November 22, 2019

Henryville parish marks 150 years of passing faith ‘one generation to another’

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson leads members of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Fortville in prayer during a Sept. 14 Mass to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the faith community. (Submitted photos)

Members of the Indiana National Guard and other rescue workers haul donated ice to a refrigerated truck parked beside St. Francis Xavier Church in Henryville on March 3, 2012. The previous day, two tornadoes ravaged the southern Indiana town. Despite structural damage to its church, the parish quickly became a place to collect and distribute donated material goods to aid people affected by the storm. (File photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Natalie Hoefer

The pages are aged and crisp. They still bear the creases from when they were folded and placed in an envelope in 1934.

In neat, lacy handwriting, the anonymous author looks even further back in time to a rural farming area in Clark County, 19 miles north of Louisville, Ky.

“The first Holy Sacrifice of the Mass of which we have knowledge in this [area] was celebrated by a missionary priest traveling horseback from Vincennes to Seymour … in about the year 1835,” it reads.

So begins the history of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Henryville, which was officially formed as a parish of what was then the Diocese of Vincennes in 1869. The faith community’s 100 families will mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of the parish—still serving in a rural farming region—at a special Mass on Dec. 1.

(Related story: Catholic Community Foundation funds help St. Francis Xavier and other parishes)

The parish’s history tells the tale of a resilient community. They’ve survived multiple tangles with tornadoes, varying acceptance in a predominantly Protestant area, and lack of a resident pastor for 120 of its 150 years.

But the parish has done more than survive. Rather, the challenges have created a tight-knit, self-sufficient community known for its warm welcome, its care for each other, and its focus on keeping the Catholic faith alive from generation to generation.

‘Riding horseback or on wagons’

The 85-year-old letter notes that the area’s first recorded Mass “was offered in the home of the late John Francis ... on what was known as the Francis Farm one mile west of Henryville where St. Francis [Xavier] Church now stands.”

The letter states that other missionary priests celebrated Mass and other sacraments in Francis’ home “from time to time.” Some Catholics even traveled “10-12 miles to attend services, riding horseback or in jolt wagons.”

As the parish officially came into being in 1869, local Catholics provided materials and labor to build the its first church, “a small frame building built of timber.” A priest whom “the old parishioners [called] ‘Good Father Francis’ ” oversaw the effort.

The unknown author does not give a reason for the parish’s name choice. Perhaps it was a three-fold nod: one to St. Francis Xavier, patron of what was then the Diocese of Vincennes (now the Archdiocese of Indianapolis); one to John Francis, who welcomed local Catholics to his home for Mass whenever a missionary priest was in town; and one to the priest who oversaw the church’s construction.

Once it became an official parish of the diocese, St. Francis Xavier was “placed in charge”—or made a mission—of St. Ambrose Parish in Seymour.

It was the first of many affiliations with another parish. For just 30 of its 150 years, St. Francis Xavier had a resident pastor. For the other 120 years, it shared a priest with one to as many as four parishes at a time.

In all, the faith community has been affiliated with nine different parishes—several more than once, and some as far away as 23, 33, even 43 miles.

“In my time, we’ve always been associated with another parish,” says lifelong parishioner Butch Furnish, 78. “But we’re always happy to have a priest.”

‘It really does feel like home’

The parish was a mission of St. Mary Parish in New Albany when funds were raised to replace the wood church with a new brick structure in 1928. Parishioners have been worshiping there for more than 90 years.

“The older style of the church brings me back to the way it was when I was growing up,” says St. Francis Xavier member Tom Mayes, 83.

The daily Massgoer, parish council member and extraordinary minister of holy Communion says that, having outlived his parents and siblings, “St. Francis [Xavier] is my only family. If I miss a day, they call me at home and ask if I’m OK. … They’re all so warm and welcoming. It really does feel like home.”

Butch’s wife Janice Furnish says she hears such comments often.

