August 23, 2019

Traditionally black Catholic parish in Indianapolis celebrates 100 years

Members of the choir of St. Rita Parish in Indianapolis sing during an Aug. 3 Mass at the faith community’s church to mark the 100th anniversary of its founding. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Members of the choir of St. Rita Parish in Indianapolis sing during an Aug. 3 Mass at the faith community’s church to mark the 100th anniversary of its founding. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

As members of St. Rita Parish in Indianapolis were gathered in their church on Aug. 3 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the historically black Catholic faith community, St. Joseph Sister Gail Trippett reflected on what had happened back in 1919.

“This celebration, this day of recognition, is actually a tribute to God and the Holy Spirit,” said Sister Gail, St. Rita’s parish life coordinator. “Oftentimes, we don’t think that God is making decisions for this moment. But he was making decisions for 100 years down the road. All of us are tribute that he made the right decision.”

Bishop Joseph Chartrand had mixed feelings about establishing a parish specifically to serve black Catholics in the year following the end of World War I. While he did not like the idea of separating out black Catholics in this way, he also recognized that many African-American dominant Protestant congregations quickly attracted many new members.

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson reflected on the beginnings of St. Rita Parish and its relevance today in a homily during the Aug. 3 centennial Mass.

“Throughout these past 100 years, St. Rita Parish has been a beacon of hope and missionary discipleship for both the Catholic faith and this larger community,” he said. “Drawing strength from the word of God and the grace of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, St. Rita parishioners have made great sacrifices to carry on the mission of Jesus Christ amid both challenge and prosperity.”

Curtis Guynn knows the truth of Archbishop Thompson’s words from personal experience. At 78 and a lifelong member of St. Rita, he has been a witness of and a participant in more than three quarters of the history of the faith community on the near northeast side of Indianapolis.

“It’s always been a home,” said Guynn. “You could always come back here and regroup on Sundays, and sometimes in between.”

Growing up just a few blocks from the parish, Guynn now lives further away, much like many parishioners from the early decades of St. Rita. Many of their children and grandchildren still make the effort to return to St. Rita.

“It’s good,” said Guynn. “I just want them to remember where their parents started at.”

Guynn passed on that lesson well to his daughter, Anita Bardo, who serves as St. Rita’s director of religious education.

“Church has always been my life,” she said. “I’ve never left. I’ve stayed at St. Rita. I’ve never wavered. I just continue to put my all into it.”

That includes passing the faith on to her own children, including 15-year-old Marissa Bardo, who ministered as an altar server during the centennial Mass. Growing up in a family with such deep roots in

St. Rita, she learned about the history of the faith community while growing up around them.

“I was able to learn about our church, what people went through to get it up and how my family was able to help out, too,” Marissa said. “It feels kind of good to be a part of this church in its 100th year.”

Growing in her faith at St. Rita has helped Marissa witness to it as a student at North Central High School in Indianapolis.

“A lot of people ask me what it means to be Catholic,” she said. “Being here has helped me to learn how to answer that question.”

One strong leader who made St. Rita a parish that can today form faith-filled young people like Marissa was Father Bernard Strange, who was its pastor for 38 years, from 1935-73.

“He had a strong hold on the parish,” said Guynn. “We all looked up to him, listened to him and followed whatever he said.”

His strong leadership led to the construction of the parish’s church, which was dedicated 60 years ago. Parishioners today still take pride in its European-mined marble, stained glass and the mosaic of Elijah that graces the sanctuary.

“We have a beautiful church,” Bardo said. “We’re sitting on a historical mine. It’s like no other. When you come in, you feel a sense of pride. This is part of our heritage.”

Phyllis Carr, 84, worked as a secretary for Father Strange.

“He always thought of us as a parish that could do anything that any other parish could do,” she said. “And if you didn’t know how to do it, he would see that you learned or [were] trained how to do it.”

That included learning how to effectively serve the neighborhood around St. Rita, a tradition which continues today.

“We still have a calling within the area to reach out to minister to anyone, not just Catholics,” said Anita Bardo. “We still have a responsibility to continue to do what we did in the past and bring it forward, so our kids now can see that when you have a neighbor … that you are welcoming.”

St. Rita does this today in part through using buildings on its campus that previously served as a rectory and school to serve the broader community.

Homeless families and individuals can find temporary housing and programs at the parish center to help them with job training through Family Promise of Greater Indianapolis.

For much of its history, most of the people who lived around St. Rita were African-American, some of them Catholic, but mostly not.

“There’s tremendous pride in their history as being the first Catholic church dedicated to servicing the African-American community in Indianapolis,” Sister Gail said. “In that pride, there’s a way in which they serve to make sure that all in the community are included. They go above and beyond what is expected.”

In more recent years, re-development in the neighborhood around St. Rita has attracted residents from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds.

“Even though in the beginning this was a place for African-Americans to be able to worship, we have always had our doors open to everyone,” Sister Gail said. “The parish community is becoming more diverse.” †

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