January 8, 2021

‘Christ is at the center’ as St. Margaret Mary Parish marks centennial

Father Daniel Bedel, pastor of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Terre Haute, celebtrates Mass in the church on Jan. 3. (Submitted photo)

Father Daniel Bedel, pastor of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Terre Haute, celebtrates Mass in the church on Jan. 3. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

It was midnight on Christmas Eve, 1920. In the living room of a two-story house on the southern outskirts of Terre Haute, Harry Patrick Brentlinger joined with others for a special celebration. His son, Harry Patrick, Jr., was playing a special role in the event.

It was not a play or a Christmas program. Rather, it was the first Mass celebrated by the newly formed St. Margaret Mary Parish, and the young boy served at the altar.

“The church then was originally a farmhouse, I’m told,” said lifetime parishioner Ted Brentlinger, 83. He is the son of Harry Patrick, Jr., and grandson of Harry Patrick, Sr., one of the founding members of the parish.

Brentlinger was unable to attend the parish’s 100th anniversary Mass at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve, 2020. While the congregation was limited to 150 people due to restrictions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, it was still likely a larger group than the one gathered in the farmhouse living room 100 years prior.

Much has changed in the century between the two Masses. From a group of 115 families, St. Margaret Mary Parish has become what current pastor Father Daniel Bedel describes as “very welcoming, multi-cultural and very ecumenical, especially in reaching out to the broader community.”

It all began with the desire of a bishop and the canonization of a new saint.

‘Mass is important, you need to be here’

Terre Haute was growing in the early 1900s. By 1919, the city already had four parishes in its central and northern areas.

Bishop Joseph Chartrand of what was then the Diocese of Indianapolis saw a need to form a new parish for Catholics on the south side of Terre Haute. A farm was purchased and a pastor appointed in 1920. The farmhouse would serve as the parish’s church until a new worship space was constructed.

As for the parish’s name, the bishop looked to the Church’s most recent saint of the time: St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, promoter of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who was canonized on May 13, 1920.

A newly-built church was consecrated in September 1921—but it was more than a place for worship.

“There was a meeting hall in the basement, the first floor was the church, and on the upper floor was the school,” Brentlinger said.

Members of the nearby Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods taught at the school. Brentlinger recalled parishioners driving the sisters between the school and the motherhouse until 1941, when successful Terre Haute businessman and Catholic Tony Hulman bought a home for the sisters across from the parish campus.

The four-room school included grades one through eight, with two grades per room.

“The lower grade got to listen to the teacher teach the upper grade, so the next year was a whiz,” Brentlinger said with a chuckle.

He recalled going to Mass on Sundays and sitting in the front pews reserved for the school children.

“You sat with your grade, and nuns took attendance to make sure every kid went to Sunday Mass,” he said. “They would make arrangements for those who had trouble getting to church, and emphasize to them that Mass is important, and you need to be here.”

When he left to join the army in the 1950s, Mass was still held on the first floor of the church/school building.

By the time he returned to Terre Haute, said Brentlinger, “there was a whole new church.”

‘The church is historical’

By the mid-1950s, the school was bursting at the seams. Space from the church sanctuary was even carved out to make more room.

A fundraising campaign was held. In 1958, the church/school building was renovated to be used entirely as a school, and a new church was built. It was designed by parishioner Mark Yeager of Yeager Architects.

Around that time, the central southern Indiana city of Columbus was gaining international attention for its avant-garde, modernistic architecture.

“St. Margaret Mary Church was [Yeager’s] first stab at a building like in Columbus,” said Jerry Moorman, pastoral associate of the parish since 1998. “It’s made with Indiana limestone and sandstone from St. Meinrad.

“Some don’t like it, but actually, the church is historical,” he said, noting that the structure “has been praised by Indiana Landmarks,” an organization dedicated to preserving architecturally-significant buildings.

Brentlinger appreciated the structure because “it felt like a church a little more than the combination school/meeting hall/church,” he said.

He admitted the new structure “was a difficulty for some people, because they had lived a large chunk of their life going to the old church. … Some people found it hard to make the transition.”

It wasn’t long after the church was dedicated that the Second Vatican Council brought changes to the Mass, and consequently to church interiors.

