July 31, 2009

St. Philip Neri Parish celebrates 100 years of faith

Aug. 9 Mass, dinner to mark ‘Miracle Parish’ anniversary

The Irish and German charter members of St. Philip Neri Parish in Indianapolis designed and built the church in 1909. The parish is now nearly 90 percent Hispanic, and 98 percent of the school’s student population is Hispanic. The parish is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. (Archive photo)

The Irish and German charter members of St. Philip Neri Parish in Indianapolis designed and built the church in 1909. The parish is now nearly 90 percent Hispanic, and 98 percent of the school’s student population is Hispanic. The parish is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. (Archive photo)

By Kamilla Benko

Bishop Joseph Chartrand called it “the Miracle Parish.”

On Aug. 9 at 3 p.m., members of historic St. Philip Neri Parish in Indianapolis and Benedictine Father Timothy Sweeney—a son of the parish and former archabbot of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad—will celebrate the parish’s 100th anniversary with a bilingual Mass followed by a dinner at Marian Inc.

“I’m very proud we’re still here after 100 years,” said Karen McMeans, who has been a member of St. Philip Neri Parish for 20 years. “A few years back, the future of the parish was in question … but we’re still standing.”

The history of St. Philip Neri’s red brick church began in 1908 when Irish and German immigrants in the area petitioned Bishop Francis Silas Chatard to build a church on the eastern edge of Indianapolis. At that time, the area was mostly farmland and the residents needed a church to worship at nearby.

The Irish and German settlers drew the plans for their church and broke ground on Feb. 1, 1909. They laid the bricks of their new church themselves.

“You can [still] see a lot of the handiwork of the original construction in the basement,” said Father Carlton Beever, St. Philip Neri’s pastor.

Five months after construction began, the first Mass was held and St. Philip Neri Parish became a permanent fixture in the community. The rural parish grew rapidly—so rapidly that Bishop Chartrand referred to St. Philip Neri as “the Miracle Parish.”

In the last 100 years, 98 sons and daughters of the parish have become priests or religious sisters or brothers.

“I think there were so many [devoted to those vocations] because St. Philip Neri Parish was in a very strong Catholic neighborhood with a strong Catholic identity,” Father Beever said. “There were five Masses on the weekend, four or five priests in residence, and a strong emphasis on Catholics and Catholic education.”

Not that St. Philip Neri Parish has stopped promoting Catholic education and a Catholic way of life, said Father Beever, but he noted that the community is different now.

“It has changed a little bit because the neighborhood does not have a total Catholic identity like it once did,” he explained.

The 1960s marked the beginning of urban flight, and the number of parish members dropped. Many of the houses around the church were sold or rented.

Crime began to inundate the neighborhood, and the church was not immune to the crime wave. In 1970, St. Philip Neri Church was the victim of arson.

But that was not the end of St. Philip Neri Parish’s challenges. In 1991, due to a decrease in the number of students and a lack of funds, the archdiocese considered closing St. Philip Neri School.

The parish needed $200,000 to keep the school operating, but the pastor and staff only had three weeks to raise the necessary funds.

Members of the “Miracle Parish” now prayed for a new miracle.

“Father Glenn O’Conner [the former pastor] decided he wasn’t going down without a fight,” McMeans said.

To save the school, Father O’Conner implemented several fundraisers and students walked from door to door asking for small donations.

Father O’Conner also launched the St. Philip Neri “Run, Walk, Prayathon.” With the help of parishioners, friends and alumni, the school was saved. The fundraiser has since become an annual tradition at St. Philip Neri Parish.

The Indianapolis East Deanery parish experienced a new burst of life 15 years ago when Hispanic immigrants began moving into the neighborhood.

“[They] started opening businesses and buying homes,” Father Beever said. “Now our population has changed from white Anglo to about 90 percent Hispanic. St. Philip Neri offers a Mass in Spanish, which is often standing room only.”

“Hispanics have brought such vitality with the way they worship,” McMeans said. “We have learned a bit of their customs, and have combined our traditions.”

St. Philip Neri celebrates many Central and South American feast days and holidays, such as

Our Lady of Guadalupe, Children’s Day and Las Posadas, a celebration that re-enacts Joseph and Mary’s search for an inn. The parish has three small Hispanic choirs and one large Anglo choir, a Hispanic ballet/folkloric group and liturgical dance groups.

“We do this to make them feel at home, and to make them feel like this is their parish, too,” Father Beever said. “We try to attend to traditions and the customs that have been in this parish for the first 75 years, and then incorporate them with the traditions that are new in the last 25 years.”

Originally from Mexico City, Roberto Marquez, St. Philip Neri’s youth minister, said he has come to love the parish that includes his culture’s traditions and some new ones, too.

“I love the people. They are very nice. The people are happy we have a different community that is Anglo and Hispanic,” Marquez said. “I think it is a good experience for everybody to live in other countries [and learn] the differences.”

Father Beever said his favorite memory over his 10 years at St. Philip Neri Parish was this year’s celebration of St. Philip Neri’s feast day.

“It was so powerful to see Anglos and Hispanics together in the church singing,” he said. “It was a good mix of traditions and customs, Spanish and English, and everybody being together.”

In the next century of St. Philip Neri Parish’s life, parishioners and staff hope to continue breaking down language barriers in the parish and developing Hispanic leadership, said Father Beever.

McMeans said she hopes new events and gatherings that are planned will help create stronger ties between the two cultures.

“St. Philip Neri is changing, but nothing stays the same,” she said.

But one thing will not change. McMeans said St. Philip Neri Parish will remain a light for an ever-evolving near east side neighborhood.

(Tickets for St. Philip Neri’s anniversary dinner at Marian Inc. are $35. To order tickets, call the parish office at 317-631-8746. To learn more about the centennial celebration, log on to www.stphilipindy.org.)

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