May 22, 2009

Dedicated parishioners show love for Cannelton parish

Students at the former St. Michael School in Cannelton in the 1935-36 academic year pose in front of the parish school with Benedictine sisters from Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand, Ind., who taught there. (Archive photo)

Students at the former St. Michael School in Cannelton in the 1935-36 academic year pose in front of the parish school with Benedictine sisters from Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand, Ind., who taught there. (Archive photo)

By Sean Gallagher

For 150 years, St. Michael Parish has been an anchor for the small town of Cannelton on the Ohio River in southwestern Indiana.

It was originally made up of Catholic German immigrants, who were drawn to the area by a mining operation that advertised in Europe for workers.

Like the town it is in, St. Michael Parish has never been a large faith community. And for years, the economy around the town has been depressed as large employers have moved elsewhere.

But according to Benedictine Father Barnabas Gillespie, the Tell City Deanery parish’s pastor for the last 10 years, its members have a big heart.

They showed it in 2007 when a back draft in the church’s furnace caused major soot damage to the interior, and parishioners pitched in to begin the restoration.

They are showing it this year in happier circumstances at monthly events to celebrate the parish’s sesquicentennial.

“There’s a core of extremely dedicated people who are behind all of this, not only the sesquicentennial, but the restoration of the church,” Father Barnabas said. “[They] are really, really proud of St. Michael’s and certainly want our … church to last a long time beyond the first 150 years.”

The yearlong series of events culminated on April 19 when Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein was the primary celebrant of a special Mass in honor of the 150th anniversary of the parish’s founding.

A banquet for the parishioners followed the liturgy.

“We like to gather,” said Father Barnabas of the 155-household parish. “The smallness [of the parish] lends itself to it feeling more family-like.”

Jane Huber, a member of the parish who helped organize the April 19 event, spoke about how much the parish has meant to her since joining it 42 years ago after marrying her husband, Tom, a lifelong member.

“It’s etched a place in my heart because it’s small and you feel very needed,” she said. “You know that you’re important there because everyone is needed there. You just get to feel like a real parish family because we’re small, and we’re together on everything.”

Not only has St. Michael Parish been like a family to its members through the years, it is a good place to raise families, according to longtime parishioner Margaret Schank, 67, whose two children are now grown.

“It’s one of the most important things in our life,” she said. “I always told my children that it’s a privilege to get to go to church.”

When the back draft happened, Schank and her husband, Larry, helped oversee the initial cleanup and then served on a committee to plan the church’s restoration.

She also spoke of how many members of the parish work hard to make it a good spiritual home for everyone.

“We have done so many things together,” Schank said. “When we have to get together and get something done, we get it done.”

Bringing the family and the parish together has been the norm for Huber and Schank and their families over the past generation. But it was also true in the 1930s when 83-year-old Michael Rutherford was growing up as a member of the parish.

Rutherford, his father and his grandfather, who moved to Cannelton in 1875, often did maintenance work around the parish, much like parishioners did with the restoration that began in 2007.

“I just grew up with it all of the time,” Rutherford said. “It was our family. We always set our schedule with what the church schedule called for.”

As a young man, Rutherford left Cannelton for Indianapolis, where he studied music at the Jordan Conservatory of Music, which is now part of Butler University.

He taught music in various public and Catholic high schools in the state before returning to Cannelton in 1960. Since then, he has been involved in music ministry at the parish and still serves as a cantor.

It’s that kind of dedication that has created a special place in the pastor’s heart for the people of St. Michael Parish in Cannelton.

“Not only are they parishioners, some I’ve become very close to over the years as well,” Father Barnabas said. “It’s just a joy for me to be their pastor.”

(For more information on St. Michael Parish in Cannelton, including photos of the restoration of its 150-year-old church, log on to

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