November 2, 2018

‘Rootedness’ has kept Lanesville parish growing for 175 years

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson anoints the head of Lexie Curl during the sacrament of confirmation at St. Mary Church in Lanesville on Oct. 13. He is assisted by Deacon Richard Cooper, left, while Lexie’s sponsor Kaylee Wheatley, right, looks on. The Mass also celebrated the 175th anniversary of the parish’s founding. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson anoints the head of Lexie Curl during the sacrament of confirmation at St. Mary Church in Lanesville on Oct. 13. He is assisted by Deacon Richard Cooper, left, while Lexie’s sponsor Kaylee Wheatley, right, looks on. The Mass also celebrated the 175th anniversary of the parish’s founding. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

LANESVILLE—St. Mary Church in Lanesville was filled to standing-room-only capacity for the vigil Mass on Oct. 13.

Perhaps it was to witness 15 youths and one adult receive the sacrament of confirmation.

Perhaps it was to worship at the liturgy with the principal celebrant, Archbishop Charles C. Thompson.

The more likely answer is a combination of the two factors—plus the capstone occasion of the parish’s 175th anniversary of serving as a witness to the faith in southern Indiana.

Lines of descendants give a family feel

Locally, St. Mary Church is known as “the church on the hill” for a reason—it sits atop a hill overlooking the town of Lanesville. Lifetime parishioner Peter Schickel, 95, quips that the perch makes the faith community “closer to heaven.”

But before the parish obtained its lofty location, local Catholic families purchased several lots in Lanesville in 1843, marking the founding of the parish. A priest was not assigned to the community for several years. But Mass was celebrated in a home on the property whenever a missionary priest came through the area.

The faith community obtained land on the hill sometime between 1848-1852, and a wood frame church was built on the hilltop.

It wasn’t long before the parish outgrew the small frame church. In 1859, the cornerstone of the current church structure was laid, and the building—though still unfinished—was dedicated in 1864.

It is believed that on that occasion the parish—which had been known as St. John the Baptist—was renamed to St. Mary, although no records exist as to when or why the name was changed.

In his homily, Archbishop Thompson noted that “through all those 175 years, rootedness in Christ has kept St. Mary Parish going.”

There is another kind of rootedness in the parish as well—descendants of several of the founding families of the parish are still worshiping at St. Mary.

“My father is buried in the parish cemetery, my grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents,” says lifetime member Rick Geswein, 64.

It was his great-grandmother who in 1924 started the parish’s popular, well‑attended annual picnic, which takes place on the second Sunday in August. Geswein has co-chaired the event with his younger brother for 20 years. The married father of three and grandfather of four has started involving his son in organizing the event.

“We have a very good reputation for our quilts, linen and craft items, and our chicken is second to none,” says Geswein of the annual event.

The picnic took a hiatus for about 10 years in the 1940s and 1950s. World War II was one factor. But so was a tragic fire in 1948 that destroyed all but the exterior walls of the 1860s church building.

‘We’re a community of service’

“My grandfather, dad and uncle helped rebuild the church,” says Geswein. “I had a picture of our old farm truck on the hill filled with sand for the mortar.”

At five years shy of 100, Schickel recalls the fire.

“It was lightning that struck the building,” he says. “It was really a tragedy for the whole community.

“I was on the building and grounds committee at the time. A number of parishioners said, ‘We’ll never get [the church] paid for.’ But we’re a community of service. As a team, we got it back together.”

The parishioners decided to retain the 1860s walls while redesigning and rebuilding the church’s interior.

“We think it’s beautiful because of its historical status,” says Schickel.

He and his wife Joan, 92, have been members of the parish for all 72 years of their marriage. Look for them at Mass in the second row on the east side of the church, where Peter says they have been sitting weekly for “about 72 years.” And with five children, 10 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren, they have a small congregation of their own, some of whom still worship at St. Mary.

The Schickels have been involved in numerous ministries during their nearly three-quarters of a century in the parish. But what the couple is most known for has become an annual tradition for 35 years: Each fall, the Schickels invite all the youths of the New Albany Deanery to come to their farm in the country for food, fellowship and Mass.

