December 20, 2019

St. Malachy Parish marks ‘150 years of making saints’

St. Malachy Parish pastor Father Sean Danda, left, Deacon Dan Collier, Archbishop Charles C. Thompson and Deacon Rick Renzi gather around the altar of St. Malachy Church in Brownsburg during a Mass celebrating the parish’s 150th anniversary on Nov. 3. (Submitted photo by David Gansert)

St. Malachy Parish pastor Father Sean Danda, left, Deacon Dan Collier, Archbishop Charles C. Thompson and Deacon Rick Renzi gather around the altar of St. Malachy Church in Brownsburg during a Mass celebrating the parish’s 150th anniversary on Nov. 3. (Submitted photo by David Gansert)

By Natalie Hoefer

St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg was founded by native sons of Ireland who immigrated to America and made their way to the town in Hendricks County.

Now, 150 years later, the parish’s pastor, Father Sean Danda—a native son of St. Malachy—reflects on the faith community’s sesquicentennial.

He sums it up in a statement that addresses the past, the present and the future: “It’s been a fun year of celebrations, … a pivotal moment of looking at where we came from and to where we’re heading, where [God] is leading us.”

This article looks at those three aspects—the parish’s founding, how it honored its 150th anniversary, and the faith community’s future path as a parish and as saints with heaven as their destination.

‘Looking at where we came from’

As the parish celebrates 150 years, it could be said that it has recently returned to its roots.

About a decade ago, the parish relocated from downtown Brownsburg to a site surrounded by fields—quite possibly on the same land the faith community’s Irish founders cleared in the late 1840’s.

The timing makes sense. Irish immigrants poured into the United States during the Green Isle’s devastating potato famine of 1845-1849.

Meanwhile, the town of Harrisburg in Hendricks County was incorporated and renamed Brownsburg in 1848. The small wilderness town was ready to grow.

A 1969 memorial book marking the parish’s 100th anniversary notes that “these Irish settlers, blessed with vigorous constitutions, labored clearing the dense forests and draining the pestilent swamps to convert this worthless territory into rich, productive farmland.”

To meet their spiritual needs and fulfill their faith obligations, they traveled 14 miles by horse or buggy to worship at St. John the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis. Additionally, Father D.J. McMullen of County Down, Ireland, was appointed to minister to the Brownsburg Catholic community.

He helped them establish their own parish. The community held a naming contest, and the winning name was St. Malachy. It was a doubly appropriate choice—not only is he Irish, but the 12th-century bishop was known for serving those “in the remotest villages” in Ireland, according to the 1969 memorial book.

The congregation ebbed and flowed. A new brick structure replaced the old, wood-frame church in 1904, but little physical growth occurred until the parish opened a school in 1955. Twenty years later, the parish built its third church structure in the town of Brownsburg.

In 2008, the most recent church was built on the parish’s new field-encircled campus. The adjacent school building was completed in 2014.

“You have to think of what it took for [the parish founders] to do this in a somewhat remote parish, to continue and not let it waiver,” says Beatrice Bursten, a St. Malachy parish council member and head of the 150th anniversary committee.

“You look at where we are today, and [the faith community’s growth] is pretty impressive, not just from a building perspective but also from a faith perspective.”

‘A fun year of celebrations’

The parish’s growth is impressive from a numbers perspective as well. In 1885, the parish had 72 registered families. Today it has 2,100.

“Many new people are moving to Hendricks County. It’s the second fastest growing county in the state,” says Father Danda.

“The parish is becoming a very young parish, very ethnic in diversity with a large African community, many Asians and Filipinos. The feel of the parish is really young and vibrant.”

Those are the same adjectives St. Malachy’s director of faith formation uses to describe the community.

“It’s a young, vibrant parish,” says Marian Knueven. “Young families are getting very involved. ... We are seeing the leadership responsibilities shifting, so young, growing families are leading us.”

Bursten notes St. Malachy now has 45 ministries, including several mission trips each year to supply medical, educational and clean water support to St. Marguerite Parish and the people of Port Margot, Haiti.

The parish began more than a year of celebrating its sesquicentennial with a Mass in September 2018, the same month the first church building was dedicated in 1869. (See related story.)

“The theme has been ‘150 years of making saints—become the saint God wants you to be,’ ” says Father Danda. “We’ve had a saint of the month highlighting different vocations. We put an image of them in the sanctuary, information about them in the bulletin.”

For inspiration, the parish led several local pilgrimages, including one to the Sisters of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods near Terre Haute, “who provided teachers for St. Malachy School years ago,” Father Danda notes.

The final pilgrimage was to saints’ shrines in France. During Mass at Lourdes, the pilgrims presented intentions submitted at a prayer tent set up at the parish’s annual country fair this year.

Father Danda says the yearly festival and fundraiser, which began in 1974, “has been around since I was a kid growing up in the parish.”

Bursten says the country fair is a festival, but with roughly 10,000 attendees “it’s also the largest evangelization opportunity we have because it’s a community-wide event.”

The anniversary year ended on Nov. 3 when Archbishop Charles C. Thompson celebrated Mass at the church following St. Malachy’s feast day on Nov. 2.

‘Where God is leading us’

Knueven was struck by the archbishop’s homily.

“He commented that there were four parishes this year that celebrated their 150th anniversary,” she recalls. “He said the Eucharist continues to bring us together as living members of the body of Christ, whether 150 years ago or now.”

Perhaps in another 150 years St. Malachy will celebrate its 300th anniversary. But Father Danda’s focus on the future is for the souls he shepherds to become saints.

To achieve that goal, the parish is launching an initiative called CLOVER—Confession, Life, Our Lady, Vocations, Eucharist and Revealed Word.

The parish website explains what each of the words entail:

“Those six principles are going to be principles by which we judge how we are growing spiritually as a community and on our own path to sainthood,” Father Danda explains.

Bursten is on board with the initiative, both in terms of how the concepts can be used by individuals as well as by the parish.

St. Malachy is “here to serve a purpose,” she says. “Every day is an attempt to figure out what that [purpose] is. We may never know fully, but we try.

“This year of celebration was a good way for our parish to come together and recognize how so much of what happened in the past has gotten us here today, and our obligation to make sure we’re still here in 150 years.” †


Related story: Custom seats are act of ‘chair-ity’ for parish’s sesquicentennial

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