December 16, 2011

New Albany Deanery parish celebrates 150 years of faith

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, center, apostolic administrator, prays the eucharistic prayer during a Nov. 6 Mass at St. John the Baptist Church in Starlight that celebrated the New Albany Deanery faith community’s 150th anniversary. Concelebrating the Mass were, from left, Father Harold Ripperger, a former administrator of the parish, and Father Wilfred “Sonny” Day, current pastor. (Submitted photo)

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, center, apostolic administrator, prays the eucharistic prayer during a Nov. 6 Mass at St. John the Baptist Church in Starlight that celebrated the New Albany Deanery faith community’s 150th anniversary. Concelebrating the Mass were, from left, Father Harold Ripperger, a former administrator of the parish, and Father Wilfred “Sonny” Day, current pastor. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

At 59, Jerry Finn has many memories of the life of St. John the Baptist Parish in Starlight, the New Albany Deanery faith community that he has been a member of his entire life.

But his connection to this 150-year-old parish goes back to its earliest days. His great-great grandparents were involved in the founding of it in 1861.

Those ties between the generations at St. John aren’t just historical, Finn says. It defines the parish here and now.

“I think St. John’s is just naturally intergenerational,” he said. “It’s not uncommon to see elementary students being lectors [and] adults serving as altar servers. Everybody pitches in because we’re not a really big parish.”

At 320 households, the St. John the Baptist Parish community needs to call upon many of its members to make possible such parish events as its Strawberry Festival held annually in late May. It was also seen in the parish’s 150th anniversary Mass and dinner, which were celebrated on Nov. 6.

Finn experienced this cooperation growing up, and saw that the parishioners did this not just out of duty. They also simply enjoyed being around each other.

“Our life revolved around the parish, the sacraments and going to Mass every Sunday,” he said. “But even the social aspects [were important]. There were Euchre parties. There was the parish festival, the turkey shoots. The parish was more than just the sacramental life. It was definitely community life, too.”

For many years, an important part of the parish’s community life was centered on its school, which closed in 1993.

It formed the faith of generations of children, including Finn’s classmate, Father Tom Smith, a member of the Conventual Franciscan Province of Our Lady of Consolation, based in nearby Mount St. Francis.

He and his classmates learned some rudimentary Spanish as grade school students in the early 1960s from St. John’s pastor at the time, Father Charles Noll.

Father Tom says that childhood experience planted the seeds of his priestly vocation and his particular interest in Hispanic ministry, which he carried out for many years in the New Albany Deanery

“No question,” said Father Tom, who is now director of the Holy Cross Retreat and Conference Center in Mesilla Park, N.M. “I’m sure that that was part of the inspiration of my own vocation because I went from Starlight straight to Mount St. Francis.”

St. John’s current pastor, Father Wilfred “Sonny” Day, experienced the close-knit nature of the parish when he served as its administrator from 1971-74 and again in 1976.

He was glad to return as its pastor in 2010.

“It’s like coming back home,” Father Day said. “I’m baptizing grandbabies of people that I married. It’s delightful. I enjoy it very much.”

Father Day had to return to Starlight, however, on a much more somber occasion in 1985.

In the middle of the night on Aug. 31 of that year, a fire broke out in the parish rectory. Father Richard Smith, its pastor at the time, and two of his priest friends, Fathers William Fisher and Kenneth Smith, who were visiting that weekend, all died in the blaze.

At the time of the tragedy, Father Day was pastor of St. Augustine Parish in nearby Jeffersonville and also served as dean of the New Albany Deanery.

He came to the parish to identify the bodies of the deceased priests.

“It just pulled [the parish] together even more,” Father Day said. “I still remember Archbishop [Edward T.] O’Meara driving down that day after he heard about it.”

One of the last people to see the parish’s pastor alive was longtime parishioner Sharon Niehoff, who, at the time, lived across the road from the parish and served as the custodian of its now-closed school.

“It was devastating to everyone,” said Niehoff, 78. “Father Smith had married my son and daughter-in-law on Friday night, and the fire happened at about 3 a.m. the next morning. He ate his last meal sitting at my left at the wedding reception.”

Niehoff soon saw her fellow parishioners come together in the clean up after the fire much like they would in parish social events.

“Everyone is always so eager to help each other,” she said “Everybody stands behind their neighbors and friends and relatives.”

Finn hopes the family spirit continues at St. John as it begins its next 150 years.

“I hope that we can always pass on that sense of community to people, but do it in an inviting way,” he said. “I hope we always have that welcoming aspect that helps people who are new to the area feel like this is as much their parish as ours.”

(For more information on St. John the Baptist Parish in Starlight, log on to www.stjohnstarlight.org.)

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