“We have an outdoor basketball court, a wienie roast, hayrides,” he says. While they now have plenty of help to make the event happen, Peter says it’s still “a labor of love to help the young people. The young people are our future.”

‘I like the homelike atmosphere’

As a catechist for 12 years, lifetime parishioner Donna Hublar has also helped the young people of the parish.

“It’s been fun knowing all the kids, watching them grow up,” says Hublar, 55.

Watching the children grow is part of what makes the parish feel “like family,” says the married mother of two.

“I like the homelike atmosphere here. I still see classmates I went to Sunday school with. And I see a lot of people come back during church picnic time.”

This year the church picnic was particularly special for the parish’s 175th anniversary, says Hublar.

“There were pamphlets in the church at different stations, so people could take an historical tour of the church,” she explains.

The parish celebrated the anniversary all year with monthly events. One of the events occurred on Oct. 7 when Sandra Hartlieb, adult faith formation administrator at St. Lawrence Parish in Indianapolis, performed the one-woman play she wrote about St. Theodora Guérin called In Her Own Words.

The saint figures into the history of St. Mary Parish. In 1854, then-parish pastor Father Alphonse Munschina wrote to Mother Theodore Guérin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence in St. Mary-of-the-Woods, and asked her to send teachers to start a parish school.

The future saint agreed. In September 1854, she accompanied the three sisters she chose for the assignment on their journey to Lanesville. In her journal, Mother Theodore wrote of the sisters receiving “an enthusiastic welcome, being conducted to the commodious convent with a religious procession, and all these good people wept for joy.”

After 140 years, the school closed in 1994.

‘The history continues on’

Hosting the play was “one of the highlights of the year,” says Conventual Franciscan Father Robert St. Martin, the parish’s pastor. Through the many assignments of his priesthood, this is his first time as pastor in a parish celebrating 175 years.

“I think it’s really a wonderful thing when you can exist for so long and be able to celebrate it,” he says.

“I wonder what the first parishioners think of all this, looking down from heaven. These are their descendants. They were immigrants, mostly farmers. They worked hard, but they built a beautiful church, a school, a convent and a rectory.

“It’s marvelous that the history continues on. In the cemetery, some of the gravestones are so old that they’re in German. And some of those families are still members here.”

The anniversary is exciting for new members of the parish as well. Jeremie Wheatley, 41, moved from Louisville to the area with his wife and two children four years ago.

“I read a book on the [parish’s] 150th anniversary the other day,” says Wheatley. “Being able to take what I learned from that made being a part of this [celebration] more meaningful. It got me thinking forward to the 200th anniversary. In 25 years, I’ll be 66, so it’s very likely I’ll be around for the it.”

‘Most beautiful … is you, the people’

Perhaps his daughter Kaylee, 14, will be present in 25 years as well, especially since it was at St. Mary Parish that she was received into the full communion of the Church. Last year, she participated in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). She was baptized, confirmed and received her first Communion last Easter.

“There are so many people I’ve grown close to through RCIA and that have helped me throughout this journey,” she says. “I love how small the community is. You may not know everyone, but they’re there for you all the time.”

Kaylee was there, too, as a sponsor for a friend in the parish who received the sacrament of confirmation during the 175th anniversary Mass.

“I thought it was really cool having the archbishop here,” says Kaylee. “It was like having the man in charge here. Because I was a confirmation sponsor, I got to meet him and talk to him. That was a really cool experience.”

While Archbishop Thompson’s homily focused primarily on those who would receive the sacrament of confirmation, he wove in references to the parish’s milestone.

“What spirit do these kids receive?” he asked the congregation about the confirmandi. “It’s the same Spirit that has kept this parish going for 175 years. … It’s the same Spirit benefiting all who have been in the parish the last 175 years.”

The archbishop also mentioned Father Wilfred “Sonny” Day, a son of St. Mary Parish who now serves as pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in Starlight and as dean of the New Albany Deanery.

“Give me 500 more [priests] like him, and I won’t bother you for any more!” Archbishop Thompson joked during his homily.

Before moving on to conferring the sacrament, he paid the congregation a final compliment.

“This community has a beautiful church building,” he said. “But most beautiful is not the windows, the statues or the Stations [of the Cross]. It’s you, the people of God.” †

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