December 14, 2012

St. Joseph University Parish celebrates 175 years of faith

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, apostolic administrator, was the principal celebrant during the Oct. 27 Mass at St. Joseph University Church in Terre Haute marking the parish’s 175th anniversary. (Submitted photo)

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, apostolic administrator, was the principal celebrant during the Oct. 27 Mass at St. Joseph University Church in Terre Haute marking the parish’s 175th anniversary. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer (Special to The Criterion)

Wes Lambert, a member of St. Joseph University Parish in Terre Haute, did some historical research on his parish. From that research, this scene emerges.

Through the winter cold in January 1837, Bishop Simon Bruté made his way north from Vincennes to Terre Haute, a two-day journey by horse.

There, Bishop Bruté purchased land on South 5th Street between Ohio and Walnut streets for $500. On Jan. 6, he installed Father Stanislaus Buteux as pastor of the newly established St. Joseph Parish.

Construction began on a parish church later in 1837. In October 1840, a travel-weary Mother Theodore Guérin and her five companions stopped to pray there on their way to establish the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods convent just across the Wabash River.

One hundred and seventy-five years later, Bishop Bruté has been declared a Servant of God with his cause for sainthood open, Mother Theodore has been canonized a saint and St. Joseph Parish—now St. Joseph University Parish—sits in the same location, still proclaiming the Gospel and serving the people of Terre Haute.

“I think it’s great celebrating 175 years,” said Conventual Franciscan Father John Bamman, associate pastor of the parish which ministers to nearly 700 households. “Think of all the people that have gathered around the altar to celebrate the sacraments.”

Lifetime parishioner Cookie Dooley is one such person.

“I received all my sacraments there, was married there and celebrated my 50th wedding anniversary there this past May,” she said.

One of the aspects that Dooley admires about the parish is the leadership of the Conventual Franciscan friars, who have ministered at the parish since 1872.

Among the order’s charisms is to live the Gospel, help others do so and care for the poor. The influence of the friars’ mission seems to have greatly influenced the parish. (Related story: Conventual Franciscans take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience)

“This is a Dorothy Day kind of parish,” said Conventual Franciscan Father Mark Weaver, pastor, referring to the Catholic social activist whose cause for canonization is moving forward.

“She had this dual life of being dedicated to helping the poor and solving the problems that lead to poverty along with a devoted sacramental life,” Father Mark said. “I walked in here two-and-a-half years ago and found the parish this way. It was wonderful.”

The Samaritan Ministry is one example of the parish’s efforts to help those in need. According to the parish website, this ministry is “the official arm of the parish that works with the poor.”

Through donations taken up once a month in a second collection during Mass, this ministry helps people in need in Vigo County with food, prescriptions, rent and utilities. Parishioners donate about $70,000 a year for this cause, according to Dooley.

Expanding on the parish’s efforts to assist people in need, a project was undertaken to celebrate their 175th anniversary while simultaneously benefiting the Samaritan Ministry.

“We had parishioners, their friends and families, and others submit recipes,” Father Mark said. “We developed a cookbook called Feeding the Flock. Of 2,200 books, we’ve sold 1,400 and the proceeds are going to the Samaritan project. We want our celebration to benefit the community.”

Another Franciscan charism evident at St. Joseph University Parish is the mission to live the Gospel and help others to do so.

“It’s a very spiritual parish, one where the liturgy really comes to life,” said longtime parishioner Sharon Padget.

Padget serves on the parish’s hospitality committee. The committee’s goal is to make people feel welcome at the parish, which is evident to visitors.

“I read the comment cards from visitors and new members, and they always use the words ‘warm’ and ‘welcoming,’ ” Dooley said.

Garrett Meyer of Conception Junction, Mo., a sophomore at Rose Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, wholeheartedly agreed.

“The parishioners are friendly and caring,” he said. “Their sense of family spills over onto otherwise disassociated college students to make them feel that—though this isn’t their home parish—it is still a home.”

With so many institutions of higher education nearby, St. Joseph Parish was directed in the 1960s by the archdiocese to minister to college students. Thus, the parish’s name was changed to St. Joseph University Parish.

According to Father Mark, the parish ministers to Indiana State University, Rose Hulman, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, Ivy Tech Community College and Harrison College students.

Meyer said the pastoral associates for college students, Jeff and Carol Shaffer, plan activities to keep the students active in their faith and connected to the parish. Events include weekly discussion groups, retreats, canoe trips and potluck dinners with the friars.

The celebration of the 175th anniversary of St. Joseph University Parish has lasted throughout 2012. In addition to the cookbook, the parish sold T-shirts, sweatshirts, decals and bumper stickers.

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, apostolic administrator, was the principal celebrant for a Mass at the parish on Oct. 27 to celebrate the anniversary. A dinner followed at Indiana State University.

Father Mark said about 300 people enjoyed the meal and fellowship, including friars who previously served at the parish.

Father John, now serving in his fourth year as associate pastor, reflected on the history of the parish.

“I like to think of worshiping right where St. Mother Theodore worshiped, … but the old church was torn down and the current one built in 1910,” he said. “But then I think, if the pews from the original church were saved, then I might be sitting where she sat, … but there was a massive fire in the church in 1934 that gutted the inside of the church.”

Perhaps he can’t sit precisely where the saint sat, but that doesn’t diminish Father John’s feelings for the parish or the church.

“There’s still this feeling of awesomeness to know you’re standing where so many others have stood—priests and laity—receiving and celebrating sacraments,” he said. “So many people have worshiped right here, and we can trace back 175 years. That really adds to the greatness of this place.”

(Natalie Hoefer is a member of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis. For more information on St. Joseph University Parish, log on to

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