July 9, 2010

A dual celebration: St. Mary-of-the-Knobs parishioners break ground for new church, honor retiring pastor

Altar servers, priests and members of St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Parish in Floyd County process to a groundbreaking ceremony on June 27 at the site where the New Albany Deanery faith community’s new church will be constructed. (Submitted photo by Elaine Davis)

Altar servers, priests and members of St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Parish in Floyd County process to a groundbreaking ceremony on June 27 at the site where the New Albany Deanery faith community’s new church will be constructed. (Submitted photo by Elaine Davis)

By Leslie Lynch (Special to The Criterion)

FLOYD COUNTY—There were two reasons to celebrate at St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Parish on June 27.

The oldest existing parish in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis broke ground for a new church, and a farewell picnic was held for Father John Geis, the parish’s pastor for the past 17 years. Father Geis is retiring from active ministry after 46 years as a priest.

About 900 people gathered for a special outdoor Mass, where Father Geis was the principal celebrant. (See a photo gallery from this event)

From its exterior design to the choice of matching bricks and mortar, the new church building will mirror the 100-year-old existing church.

Gary Libs, co-chairperson of the parish’s “Upon This Rock” capital campaign, said, “Today’s groundbreaking is another step as our parish continues to give glory to God and strives to meet the spiritual, educational and human needs of our parish and neighbors.”

Father Geis added, “The Holy Spirit has been guiding us and leading us to this moment for years, and it is now happening through the grace of God.”

Located in scenic Floyds Knobs, St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Parish serves an ever-growing rural community in Floyd County and the surrounding area.

The re-establishment of an elementary school on the parish grounds in 2001 pushed the current parish campus to its limits and, unable to expand the existing facilities, Father Geis appointed a steering committee four years ago to explore options.

From the beginning, prayer and a reliance on the guidance of the Holy Spirit have been an integral part of the process.

A special prayer has been said after every Mass, and a writing of St. Henry inspired both vision and purpose: “…we think it fitting not only to enlarge churches constructed by our ancestors, but for the greater glory of God to build new ones and to raise them up as the most grateful gifts of our devotion.”

Eric Atkins, director of management services for the archdiocese, said the new $4 million church will increase the seating capacity from 400 people in the current church to nearly 1,200 people in the new one.

The new church will also meet the parish’s growing need for more gathering, fellowship and hospitality space. Following the lead of their ancestors, parishioners are looking to the future and have crafted a plan that allows for further expansion as needs arise.

New church features include a circular floor plan and sloping floor for enhanced visibility, two reconciliation rooms, two cry rooms that can double as dressing rooms for weddings, four side altars that will feature mysteries of the rosary, and a full immersion baptismal font.

The current church will continue to accommodate daily and children’s Masses after the new one is completed, which is slated for December 2011. Construction of an activity center is under way, and is expected to be completed by September. Additionally, soccer, baseball and football fields will be built.

During the groundbreaking ceremony, numerous people were recognized for their contributions to the project. Many parishioners participated in various committees during the planning phase, which longtime parishioner Pat Byrne credits to Father Geis’ focus on keeping people involved.

A capital campaign resulted in raising more than $10 million for the new church and activity center. Three shovelfuls of dirt were turned at the site of the future altar in honor of the three persons of the Trinity.

The celebration continued with a potluck dinner honoring Father Geis’ ministry at St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Parish.

Parishioner Brenda Crockett was among those who said the longtime pastor made a difference in the parish family’s life of faith.

“We’re going to miss Father John. He has allowed the youths to be so involved in the Church,” she said. “That has had a big impact on my family.”

Parishioner Charlie Koopman praised Father Geis’ style of leadership and his emphasis on hospitality, and noted how the new church is being built around that concept.

“You [Father Geis] have become a brother to me as well as a friend,” he added.

Susan Isaacs, parish director of adult faith formation, said that, under Father Geis’ direction, the parish has gone from a staff of two full-time employees to five employees. There has also been growth in part-time help, and an explosion of ministries, including a school full of teachers, aides and volunteers.

“Your calm, prayerful, selfless demeanor humbles us,” Isaacs said. “You have cultivated a ministry staff who believes that what we must do is what we are called to do, and our calling is much bigger than us.”

Many of his fellow priests joined in celebrating Mass and Father Geis. Concelebrants included Benedictine Archabbott Justin DuVall of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad; Father Gerald Kirkhoff, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Indianapolis, temporary administrator of Holy Cross Parish in Indianapolis and vicar of advocacy for priests in the archdiocese; Father Wilfred “Sonny” Day, pastor of Holy Family Parish in New Albany and dean of the New Albany Deanery; Father Juan José Valdes, administrator of St. Mary Parish in Lanesville; Father Randall Summers, pastor of St. Louis Parish in Batesville; Father Michael O’Mara, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Indianapolis; and retired Father William Ernst.

Of the gifts presented to Father Geis, the biggest surprise came with the announcement from parishioners that the new activity center will be named after their retiring pastor.

“I feel lucky, privileged to share this with you. It’s been a wonderful trip,” Father Geis said.

In his retirement, Father Geis plans to reconnect with family near Greensburg, and pursue his “sea” ministry—fishing. He will also assist at parishes as needed.

(Leslie Lynch is a member of St. Mary Parish in Lanesville.)

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