January 25, 2013

St. John the Evangelist Parish celebrates 175 years of ministry

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, center, concelebrates Mass on Jan. 19 with, from left, Fathers Rick Nagel, Michael O’Mara, George Plaster, Franciscan Father Lawrence Janezic, Father John Hall and Father Thomas Murphy (seated to the right of the altar). Father Hall was baptized and raised in St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, and Father Murphy is a former pastor of the parish. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, center, concelebrates Mass on Jan. 19 with, from left, Fathers Rick Nagel, Michael O’Mara, George Plaster, Franciscan Father Lawrence Janezic, Father John Hall and Father Thomas Murphy (seated to the right of the altar). Father Hall was baptized and raised in St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, and Father Murphy is a former pastor of the parish. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

St. John the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis launched its 175th anniversary on Jan. 19 with a Mass, followed by a celebration at the nearby Omni Severin Hotel. Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin and seven priests concelebrated the Mass, including Father Rick Nagel, who was installed as pastor during the liturgy after serving for two years as the parish’s administrator.

In his homily, Archbishop Tobin said that each parish has its mission.

“Yours,” he said to the people of the parish, “is to celebrate the oldest Catholic church in Indianapolis, to enkindle the fire of Christ in each—because we can’t give what we don’t have.”

That fire was passed on to St. John’s newest parishioner prior to the Mass as Father Nagel baptized 7-week-old John Dominic Garro. Father Nagel asked John and Amy Garro if they would like their son to be baptized at the anniversary Mass for a symbolic reason—the parish’s first official baptism was recorded in January 1838, leading to the choice of January 2013 as the starting point for the year-long anniversary celebration.

John Dominic’s baptism was one of thousands celebrated at the parish over its 175-year history.

“You think of all the prayers, all the sacraments here, and you can see the work of the Holy Spirit,” said Rita Maguire, a member of the parish.

When the Chapel of the Holy Cross Parish was established in 1837 by Father Vincent Bacquelin roughly where West and Washington streets now meet, the Holy Spirit was surely at the helm. Indianapolis was primarily a wilderness with only 200 citizens claiming the Catholic faith.

The Holy Spirit’s guidance again became evident in 1850 when the parish relocated to the corner of Georgia Street and Capitol Avenue. The parishioners could not have foreseen that the land they purchased would one day make the church available to more than half a million visitors a year to the adjacent Indiana Convention Center and nearby Lucas Oil Stadium.

Given the opportunity the locale would one day hold for evangelizing so many, the Holy Spirit surely inspired the parishioners in 1850 to rename the parish in honor of one of the Church’s most famous evangelizers—St. John.

In less than 20 years, the church structure built in 1850 had become too small. Plans were made to construct a new church.

Enter the great-grandfather of longtime parishioner Catherine Morgan.

“My great-grandfather came to Indianapolis from Ireland as a young man in the late 1860’s looking for work. He got work as a bricklayer—laying the bricks of this church,” Morgan said of the current structure where she and her husband, Larry, now worship.

The current church was constructed from 1867 to 1871. Morgan’s great-grandfather returned to Ireland, but in 1899 his son and daughter-in-law—Morgan’s grandparents—moved to Indianapolis from Ireland and raised their family at St. John Parish. Her family has been involved in the parish ever since.

“I come into this church and I feel like it’s home,” she said.

Many families in the parish share such long-standing history. At the celebration at the Omni, Mary Ann Roman shared photos and documents of family members receiving sacraments at St. John back to the turn of the last century.

Members of the Farrell family, also spanning generations at the parish, said their mother felt that she hadn’t been to Mass if she went anywhere besides her home parish of St. John.

Even seven-year parishioner Norma Gantner—possibly the oldest parishioner at age 96—spoke of the parish as feeling “like home.”

“People here realize it’s God’s home,” she said. “I’ve always gotten that feel.”

Joe Maguire, husband of Rita, expressed a similar feeling of holiness at St. John.

“We just continue to be amazed at the hand of God at St. John’s,” Joe Maguire said. “We look at this building, what work and sacrifice went into it, the faith it took, and it’s because they knew the Truth was in the tabernacle.”

The Maguires, Romans, Farrells, Morgans and many others, parishioners and non-parishioners alike, spoke of their additional connection to the parish through relatives who graduated from St. John Academy for girls and St. John Boys School. Although the schools—operated by the Sisters of Providence—were closed decades ago, they were renowned in their day as institutions for first-class education.

In 1937, St. John Academy became the first racially integrated high school in Indianapolis—17 years before racial segregation was declared unconstitutional.

According to Father Nagel, the parish hit its peak in number of members during the late 1800s. Throughout its history, 10 parishes have sprung from St. John the Evangelist Church.

Parish membership lagged in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, however, as people deserted downtown for the suburbs. It is believed by some in the parish that, at some point during that time, there was only one registered member at St. John.

But as Rita Maguire said, “God clearly had plans for the parish.”

In 2009, St. John became the hub for the newly formed archdiocesan Young Adult Ministry and College Campus Ministry.

Father Nagel moved into the St. John rectory and spearheaded the drive to engage young adult Catholics in their faith. He noted that the parish has grown more than 95 percent since that time, including a 40 percent growth rate each of the last two years. The parish now boasts 545 families and 815 total registered members, of which nearly 120 are college-aged. About 250 are between the ages of 22 and 30.

Anne Marie Brummer heads a Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) team, working with Father Nagel to bring college students back to the Church or lead them there for the first time.

“St. John’s is in the heart of the town, and we really use that,” Brummer said. “It’s really awesome that such an old parish has such great young adult participation. At the 7 p.m. Sunday young adult Mass, they used to have to rope off the back pews so more people would sit up front. Now the Mass is completely packed. That’s just so important—they’re the future, and it’s so great to see them step up and lead.”

Father Nagel has been tasked with weaving together the older and newer generations of the parish. According to octogenarian Patricia Himes, he is succeeding.

She said of the parish youth, “I just love them all. I think of them as my own.”

Given the parish’s central location downtown, the perfect opportunity exists for old and young alike to fulfill Christ’s call to serve the poor.

While the parish has consistently done this for many years, it was Father Noah Casey, pastor from 2003-08, who formally instituted the Garden Door Ministry. Through this outreach, parish volunteers serve sandwiches and water to 40-60 people—called “the parish’s neighbors”—every week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., on Monday through Friday. Clothing, blankets, hats, gloves and even bus passes are also provided.

St. John the Evangelist Church also capitalizes on its location to live out the mission of its namesake, as well as the recent papal call for the “new evangelization.”

Father Nagel seized the opportunity to evangelize last year when Indianapolis and Lucas Oil Stadium hosted the Super Bowl. The doors of the church were opened, the public was invited, and a ministry of tour guides, called “Evangelists,” was established and continues today.

“Over half a million people visit the [Indiana] Convention Center each year,” said Father Nagel, “so we want to invite them in, show them this beautiful church with all its history—and catechize and evangelize them in the process.”

Continuing to find new ways to evangelize both visitors and parishioners is part of the parish’s three-fold motto for its 175th anniversary year: “Celebrate the past. Enkindle in the present. Invite for the future.”

“St. John’s is a beacon of light in the heart of the city—it has been for 175 years,” said Father Nagel.

“It all stems from the faithfulness of the people who settled here, built a small church, built a new church then built the current church, all on immigrants’ wages, that made it possible for us to worship here today.”

And perhaps a little help from the Holy Spirit. †

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