November 28, 2008

St. Mary Parish has served Catholic immigrants for 150 years

More than 20,000 people began a march on April 10, 2006, in front of St. Mary Church in Indianapolis that was in support of immigration reform. (File photo by Brandon A. Evans)

More than 20,000 people began a march on April 10, 2006, in front of St. Mary Church in Indianapolis that was in support of immigration reform. (File photo by Brandon A. Evans)

By Sean Gallagher

Throughout its 150-year history, St. Mary Parish in Indianapolis has been closely tied to immigrant communities.

When it was founded in 1858, it was a spiritual home where German immigrants in Indiana’s state capital could practice their own devotions, hear sermons and confess their sins in German.

Its current church, which was constructed nearly 100 years ago, is modeled after the massive cathedral in Cologne, Germany.

At different periods in the 20th century, other groups of immigrants came to St. Mary Parish, including those from the Philippines and Latvia.

In the past 40 years, the parish has served a large number of Hispanic immigrants from Mexico, the Caribbean, and several countries in Central and South America.

“We are repeating our history,” said St. Mary’s pastor, Father Michael O’Mara.

That history will be celebrated during a special Mass at 7 p.m. on Dec. 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, at St. Mary Church, 317 N. New Jersey St., in Indianapolis.

Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein will be the primary celebrant of the Mass.

A reception will follow at the Battery Park Saloon restaurant, 201 N. Illinois St., in Indianapolis.

Parishioner Barbara McLin is looking forward to the Dec. 8 Mass and reception that will close a year of events which have celebrated the parish’s anniversary.

“It’s going to be so exciting,” she said. “When you think about the people who built this and the sacrifice and what they had to go through to create this—how can you not want to be a part of it? It gives me goosebumps every time we’re here.”

McLin’s enthusiasm for her parish reflects the new life that has come into St. Mary’s over the past decade as the neighborhoods around it have been redeveloped.

She and her husband, William, moved to the area seven years ago from Indianapolis’ north side.

“We fell in love with [the parish],” Barbara McLin said. “There was an obvious diversity. There was a feeling of community.”

Father O’Mara said that the recent redevelopment of the area around the parish has actually increased its ethnic diversity with many primarily English-speaking Catholics, like the McLins, moving back into the parish.

When he became pastor of St. Mary in 1998, Father O’Mara said approximately 80 percent of its members were Hispanic. Today, that number has dropped by some 20 percent.

“One of the things that we have done is that we have two bilingual Masses every weekend,” Father O’Mara said. “In a

multicultural society such as ours in the United States, being comfortable with people of other cultures is very, very important.”

Beatriz Novelo values the multicultural character of St. Mary Parish.

Born in southern Mexico in 1968, Novelo, a mother of two teenagers, grew up in California before moving to Indianapolis 18 years ago.

“My parents were born and raised in Mexico,” Novelo said. “For them, it was so important for us to maintain our culture. They would push us to learn [English], and to understand the culture here. But they didn’t [want us] to forget where we came from, our language, our heritage.

“It’s a little stronger for me with my kids because they were born and raised here.”

As a member of St. Mary Parish, however, Novelo and her family have come to appreciate the diversity of cultures in Central and South America and the particular Catholic devotions found there since the faith community is home to immigrants from so many countries.

“It’s new. It’s wonderful. It’s all these other cultures,” she said. “I had no idea that there was Our Lady of Coromoto from Venezuela or Senor de los Milagros from Peru.”

While Hispanic ministry in many archdiocesan parishes has developed only in the last decade, it has been going on at St. Mary Parish since 1965 when the newly ordained Father Mauro Rodas began reaching out to Hispanics living in nearby neighborhoods.

At that time, the number of Hispanics in the parish was relatively small and some were migrant workers, living here on a seasonal basis.

Father Rodas was St. Mary’s pastor from 1981-98. Now retired, he currently assists in Hispanic ministry at Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood.

Father Rodas said he saw in his tenure as St. Mary Parish’s pastor the beginnings of the blending of Hispanic and Anglo communities that is now a hallmark of the parish.

“We used to have real, genuine picnics between [them],” said Father Rodas. “We had quite a few celebrations. It was a very beautiful ministry.”

St. Mary Parish’s character as a welcoming home for immigrants was on special display on April 10, 2006, when more than 20,000 people gathered at the parish for a march in support of immigration reform.

“It just gave me such an amazing feeling when St. Mary’s was the beacon of all the immigrants here in the Indianapolis area,” said parishioner Susan McJunkins. “It was just such a wonderful thing to see immigrants speak their voice and have it be heard.”

(For more information on the Dec. 8 anniversary Mass and celebration or to purchase a new history of St. Mary Parish, Serving the Immigrant: The Sesquicentennial History of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Parish in Indianapolis, 1858-2008, by James J. Divita, call the parish at 317-637-3983.)

Local site Links: