October 30, 2009

Our Lady of Lourdes Parish to celebrate 100 years on Nov. 8

Girls process out of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in May 1955 at the conclusion of a May crowning ceremony in the parish situated in the heart of Irvington, a historic neighborhood on Indianapolis’ east side. (Submitted photo)

Girls process out of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in May 1955 at the conclusion of a May crowning ceremony in the parish situated in the heart of Irvington, a historic neighborhood on Indianapolis’ east side. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Indianapolis has been celebrating its centennial with a series of events over the past 12 months.

The celebration will culminate with a Nov. 8 anniversary Mass at 2 p.m. in the parish church, 5333 E. Washington St., in Indianapolis. Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein is scheduled to be the primary celebrant of the Mass. A reception will follow the liturgy.

Although it is part of the Indianapolis East Deanery, Our Lady of Lourdes Parish is situated in the heart of Irvington, a historic neighborhood on the city’s east side.

Irvington was founded as a town in 1870, and soon became the first home of Butler University. Although it was annexed into Indianapolis in 1902, Irvington still had the feel of a town distinct from the state capital when Our Lady of Lourdes Parish was established seven years later.

It still retains much of that close-knit neighborhood spirit today, according to Father J. Nicholas Dant, Our Lady of Lourdes’ current pastor.

For one parishioner, it was the parish’s place in the Irvington community nurtured over several generations that helped build up one of its defining characteristics: volunteerism.

“There were a lot of volunteers,” said Lucile Morand, 89, of the time when she raised her children in the parish in the 1950s and ’60s. “The mothers and the fathers all got involved in something or other. We were all interested in the kids, and what they were doing and where they were going.”

Morand was later in a good position to see the continuing volunteerism of parishioners while serving as the parish secretary and bookkeeper from 1982 until 2005.

Helen Kramer, 85, is a lifelong member of the parish who played the organ during parish liturgies for 37 years as a volunteer.

She saw her parents support the parish when she was a student at its school in the 1930s, and then took her turn when her six children were students there in the 1950s and ’60s.

“They followed in our footsteps and were able to go through a wonderful school,” Kramer said. “I was very happy that we were able to send them.”

As attached as the members of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish have historically been to Irvington, the broader community on Indianapolis’ east side might not have initially been that welcoming of the new Catholic parish 100 years ago.

In the early 1920s, Irvington was at the heart of Ku Klux Klan activity in Indiana. Famed Klan grand dragon, D.C. Stephenson lived in a mansion just blocks from the parish.

Any pressure that parishioners in Irvington may have felt from the

anti-Catholic Klan didn’t keep the parish from steadily growing in its first decades.

For many of the families who made up the parish during that time, Our Lady of Lourdes was a hub of constant activity.

“Lourdes was just our focal point,” said Kramer of her time as a youth and young adult in the 1930s and ’40s. “We didn’t need anything else. It was where we did everything. We socialized. We prayed. Everything was through Lourdes.”

During that time, the parish was served by Msgr. Michael Lyons, who was its pastor from 1919-40, and his successor, Father James Moore, who was pastor from 1940-56.

“He was a wonderful man. But I was scared to death of him as a child,” said Kramer of Msgr. Lyons with a laugh. “He seemed so stern. And we were threatened at school that if we didn’t mind Sister, our next step was over to Father Lyons. Well, of course, I never got to Father Lyons because I was so scared to death.

“But he would come out on the playground and always asked you a question about geography. And I hated geography with a passion.”

Of Father Moore, Kramer said that “[he] was a jewel. He died a very early death. He had cancer of the ear.”

A half century later, Father Dant had his own bout with cancer in 2005.

While he was being treated, he personally experienced the spontaneous service of his parishioners.

“People sent me cards, all kinds of cards, all of the time,” Father Dant said. “The people were very aware of my suffering and surgery and pain.”

Parishioners also volunteered to take him to his daily chemotherapy treatments.

“It’s just that consciousness that we need to help each other out that comes from being a strong neighborhood,” he said.

Robert and Paula Bittelmeyer experienced similar support from their fellow parishioners in an even more dramatic way when both were diagnosed with cancer within three weeks of each other in 1999.

The parents of five children, they had twins who were students at Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis at the time.

Parishioners organized prayer services for them, brought meals to them three or four days a week for several months, held fundraisers for them and drove them to their sometimes twice daily radiation treatments.

“When you’re both going through it at the same time, you don’t really have that backup there,” Paula Bittelmeyer said. “You needed somebody else, and he [Father James Farrell, the pastor at the time] was there at the drop of a hat to help us out. So the parish was very instrumental … keeping us going and keeping our spirits up.”

While she valued the material support from parishioners, the spiritual support that she and her husband received from Father Farrell and the parishioners was perhaps even more important to Bittelmeyer, who has volunteered as Our Lady of Lourdes’ parish nurse since 1997.

“Going through it with both of us at the same time, day after day, month after month, I got to a point where I called Father Jim and told him, ‘I can’t even pray anymore,’ ” she said. “And he said, ‘That’s why you have people praying for you. God knows what you need and, if you can’t pray, there are people praying for you.’ ”

It’s that kind of heartfelt care by Our Lady of Lourdes’ parishioners for body and soul that led Rachel Ayres, 31, to move back to Irvington with her family after they had moved only a 15-minute drive away.

Like her parents, she grew up in the parish. Now Ayres is seeing her two sons, an eighth-grader and third-grader at the parish school, experience the same privilege.

A volunteer volleyball coach at the parish since 1997, Ayres wanted her family to be close to the parish because of the crucial unwritten lessons of volunteerism and service that can be passed on to her young sons with such familiarity.

“The people there are extremely personable,” Ayres said. “Everybody gives more than they’re asked to. People are so involved and ready to give that it’s really inspiring.

“It’s not something that comes out of a book. It comes through example. That’s one thing that I took from Lourdes.”

(To learn more about Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, log on to www.lourdesparish.com.)

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