December 21, 2018

‘Circle of life’ at Batesville parish keeps going after 150 years

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson and several concelebrating priests pray the eucharistic prayer during an Oct. 28 Mass at St. Louis Church in Batesville to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis Parish. (Submitted photo)

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson and several concelebrating priests pray the eucharistic prayer during an Oct. 28 Mass at St. Louis Church in Batesville to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis Parish. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

When Father Stanley Pondo began his ministry at St. Louis Parish in Batesville in 2015, he looked ahead to 2018, knowing that the faith community would celebrate that year the 150th anniversary of its founding.

Planning a fitting celebration of this anniversary was a priority for him.

“It’s important to recognize the contributions that people have made throughout a century and a half,” Father Pondo said. “The parish wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for the history of the families who have been here for generations, and contributed in so many ways.”

A series of events at St. Louis Parish that marked the anniversary culminated in a festive Mass on Oct. 28 at which Archbishop Charles C. Thompson was the principal celebrant.

Now Father Pondo and his parishioners have plans to put their faith community on good footing for the future by observing during the coming 12 months a year dedicated to the Blessed Mother, in order “to put the parish under the protection of Mary and of honoring Mary to start our next 150 years.”

St. Louis Parish had its beginnings a century and a half ago when German Catholic immigrants settled in the area. Within a year of its founding, Franciscan friars with Germanic roots came from Cincinnati to minister in the parish. They remained there until 2002 when archdiocesan priests began leading the Batesville faith community.

Many Franciscan priests who served at St. Louis Parish returned to Batesville for the anniversary Mass. Father Pondo said that their influence remains.

“There’s kind of a Franciscan spirituality among some of the parishioners,” he said. “Certainly the sensitivities that the Franciscans are known to have are present here, particularly among the parishioners who have been here for a long time under their guidance.”

There’s also a deep life of prayer at St. Louis, which is embodied in part in its perpetual eucharistic adoration chapel, which was dedicated in 2005.

The chapel also shows forth the parish’s heritage. Its altar was taken from a side altar of the church that was removed several decades ago. Until 2005, it had been kept in the barn of a parishioner.

“When you go in there, something comes over you,” said St. Louis parishioner Mary Jo Sunderman, 81. “I almost can’t describe it. It’s just the Spirit of the Lord.”

St. Louis Parish has also been shaped by the growth of Batesville over the years, which has been spurred in large part by the development of two inter-related companies based there: Batesville Casket Company and Hillenbrand, Inc.

Both trace their roots to the 1906 purchasing of the casket company by John Hillenbrand, a member of St. Louis Parish. Although Hillenbrand is now a publicly traded company, it still has close ties to the Hillenbrand family, who remain parishioners.

The two companies together now employ more than 9,000 people in their worldwide operations.

Sunderman moved to Batesville in 1969 with her husband David and their three young daughters when David took a job at Hillenbrand. The family soon found a spiritual home at St. Louis Parish.

“It was a very welcoming community and parish, no doubt about that,” Sunderman said. “This is a wonderful community in which to raise a family.”

And it became part of their wider family as the Sundermans got involved in the parish, Mary Jo working in the parish school’s cafeteria and serving as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and David leading the parish’s finance commission.

In 1988, Mary Jo experienced how St. Louis Parish offered support like a family when David died.

“The funeral was just amazing,” she said. “People kept coming to the visitation. I thought the line would never end.”

Mary Jo is now hopeful for the future of St. Louis as she sees many young families with many children, much like she saw nearly 50 years ago when she was raising her young children there.

“The circle of life just keeps going,” she said.

Michael Brelage is proud to lead one of those families. Born and raised in St. Louis Parish, Brelage and his wife are the parents of six children, three of whom are enrolled at St. Louis School.

“There’s a strong core of young families that have really embraced the faith,” said Brelage. “We keep striving to invite more and more people in. It’s slowly growing.”

Brelage was away from Batesville for about eight years while his wife was a medical student, but both were determined to move back to their southeastern Indiana home.

Since their return, Brelage has found that St. Louis has strengthened his faith.

“From when I moved back to Batesville until now, I just feel like I’ve grown leaps and bounds in how I understand the faith, in how my wife and I practice our faith,” he said. “I went from probably saying the rosary once a year to now my wife and I saying a nightly rosary. It’s been such a blessing for us.”

And just as Sunderman finds encouragement for the future of the parish in seeing Brelage and other young parents among its members, Brelage sees hope in the parish’s active youth group, which sponsors mission trips and trips for youth conferences at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio.

“They come back and are wanting to let you know that they’re Catholic and proud of it,” Brelage said. “It’s really encouraging to see this group of youth on fire for their faith.”

As Sunderman reflected, “the circle of life just keeps going” at St. Louis Parish.

(To learn more about St. Louis Parish in Batesville, visit

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