December 16, 2016

Jennings County parish celebrates 175 years of faith

Some 200 worshippers fill St. Anne Church in Jennings County for a Nov. 6 Mass that celebrated the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Seymour Deanery faith community. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Some 200 worshippers fill St. Anne Church in Jennings County for a Nov. 6 Mass that celebrated the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Seymour Deanery faith community. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

JENNINGS COUNTY—St. Anne Parish in northern Jennings County has never been teeming with parishioners.

From its founding 175 years ago in 1841, it has been the spiritual home of the Catholic farming families with German roots living in and around the hills and fields surrounding the faith community in south central Indiana.

Several generations later, many of the descendants of those settlers remain in the parish and maintain its family atmosphere.

The close-knit nature of St. Anne was on full display on Nov. 6 when then‑Cardinal-designate Joseph W. Tobin was the principal celebrant of a Mass to celebrate its historic anniversary.

As it turned out, the Mass was historic in itself, being the last Mass celebrated by Cardinal-designate Tobin as the shepherd of the Church in central and southern Indiana.

The next day, he was introduced as the new archbishop of Newark, N.J., at which time he ceased to be archbishop of Indianapolis. Rumors of the impending announcement had been widely reported throughout the weekend of the Mass.

In emotion-filled remarks at the end of the liturgy, Cardinal-designate Tobin told the worshippers at St. Anne Church, “If I was to celebrate my last Mass as the archbishop of Indianapolis, I’d be really blessed to celebrate it with you.”

One of those worshippers was David Gasper, 24, who grew up just down the road from the parish and counts as his ancestors some of its founding members.

Although he went away to study engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., Gasper was happy to return to his parish with his wife Jessica, whom he married last year.

“It is a place where I feel at home,” Gasper said. “You’re part of a family there. It’s such a small, tight-knit community. Everyone knows each other. It’s basically an extended family.”

Many of the priests who have served at St. Anne over the years have become part of its family of faith.

Father John Missi made with his own hands many of the bricks of the parish church, which was built in 1866, a year after the conclusion of the Civil War.

Father John Bankowski, who died in 1996, lived in retirement at St. Anne in the 1970s, often doing handyman repairs to the church and rectory.

Gasper recalls as a boy going rabbit hunting with now-Archbishop Paul

D. Etienne of Anchorage, Alaska, when he served as sacramental minister of the parish from 1996-98 while an archdiocesan priest, and hunting frogs, known as “frog gigging,” with Father Jonathan Meyer when he served at St. Anne from 2008-14.

“He did it to meet some folks and, boy, he really felt like part of the family after that,” Gasper said of Father Meyer. “It’s a way for the [priests] to connect with these down-to-earth families.”

Rita Elmore, 55, is a lifelong member of the parish. She grew up as a Daeger, one of its founding families from which later came Archbishop Albert T. Daeger of Santa Fe, N.M., a son of the parish who died in 1932.

As Elmore grew up, being involved in the parish was a family affair. Her grandfather played the organ, and she and many of her siblings and cousins sang in the parish choir.

They also helped clean the parish and laundered its linens.

“If something needed to be done, the priest would say, ‘Can you do this?’ and everybody just jumped in,” Elmore said. “And they still do that. If something needs to be done, the next thing you know the ball is rolling.”

That cooperation now includes helping build up the faith in Jennings County as a whole. Starting in 2009, Father Meyer began service as pastor of all three parishes in the county: St. Mary in North Vernon and St. Joseph in Jennings County, in addition to St. Anne.

Members of St. Anne Parish have done much, says Father Jerry Byrd, its current pastor, to convert its rectory into a youth ministry center that serves young Catholics from across Jennings County.

“They did the work of painting, getting the house ready, building a fire pit, putting in a new air conditioner and furnace—all that stuff,” he said. “That’s dedication. They’re using what they have. Otherwise, that house would sit empty. Now it’s being used frequently.”

Many St. Anne parishioners also take hours in a perpetual adoration chapel at St. Mary Parish. Gasper, who prays for an hour at 4 a.m. on Sundays, gives its founding much of the credit for the continued vitality of his faith community.

“That might be the key to our success, regardless of the pastors we’ve had,” Gasper said. “It’s making us thrive the way we are. There was almost a sense of the revitalization of the faith when we opened its doors.”

Elmore also appreciates the close connection among the Jennings County parishes.

“It just seems like we’re all one family now,” she said.

Father Byrd welcomes how much St. Anne parishioners value and care for their 150-year-old church building.

“But they also recognize that their identity is not just in a church building,” he said. “They know that they’re part of something that’s bigger than just little St. Anne’s.

“That’s the Catholic ideal. We’re part of something that’s bigger than us. And they celebrate the little piece that they are [of it].” †

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