“The pews and sanctuary were re-oriented to reflect some of Vatican II’s edicts,” and the former servers’ sacristy was converted into an adoration chapel, recalled Brentlinger. “It changed the overall look of the church.”

The 1958 structure is where members of St. Margaret Mary still worship today.

The church’s construction and renovation were not the last major changes to the parish. In the last 20 years, said Brentlinger, “The complexion of the parish has changed to one that is more diverse.”

‘A rich experience’

Maryanne Dagat arrived in Terre Haute from the Philippines in 2003. An occupational therapist, she was one of many Filipinos working in the medical field to move to the area—and to become a member of St. Margaret Mary Parish.

The wave began with one Filipino doctor “who discovered a great need [for medical workers] here,” said Dagat, 43. “He invited a friend of his from medical school [in the Philippines] to come work in Terre Haute.”

As more Filipinos doctors and therapists came, they invited more of their friends and family in the health care industry to work in Terre Haute.

Likewise, said Dagat, “When I came just after I graduated, I brought the résumés of two of my friends.”

While the members are Anglo like the parish’s founders, Moorman estimates that about 20% of parishioners are Filipino, plus a large number of Latinos.

The parish celebrates the cultural feasts and faith traditions of its ethnic members, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12 and a Filipino Advent novena called Simbang Gabi.

Such variety has not resulted in three separate, ethnic-based communities in the parish.

“Even with the diversity, we are a family,” said Dagat. “It’s helped me grow spiritually, and I’m sure others feel the same way.”

Brentlinger agrees.

“It feels like one parish,” he said. “We are very well integrated, and I really like having other ethnic groups as a part of our parish. It reminds you that the Church is global. For me and many others, it’s given a rich experience.”

‘A strong presence’

Another notable aspect of St. Margaret Mary Parish in addition to its diversity is its outreach, said Moorman.

“When I hear from some of the elderly parishioners about the ups and downs during the Great Depression and World War II, it’s obvious the Church was a strong presence on the south side of Terre Haute,” he noted.

He recalled when the parish “opened its doors to [death penalty] protesters and housed them” during the execution of Timothy McVeigh at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute in 2001, the first federal execution since 1963.

Serving the local and broader community is still important to the parish, said Father Bedel.

“The poverty level in our area is quite high,” said the priest, who also serves as pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Terre Haute. “Every weekend, we collect food to donate to the Salvation Army Food Pantry. We have a brown bag program. We Christmas carol in nearby neighborhoods,” although not this year because of the pandemic, he noted.

Most recently, the parish held a pajama and blanket drive for a local school, and a toy drive is underway for children in Louisiana affected by hurricanes.

“And that just scratches the surface,” Father Bedel added.

Dagat appreciates the parish’s outreach efforts.

“Our goal is to become saints, so we want to be a great example in the neighborhood,” she said. “We hope a lot of our younger generation will see that, the vibrancy, peace and joy the [parish] community gives, and that they want that for themselves when they grow up.”

‘Christ is at the center’

The coronavirus pandemic curtailed many events planned in 2020 to celebrate the parish’s 100th anniversary. A pilgrimage to the birthplace of St. Margaret Mary in France was canceled. So was a special Mass with Archbishop Charles C. Thompson, which has been rescheduled for this coming October.

That Mass, which will take place near the Oct. 16 feast of the parish’s patron saint, will be the culminating event for a new year of celebrating the faith community’s founding, starting with the 2020 Christmas Eve Mass.

“It’s like when a baby is born—you celebrate their first birthday,” Father Bedel explained.

There were a few ways in which the parish was able to honor its centennial in 2020. Ornaments and other memorabilia were sold, and Dagat and others on the parish’s Centennial Committee interviewed members of the parish to create a DVD about the faith community’s past and present.

But Father Bedel is especially pleased by a change made in the sanctuary during the parish’s 100th year.

“We moved the tabernacle back into central church,” he said. “It was inside a chapel that served its purpose. But in the course of church renovations, an old confessional next to the chapel was made into a handicap bathroom. It just wasn’t the best place for the tabernacle.

“I’m so excited we got to [move the tabernacle] for the 100th anniversary,” he said. “It shows that in our 100th year, Christ is at the center of our lives, our parish, all our outreach—and our future.” †

Local site Links: