October 1, 2021

For a century, St. Joan of Arc has served ‘our little part of the vineyard’

The congregation listens in St. Joan of Arc Church in Indianapolis as former pastor Guy Roberts delivers the homily for the parish’s 100th anniversary celebration Mass on July 17. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

The congregation listens in St. Joan of Arc Church in Indianapolis as former pastor Guy Roberts delivers the homily for the parish’s 100th anniversary celebration Mass on July 17. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

One hundred years of stories weave the tale of St. Joan of Arc Parish, Indianapolis’ northernmost parish when it was founded in 1921.

It was created on the heels of World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic. It witnessed the Great Depression, World War II, Vatican II, urban flight and a flourishing renewal.

Molly Seidel was there to witness many of the events in the parish’s 100-year history.

“I’ve been a member of the parish my whole life,” said Seidel, 72. “I got all my sacraments there. My great-grandmother was on the founding committee.”

Like many of the faith community’s early—and even current—members, Seidel recalls walking to the church and the parish school, both situated at Central Avenue and 42nd Street in the middle of a thriving neighborhood.

It was an area Bishop Joseph Chartrand identified in 1920 as the right location for the city’s first parish north of SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral.

‘A large but sparsely settled area’

According to the parish’s 50th anniversary book, Bishop Chartrand saw a need for “a new parish to serve the many families, largely German families from Sacred Heart [Parish] and Irish from

SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral [Parish].” The church would serve “worshippers from a large but sparsely settled area extending eastward to Keystone Avenue and north to the Hamilton County line.”

The parish was named St. Joan of Arc in honor of the saint who was canonized in 1920.

When the parish’s first church was dedicated on July 17, 1921, it seated 600—not enough seats for the faith community’s 800 members.

The current church was dedicated in 1929, with parish membership at nearly 3,000 souls. Its soaring carillon called the faithful to Mass in a stunning setting.

The altar was made of marble from Pisa, Italy. The stained-glass windows were imported from Munich, Germany. Solid Indiana limestone pillars were so heavy that no truck could deliver them; they were shipped by train, and a temporary spur was built from the main rail line to the church to deliver the pillars.

‘Bright, clean and beautifully restored’

The parish continued to serve its broad boundaries through the Great Depression and World War II.

“After World War II, people were so happy to have no more war,” said Seidel. “Families grew. The parish grew exponentially. When I was in school at St. Joan of Arc, it was standing room only for Mass. And there was no air conditioning until a few years ago—much to the relief of us all!”

One by one, additional parishes were established north of St. Joan of Arc. But the greatest impacts on its membership were the building of I-65 through Indianapolis in the 1960s and the urban flight of the 1970s and 1980s.

The former situation saw an increase of Black parishioners in the parish as they were forced out of their neighborhoods to the south of the faith community. It was the beginning of the parish’s now multicultural, diverse membership.

But the addition of Black Catholic families was not enough to make up for the urban flight of city residents to the suburbs. The decrease in membership placed a financial strain on the parish.

“Rain came in through the roof in the 1970s when I was on the property and facility committee,” Seidel recalled. “It caused the plaster on the ceiling to flake. One year we held the [archdiocesan] chrism Mass because the cathedral was under renovation, and we had to use yellow tape to mark all the water areas in the church.”

The roof was eventually fixed, but the church suffered long term, visible damage.

Discussions of a major restoration project began as early as 2007. Work finally began in February of 2019, and the final phase was underway by the time the parish celebrated its 100th anniversary Mass on July 17.

Father Guy Roberts served as the homilist at the Mass. He served the faith community starting as associate pastor in 2006 and as pastor in 2009. Just weeks before the parish celebrated its centenary celebration weekend, he was assigned to lead St. Barnabas Parish in Indianapolis as its pastor.

“Truly, [the church] is now bright and clean, and beautifully restored,” Father Roberts said during the homily.

“While our building is made of many beautiful things,” he added, “it is the people, across this century, who have made this parish what it is.”

‘Part of the vineyard of the Lord’

Two of those people are parishioners Josh and Cara Bach. One day about 10 years ago the couple, along with their Caucasian and Black adopted daughters, “snuck in the back of St. Joan of Arc Church” after missing Mass at their own parish.

Cara recalled how Victoria, their adopted daughter from Russia who was about 6 at the time, “looked around and said, ‘Mom! There’s families here that look like us, different colors!’ She noticed right away. That made her feel really comfortable. It inspired us to check into the parish right away.

“It’s a parish that’s also diverse in the sense that there’s a good amount of established families—older families that have been there for generations—and also new, growing and young families.”

Josh appreciates the parish’s dozens of ministries, noting, “There’s something here for everyone.”

One opportunity the parish is known for is its annual French Market festival.

The free festival started 30 years ago “as a Sunday afternoon family picnic,” said Karen Blackwell Smith, the festival’s longtime chair. “It has evolved into a major neighborhood street fair with live bands, artisan booths, a raffle, children’s games, an array of French food and church tours.”

While the French Market serves as a fundraiser to support St. Joan of Arc’s ministries, “our main goal, always, is to bring our local neighborhood and the greater community of Indianapolis together in our own environs,” said the parish’s new pastor, Father Joseph Newton. “From tours of our beautiful church to gathering together with the many food providers and artisans of the French Market, it is all an opportunity to gather together at our little part of the vineyard of the Lord.”

‘It’s just a special place’

Through ups and downs, St. Joan of Arc Parish has shared the Gospel, whether in a “sparsely populated” area as in the past, or as what Josh Bach now calls “the entire base of the neighborhood.”

Father Roberts shared a story in his homily that told of the parish’s importance to the local community.

“A few years ago, lightning hit our bell tower, and for several weeks, the bells did not ring,” he said. “Several people in our neighborhood—many who were not Catholic—called to ask why they no longer heard the bells. They found them comforting and missed them. The bells, and our beautiful building, remind everyone who passes by that God is present and watching over them.”

For 100 years, St. Joan of Arc Parish has been “a small microcosm of the larger world,” said Seidel. “It was a wonderful place to grow up, and still is. It’s just a special place.” †

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