December 18, 2020

175 years later, Navilleton parish founders ‘would be very impressed’

Parishioners pose in their horse-drawn wagons in front of St. Mary Church in Navilleton in this photo from 1900, nine years after the structure was built. The church looks much the same today. (Submitted photo)

Parishioners pose in their horse-drawn wagons in front of St. Mary Church in Navilleton in this photo from 1900, nine years after the structure was built. The church looks much the same today. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

As a lifetime member of St. Mary Parish in Navilleton, Elizabeth Kiesler (nee Naville) has many memories of the Floyd County faith community—parish picnics where she helped as a child, the drafty school, a woman’s frock catching fire.

Of course, she doesn’t recall the parish’s founding. After all, at 95 she’s only been a member for a little more than half of its 175 years.

The parish was founded in 1845 by several German Catholic immigrant families. Today, many of those families’ descendants are still members of the parish.

“Everyone knows everybody, and the majority [of the families] are very close geographically,” said lifetime St. Mary parishioner Trevor Didat, 47. “It’s a small and very close community.”

His pastor, Conventual Franciscan Father Pius Poff, agrees. The priest said the more than 400 families of the parish form a “close-knitted community, very religious, very faithful. The spirit is very good here.”

A mission begins

Being a “close-knit” community is part of the parish’s heritage.

In 1844, a group of 17 German Catholic families—including two with the surname Naville—immigrated to Floyd County. They settled five miles northwest of St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Parish in Floyd County and named their town Navilleton.

A credit to the importance they placed on their faith, the German settlers began building a log chapel to establish a mission parish to the one in Floyd’s Knobs.

The structure was completed the next year. On Sept. 8, 1845, the pastor of St. Mary-of-the-Knobs celebrated the first Mass in the log church dedicated it. The mission parish was named St. Mary.

It remained a mission parish for 63 years, though not always of St. Mary-of-the-Knobs. Priests from the custodian parish of the given time managed the faith community and traveled there to celebrate the sacraments.

Construction on a new church began in 1890.

As their parents and grandparents did four and a half decades earlier, parishioners felled trees for the structure from their own properties, although this time the trees were milled into lumber.

On Sept. 8, 1891, 46 years to the day of St. Mary’s founding, Mass was celebrated in the new church. It was where Kiesler’s father was baptized in 1893, and it still serves the faith community today.

The boundaries of the log church now lie in the parish cemetery, where “half of the [the headstones] are the same six to eight names,” said Didat.

‘It was a different world’

Kiesler doesn’t remember when the current church was stove-heated, but she does recall when a local resident “would arrive at 4 a.m. on Sunday mornings to get the furnace going so the church was warm for 6 a.m. Mass.”

She also has fond memories of the parish’s annual picnic, which began in 1906 and was only recently discontinued.

“I remember as a child, we kids did whatever we could do to help,” she said. “Everyone donated chickens, and they had to be cleaned.” She chuckled before adding, “I remember one year, a lady cooking chickens got too close and her dress caught on fire.”

Kiesler also recalls her years as a student in the one-room schoolhouse the parish built on its property for use by the township in 1893.

“It had a coal stove in the middle for heating,” she said. “If you sat far away from it, you got cold.

“There were two privies, one for girls and one for boys, but you had to walk a ways to get to them. It was a different world.”

The school—which never had plumbing or electricity installed—was used until the mid-1950s. It is preserved today by parish volunteers as a non-profit museum.

‘A family-oriented parish’

St. Mary became an independent parish with its own pastor in 1908, but reverted back to mission status in 1913.

That year, more than two decades of parish management began by priests from the Province of Our Lady of Consolation of the Conventual Franciscan Friars in nearby Mt. St. Francis, ending in 1935.

Afterward, St. Mary again gained independent status and has remained so ever since.

Through the decades, the parish continued to grow, particularly after World War II. Its membership increased, more structures were built on the property and new ministries were formed.

Didat remembers the “family” feeling of growing up in the faith community in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

“There were so many large families, some with eight and 12 kids,” he recalled. “It was such a family-oriented parish, and it wasn’t all by blood—your parents’ friends were like aunts and uncles.”

He recalls his parents’ involvement in the parish, particularly his late father serving as a coach for Catholic Youth Organization teams and chairing the parish picnic for several years, among other contributions. His mother, a lifelong member of St. Mary, is still active there.

Didat and his wife Stephanie now carry on the tradition of serving the parish and encouraging the participation of its members, “from the young crowd to the old.”

He admits lamenting the loss of families in recent years to “larger churches with bigger buildings and more amenities.” But there are new families in the parish as well.

“There’s been so many new people in the parish, to me it’s not as close as it used to be,” said Kiesler. “I used to know everybody who was there.”

‘It makes you feel very rooted’

In February, the parish leadership talked about the need to form a committee to start making plans for the faith community’s 175th anniversary.

“Then the coronavirus hit,” said Father Pius. “We didn’t even have the chance to make any plans.”

With the church capacity limited to 60 per social distancing guidelines, even a special Mass is not possible until safety restrictions are lifted.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to have a Mass and dinner next year,” he said, “even if it’s on our 176th anniversary!”

Didat regrets that such a significant anniversary “was overshadowed by the [COVID-19] pandemic.”

Nevertheless, he finds the milestone “very exciting.”

“I grew up here. I got all my sacraments here,” he reflected.

“I think of the few massive families that started the parish, and the large, core group of families in the 1960s and 1970s that helped us get to 175 [years]. It makes you feel very rooted.”

As for the parish physical growth, said Father Pius, “We’ve come a long way from the log cabin. We have about seven buildings on the premises now, and every one of them is used.

“And we still have so many members who are relatives of the families who founded the parish. I think if they could see the parish today, they’d be very impressed.” †

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