October 7, 2011

‘Small but mighty’ North Vernon parish celebrates 150 years

Rides light up the night on Sept. 9 during a parish festival at St. Mary Parish in North Vernon. The annual celebration was expanded from one day to three days this year to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Seymour Deanery faith community. (Submitted photo)

Rides light up the night on Sept. 9 during a parish festival at St. Mary Parish in North Vernon. The annual celebration was expanded from one day to three days this year to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Seymour Deanery faith community. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

When 77-year-old Ann Talant was a young girl growing up in North Vernon, members of the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in a field across from her family’s home.

“I was very young at the time,” said the member of St. Mary Parish in North Vernon. “I don’t remember it, but I remember [my parents] talking about it. The Ku Klux Klan was very active.”

At the time, the Catholics were a distinct minority of the population of Jennings County.

They still are, making up only about 10 percent of the population there, according to St. Mary’s current pastor, Father Jonathan Meyer.

But in this year in which St. Mary Parish is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding, the place of Catholics in the broader community in North Vernon has greatly changed from the 1920s and ’30s to the present.

“We’re small but mighty,” said Father Meyer. “If you look at the local political leaders, the vast majority of them are Roman Catholic.

“Even though we are technically small, the contribution that we make to our local community is quite significant, not to mention businesses and things of that sort.”

Those contributions include reaching out to help people in need in Jennings County.

“If you look at the statistics, poverty in Jennings County is right up there,” Father Meyer said. “The amount of children on free and reduced lunch in Jennings County is pretty alarming. What this parish offers is a great blessing.”

Much of that assistance is offered through the volunteer efforts of the members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul who are St. Mary parishioners. They are present to give that assistance several hours a day Tuesday through Saturday each week.

Although the Catholic community in North Vernon may be “small but mighty,” the parish community began rather inauspiciously.

Founded at the start of the Civil War, construction of the parish’s church had to be halted because of the conflict, according to longtime parishioner Joe Bott.

“They laid the brick in a straight line toward the back and Father [John Missi, St. Mary’s founding pastor] had them board it up,” said Bott. “And the guys went to the war. They finished it afterward.”

Although later townspeople affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan looked down upon North Vernon’s Catholics—who were largely of German and Irish descent—in the early days, they saw the building of the parish church as a feather in the cap of the small town.

“[When] the steeple in the church was built, all the townspeople got together, and they wanted a clock to be put in it,” Bott said. “They had to add an extra 20 feet to the tower, which made it look too long and high. “That was used then as the town clock. It was the highest steeple in town.”

While many parishes in the archdiocese that are as old as St. Mary Parish have replaced their church at least once, either because of fire or because they outgrew it, the current members of the North Vernon parish worship today in the same church that its charter members completed nearly 150 years ago.

A large restoration project of the church’s interior was undertaken earlier this year, Father Meyer said, with the celebration of the parish’s anniversary in mind.

Other anniversary events have included a parish festival expanded from one day to three days, the creation of a parish quilt, students in the parish school making art projects and writing essays, and such spiritual initiatives as praying monthly novenas and making pilgrimages to nearby churches and religious communities.

On Oct. 2, apostolic administrator Bishop Christopher J. Coyne was the principal celebrant of a Mass at the parish that celebrated the first anniversary of the initiation of a perpetual adoration chapel at St. Mary Parish, the first such chapel in the Seymour Deanery.

The spiritual life of St. Mary Parish is important to

29-year-old Kate Eder.

“I love the adoration chapel,” she said. “I’ve definitely become more devout and more involved in my faith. I recognize that I need to have it as a part of my daily life in the choices that I make.”

Eder said the faith instilled in her in the parish as she grew up there helped her choose her current field of study. She’s working on earning a doctorate in counseling psychology at the University of Louisville.

“Just being able to have that encouraging and supportive atmosphere really brings about a sense of belonging, which has been a focus in my professional career,” Eder said. “My research [concerns] how those opportunities for belonging help others.”

Eder and other young adult Catholics in her area started the Jennings County Young Catholics, which she hopes will form the foundation of a bright future for St. Mary Parish and other nearby parishes.

“It’s so encouraging and exciting,” Eder said. “It’s not just an old [parish]. It’s not just the things that your grandparents did.

“We’re bringing life to it, and there’s a future. We’ll continue to grow and change as society grows and changes. But, hopefully, we’ll instill our faith and beliefs, and that consistent support that the parish has always had.”

(For more information about St. Mary Parish in North Vernon, log on to www.stmaryscc.com.)

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