July 13, 2018

Shelbyville parish celebrates 150 years as a family of faith

Altar servers kneel in prayer while Archbishop Charles C. Thompson prays the eucharistic prayer during a June 3 Mass at St. Joseph Church in Shelbyville to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Batesville Deanery faith community’s founding. (Submitted photo by Amy Johnson)

Altar servers kneel in prayer while Archbishop Charles C. Thompson prays the eucharistic prayer during a June 3 Mass at St. Joseph Church in Shelbyville to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Batesville Deanery faith community’s founding. (Submitted photo by Amy Johnson)

By Sean Gallagher

Over the course of its 150 years, St. Joseph Parish in Shelbyville has been a large family of faith, says its current administrator, Father Michael Keucher.

That family has changed much since the Batesville Deanery faith community was established in 1868. It began with a group of Catholics from a mixture of cultural backgrounds. For example, in preparation for the dedication of its present church in 1908, parishioners prayed the rosary, alternating between German and English.

Today, Mass is celebrated regularly in both English and Spanish with St. Joseph’s Hispanic members playing a growing role in the life of the faith community.

“The place has lots of families that have been in the parish for generations,” Father Keucher said. “It’s a wonderful family feel at St. Joseph. Everybody is family at St. Joe, whether it’s blood family or family in Christ.”

St. Joseph as a family came to life from St. Vincent de Paul Parish, founded a few miles southeast of Shelbyville in 1837. By 1868, the Catholic population of the area had outgrown the parish and the school it operated at the time.

St. Joseph was started in nearby Shelbyville, although the non-Catholic leadership of the town was suspicious about the growing presence of Catholics there.

Pastors of St. Vincent ministered at St. Joseph until Father Adelrich Kaelin became its first resident pastor in 1886.

The parish’s school was founded in 1876. Franciscan sisters from Oldenburg served it for more than 100 years.

By 1903, the fears of townspeople about the growing Catholic population in Shelbyville seemed to have dissipated. Representatives of several civic organizations joined members of Catholic fraternal groups in a parade to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone of the current parish church.

At 89, Loretta Eckstein has experienced St. Joseph as family for more than half the parish’s history. That connection has helped her immensely since her last sibling died.

“If I didn’t have St. Joe, I would feel alone, because it’s always felt like family,” said Eckstein, who led music at St. Joseph for several decades. “It’s somebody to go to when you’ve got a problem or someone to tell you when you’re getting a little too big for your britches, I suppose.”

The priests who have ministered at St. Joseph during her life have embodied the family nature of the parish for her.

Father Clement Zeph served as its pastor from 1936-53.

“Father Zeph was kind of a father figure to me,” Eckstein recalled. “I remember I cried so hard when he died. It was like losing someone as close as your own father. He was kindly and smiled a lot. He could find things to laugh about.”

She described Father Bernard Burgert, who succeeded Father Zeph and served at St. Joseph from 1953-71, as “more like a brother than a father in a way.”

Eckstein is pleased with the leadership that Father Keucher has given in serving at St. Joseph during the past year, describing him as “the Energizer bunny.”

“He goes all the time,” she said. “He’s gotten so many things started, many of which are new, but some are things we’ve had in past years but have gone astray for one reason or another and he’s reinstituted.

“He’s got probably the liveliest youth group we’ve had for a long time.”

The youth group and other initiatives have come about in collaboration with St. Vincent. The relationship between St. Joseph and St. Vincent, which was very close 150 years ago when St. Joseph was established, has been renewed in recent years through the archdiocese’s Connected in the Spirit planning process.

St. Vincent and St. Joseph are now linked and share a priest, with Father Keucher serving as St. Vincent’s sacramental minister.

“I really feel like St. Vincent and St. Joseph have come together and become one big, happy, Catholic family, just as they were at the very beginning,” Father Keucher said. “We have lots of programs that are for both parishes—the youth group, faith formation opportunities, Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.”

Bryan Fischer, 43, comes from a Catholic farming family that has worked the land in Shelby County for generations. He’s been a lay leader at St. Joseph, serving on its school commission, parish council and finance committee.

“The two parishes are functioning well together,” Fischer said. “Mass attendance has strengthened. I’m excited for the future. We’ve done quite a few capital improvements. There can be some tremendous growth opportunities and changes over the next 10 years.”

Another important way that he hopes St. Joseph will grow is through young parents in the parish—including him and his wife—raising their children in the faith and providing them with a Catholic education at St. Joseph School.

“As we raise our children, we want them to be Catholic,” Fischer said. “It’s important to teach kids about going to church every weekend, explaining what it means to be Catholic and how we’re supposed to serve others and God. The school helps us do that, and St. Joe helps us do that.”

Father Keucher hopes to encourage growth in service among St. Joseph parishioners. To foster that, he’s challenged them through the course of the parish’s anniversary year to give 150,000 hours in service to the parish and the broader Shelbyville community.

He’s called it the “1st Peter Project” after 1 Peter 4:10, “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.”

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson celebrated a festive anniversary Mass at St. Joseph on June 3. Other anniversary events have included an organ recital and choir concert, a mission trip to Houston to help people affected by last year’s Hurricane Harvey, the installation and blessing of an Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine, and the starting of a local chapter of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

The year of anniversary celebrations will end in November with a parish mission.

Seeing such activity at St. Joseph has Eckstein excited for the future of the parish that she has experienced as family for so many years.

“I have hopes for the parish,” she said. “We’re in good shape after 150 years. I just hope that it will be even bigger and better and stronger.” †

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