulate the holy people who have gone before us, it’s something we must never forget.
— Mike Krokos