October 2, 2009

Mass to culminate 175th anniversary of Millhousen parish

Members of the first and solemn Communion classes of 1932 at Immaculate Conception Parish in Millhousen pose with their pastor, Father Carl Riebenthaler. Ruth Beesley, sixth from left in the back row, 92, recently recalled how the priest, who served as the parish’s pastor for 43 years, was greatly loved by the members of the parish. (Submitted photo)

Members of the first and solemn Communion classes of 1932 at Immaculate Conception Parish in Millhousen pose with their pastor, Father Carl Riebenthaler. Ruth Beesley, sixth from left in the back row, 92, recently recalled how the priest, who served as the parish’s pastor for 43 years, was greatly loved by the members of the parish. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

In the early 1800s, German immigrants who had settled in Cincinnati began moving into southeastern Indiana.

As a result, many parishes were established in that part of the archdiocese during that time, including Immaculate Conception Parish in Millhousen in southern Decatur County, which recognizes 1834 as the year in which it was founded.

That year marked both the founding of Millhousen as a town and the celebration of the first Mass there, where some 12 Catholic families lived.

Franciscan Sister Christine Ernstes, Immaculate Conception’s parish life coordinator for the past 14 years, reflected on this recently while on a pilgrimage to Vincennes, Ind.

“Twelve families started a parish in the middle of nowhere that has lived on and passed the faith on,” she said.

The parish has had several monthly events to mark its 175th anniversary. The celebrations will culminate with an anniversary Mass at 2 p.m. on Oct. 11 in the parish church, 2081 E. County Road 820 S., near Greensburg. Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein is scheduled to be the celebrant.

Visitors are welcome to attend the celebration. A meal at the parish will take place afterward. The parish will provide meat, potatoes and green beans. Sister Christine said with a smile that those people attending the meal should bring a salad or dessert as the “price for the meal.”

The young and old members of the parish today value the way in which the faith has been passed on from generation to generation, and how that faith is embodied in the loving service that the parishioners give to each other.

“It’s always been there for me,” said June Johannigman, 48, a member of the parish. “If you need a friend, socializing, guidance, prayer, [they’re there]. I’ve lost my mom and dad, and they’re a source of strength.”

The tradition of service and strength that Johannigman has experienced in recent decades is deeply rooted in the parish, according to lifelong member Ralph Bruns, 83.

“It’s just a good, wholesome atmosphere to raise children in,” said Bruns, a father of six daughters. “It seems like everyone is more willing to help each other, and are more friendly and outgoing. They’ll do things for you and you’ll do things for them without expecting any compensation for it.”

That welcoming environment in the parish is one of the reasons why Bruns and his wife, Rosemary, are reluctant to move from their farm to a home that, at their age, would be easier for them to manage.

“We hate to even think about leaving our parish here in Millhousen,” he said. “That says something about the parish.”

That strong love for Immaculate Conception, however, once led its members to do something that resulted in the severe canonical penalty of interdict, where the sacraments are forbidden to be celebrated in a parish.

And it all had to do with the name of the parish. When it was founded in 1834, the parish was placed under the patronage of St. Boniface. In the

mid-1860s, there was tension between the pastor, Father Ferdinand Hundt, and parishioners.

A new parish church was being constructed—the same one in which parishioners continue to worship—and Father Hundt wanted to use the occasion to rename the parish Immaculate Conception.

The matter came to a head in 1867 when parishioners placed Father Hundt’s possessions on the porch of the rectory and locked him out.

In response, Bishop Maurice de St. Palais placed the parish under interdict. It remained that way for six months until a new pastor was assigned.

The parish retained its new name of Immaculate Conception, but the new parish church was under the patronage of St. Boniface.

Today, the controversy and St. Boniface are historical footnotes. Parishioners commonly refer to the parish and church as a whole as Immaculate Conception. That was the case even 70 years ago during the youth of Ralph Bruns.

“In my era, it was kind of a given by then,” he said.

Tensions with pastors may have marked the early history of Immaculate Conception Parish, but the opposite was the case for more than 40 years when Father Carl Riebenthaler served as its pastor from 1928-71.

As part of its anniversary celebration, Bruns and many alumni of the parish’s school, which closed in 1971, had a reunion recently at which photos of first and solemn Communion classes from the past were displayed.

“[Father Riebenthaler] seemed to be in all of the pictures,” Bruns said.

One of those children shown standing by a seated Father Riebenthaler was Ruth Beesley, 92, an eighth-grader at the parish school in 1932. That year, she celebrated her solemn Communion, a kind of Catholic rite of passage that was common 100 years ago but, according to local Church historian James J. Divita, was starting to die out at that time.

“He should have lived forever because we all loved him,” said Beesley, now a member of St. Bartholomew Parish in Columbus. “We were all his family, I think.”

“He was great,” Bruns said. “Everyone liked him. He was a very common and down-to-earth priest. You could talk to him.”

While memories of Father Riebenthaler may bring smiles to the faces of many older members of Immaculate Conception Parish, others are looking hopefully to its future while still appreciating its past.

Jakob Mattox, 17, is a member of the parish in Millhousen. He and about 20 other youths from the parish received the sacrament of confirmation on May 3 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis during the Mass that celebrated the 175th anniversary of the establishment of the Diocese of Vincennes, which later became the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Jakob was pleased that his parish and the archdiocese share such a historic anniversary.

“It shows how old our Church is and how we can stay together and stay united,” he said.

With his future plans focused on working in agriculture in the area where he grew up, Jakob, in some ways, represents the future of Immaculate Conception Parish in Millhousen.

“I hope it continues to grow,” he said. “I hope that the youth become a little more active and that the [parish] continues to thrive. I have no intention of not attending Immaculate Conception until I die.”

(For more information on the Oct. 11 anniversary Mass and dinner at Immaculate Conception Parish in Millhousen, call 812-591-2362 or log on to www.icsdchurches.com.)

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