“Everyone says we’re such a friendly parish, and we get a lot of new parishioners for that reason,” she notes. Janice, 78, joined the parish 56 years ago when she married Butch, her Henryville High School sweetheart.

Seventeen-year-old Kayla Martin also notes the family feel of the parish.

“Everyone is just really encouraging,” the high school senior says of the faith community. “Since I’ve grown up here, they’ve taken part in raising me and teaching me my faith and guiding me. They all set really good examples of being a follower of Christ.”

Kayla has learned well from their example. She is a frequent altar server at Mass, helps with parish fish frys and now, just having been confirmed, is considering other volunteer opportunities at the parish.

The Martin family has served the parish for several generations.

“My grandpa was really dedicated and faithful and set that example,” says Kayla. “My dad just became a member of the parish council. My brother was an altar server and he served a lot, almost every week.”

‘A great impression on Henryville’

Members of St. Francis Xavier serve outside the parish too, says Father Henry Tully, pastor of the parish and also of St. Michael Parish in Charlestown since 2014.

“We have people in the parish that are involved in all sorts of other activities that put them in contact with other people in the community from different churches,” he notes.

A spirit of cooperation with and acceptance of Catholics in the area is strong now. But such attitudes have varied with time.

The unknown historian wrote in 1934 that an “outstanding” fact of the parish’s then-65-year history “is the kindly interest and helpful cooperation of the non-Catholic residents in all its undertakings.”

At some point after 1934, though, the tide of opinion changed, and the members of the mostly Protestant community ceased to hold such “kindly interest and helpful cooperation” toward the members of St. Francis Xavier.

Butch hints to this past lack of acceptance of Catholics in the area. He notes that in the aftermath of two devastating tornadoes that hit Henryville within 10 minutes on March 2, 2012, local residents “came to know that Catholics don’t bite.”

Father Tully attributes this local re-embracing of the parish and its members to St. Francis Xavier serving as the hub of immediate and long-term relief efforts, especially of Catholic Charities and its Disaster Response Team. He says such ongoing help—even several years after the disaster—“made a great impression upon the people of Henryville and the surrounding area. That did a great deal to help the ecumenical spirit in the parish and in the community.”

Such help was offered even as the parish dealt with damage to its own church.

The first tornado “knocked over the top half of the [chimney] flue, knocked a hole in the roof and created structural damage,” says Butch. Mass was celebrated in the basement parish hall for nearly nine months as the church was restored.

Butch recalls another time a massive tornado struck Henryville. He was out of state when an EF-4 tornado hit the town on June 7, 1948. Although he was only 6 or 7 at the time, he recalls the twister “really wrecked things up.”

Slates from the parish church’s roof “went through nearby houses,” he says. “But that tornado didn’t affect the structure of the church building” like the first one that struck in 2012, he says.

‘Grassroots faith’

Reflecting on the parish’s 150th anniversary, Father Tully says he is reminded of another faith community’s history—that of the Catholic Church in Korea.

He recalls reading that “they didn’t have any [missionary] priest who came for nearly 40 years,” and so the Church “was maintained by the laity. They kept the faith alive among themselves.”

Noting that St. Francis Xavier has been without a resident pastor for the majority of its existence, “The core of the faith has been passed on by members of the parish,” says Father Tully. “It’s been maintained and grows and is nurtured by that kind of grassroots faith. Hopefully in the days ahead that will keep going.”

Mayes is hopeful too.

“We try to keep the congregation as it is so we can pass it on to the children who are there now,” he says. “It’s one generation passing the church on to another generation. It gives peace of mind that you kept something going and are able to pass it on to the next generation.”

If Kayla is any indication, then St. Francis Xavier can expect to celebrate milestone anniversaries for years to come.

“It’s really special, just to think [the parish] has been around for that long, that everyone kept it going,” says the teen.

“God brings everything together. That’s exciting. It makes me want to grow in my faith to help carry it on.” †

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