July 20, 2018

Support of faith, family helps Perry County parish thrive through 50 years

Tessa Guillaume, left, kneels in prayer during the June 24 anniversary Mass to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of St. Isidore the Farmer Parish in Perry County, with her parents, Stacey and Ty Guillaume, and her sister, Serena Guillaume. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Tessa Guillaume, left, kneels in prayer during the June 24 anniversary Mass to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of St. Isidore the Farmer Parish in Perry County, with her parents, Stacey and Ty Guillaume, and her sister, Serena Guillaume. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

PERRY COUNTY—The Catholic families who live near Bristow in the rolling hills of Perry County in southern Indiana have been a tight-knit family of faith at St. Isidore the Farmer Parish for 50 years.

The support of family and of faith was needed during the first days of the parish. It was founded when two older nearby Perry County parishes—St. John the Baptist and St. Joseph—were closed and merged, something that can challenge a person’s faith.

Then, just weeks after the first Mass was celebrated in the parish, a fire and explosion happened on Jan. 10, 1969, that took the life of 23-year-old parishioner Martin Lasher and severely burned the parish’s pastor, Father Ralph Staashelm, who died four days later.

According to an article in The Criterion, the explosion and fire were caused when varnish fumes were ignited by heat from an electric range in the rectory’s kitchen. Lasher, engaged to be married at the time and recently discharged from service in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, was doing volunteer work in the rectory.

Father Staashelm initially escaped from the rectory unharmed, but went back in when he realized that Lasher was caught in the fire. That was when he sustained the burns that eventually took his life.

“Merging parishes is never easy,” said Benedictine Father Luke Waugh, St. Isidore’s administrator, of the difficulties during the start of the parish. “You can always do the best of planning, but then you have a tragedy such as this. It made it that much more difficult.”

It was difficult, but not impossible. The Catholic families of the area stuck together in those challenging times to build a parish that is faith-filled and brimming with life.

“When you come to St. Isidore, you’ll see a lot of young families,” said Father Luke. “I’m in my early 50s, and I believe that there are no more than one or two people that are older than me on our parish council. The majority of them tend to have young families.

“They’re very generous in the amount of time that they donate, putting sweat equity into the place. To me, that makes it stand out.”

And it’s been that way throughout the history of St. Isidore.

Hubert Harpenau, 85, is a founding member of the parish. Previously a member of St. Joseph Parish, he worked to build up support for the founding of St. Isidore 50 years ago.

“I’m proud of the parish,” said Hubert, who lives with his wife Ruth Ann a few miles south of St. Isidore. “I’ve always done a lot of work for it. If I wasn’t doing anything for myself, the first thing that I would think about was to work up there.”

For many years, the couple led the organizing of St. Isidore’s shooting match, its major social and fundraising event held annually on the third Sunday of October. The event features a target shooting competition popular with the many hunters of the area.

Both are glad to see so many young parents and their children take up helping with the parish like they did in its early days.

“We’ve got some good young families up there, and they’re pulling together really good,” Hubert said. “It’s good for the future.”

“It sows seeds for the children to take part in the Church and in their families,” said Ruth Ann.

Sheila Borden, 47, has called St. Isidore her spiritual home her entire life. A member of the parish council, a lector and catechist there, she also leads the committee that has organized the celebration of the parish’s anniversary.

She experiences the family nature of St. Isidore, especially in the shooting match. Borden and the family in which she grew up oversee the country store that sells baked and other homemade goods at the event.

“I’ve done that for years,” she said. “My mom is the chairperson of that stand. My family works it the whole day. There used to be a lady down the road that did it. Then she passed away, and my mom took over. So, I can foresee someday it will be me taking over. Just pass it on.”

Like the faith that is passed on from one generation to the next.

That was on the mind of parishioner Rick Kleaving, 40, as he walked into the parish church on June 24 for a Mass to celebrate the anniversary. He came to the packed church with his wife and three young children.

“It’s a great turnout for the day,” said Kleaving, who volunteers with maintenance and grounds keeping at the parish. “It means everything to the parish as far as what we’ve grown up with. Hopefully, one day our children will grow up with it as well.”

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson was principal celebrant at the Mass.

In his homily, he recalled how 1968 has been called “the year that shattered America.” The war in Vietnam continued to rage, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy were assassinated that year.

“In the midst of all that uncertainty, all of those crises, all of that violence, the people of St. John and St. Joseph parishes came together in unity to form this parish of St. Isidore,” Archbishop Thompson said. “I have to think that, in that year that shattered America, this parish foundation was a sign of hope, a sign of unity, a sign of what can happen when God’s grace is at work in our lives.”

Family members of Martin Lasher and Father Staashelm attended the Mass and spoke to The Criterion about how they have experienced the power of God’s grace in the wake of the tragedy at St. Isidore that took their loved ones’ lives.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Janet Staashelm, a sister-in-law of the founding pastor, of seeing so much life in St. Isidore today. “It’s bittersweet, because of Ralph.

“But this church has gone on and many, many families have been raised here. I’m so glad,” continued Staashelm, a member of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Clarksville.

More families have become a part of the broader family of faith at St. Isidore. On July 5, just days after the anniversary Mass, nearby St. Martin of Tours Parish in Siberia was merged into St. Isidore, much like the parish merger that led to the founding of St. Isidore 50 years ago.

Father Luke said the role that a parish merger had in the founding of St. Isidore will help the merger taking place now happen as smoothly as possible.

“I think it helps us to be more aware and sensitive to individuals’ thinking and feelings about it,” he said. “So when we do planning, we try to be more inclusive.”

Members of St. Martin serve on St. Isidore’s anniversary committee, and the choir that sang at the anniversary Mass included members of the former Siberia faith community.

Archbishop Thompson encouraged everyone at the anniversary Mass to continue to be witnesses of faith both to each other and in the broader world.

“Our world today, just as in 1968, needs beacons of hope, signs of unity, witnesses to God’s peace in the world,” he said, “and that is what I pray St. Isidore will continue to be.” †

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