February 3, 2023

‘Hidden jewel’ St. Rita Church receives recognition for historical, cultural impact

With its clean lines, barely bowed front, large windows and minimal ornamentation, St. Rita Church in Indianapolis, built in 1958-59, is a prime example of Mid-Century Modern architecture. For this reason and for the parish’s spiritual, social and historical impact, the parish has received several preservation grants, including a matching grant to restore its bell tower, seen at left in this photo. (Submitted photo by Caleb Legg)

With its clean lines, barely bowed front, large windows and minimal ornamentation, St. Rita Church in Indianapolis, built in 1958-59, is a prime example of Mid-Century Modern architecture. For this reason and for the parish’s spiritual, social and historical impact, the parish has received several preservation grants, including a matching grant to restore its bell tower, seen at left in this photo. (Submitted photo by Caleb Legg)

By Natalie Hoefer

St. Rita Parish on Indianapolis’ east side is a community of firsts and of unique contributions—starting with its founding in 1919 as the first designated Black Catholic parish in Indiana.

It was the first archdiocesan parish to offer kindergarten and accredited day care. It sponsored Indianapolis’ first interracial, parochial versus public high school football game. Its boxing club produced three-time light heavyweight world champion Marvin Johnson.

“Nationally recognized architectural and artistic significance” can now be added to that list. The parish’s church stands not only as an important example of Mid-Century Modern architecture, but also as what is possibly the world’s largest collection of art works by Peter Recker, a globally renowned Catholic artist of the mid-1900s. (Related story: St. Rita Church has possibly world’s ‘most complete collection’ of Peter Recker works)

“We’re a hidden gem,” says Caleb Legg, a historian, architecture expert and member of St. Rita.

He is not the only one who thinks so.

Recently, the parish has been selected to apply for—and received—several elite preservation grants and is under consideration to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

These accomplishments recognize the parish’s religious, social, cultural, architectural and historic impact—an impact that began at a critical time for Black Catholics.

‘Forward thinking legacy’

Times were troubled for Black Catholics in Indianapolis 100 years ago.

“Indiana was at the height of the segregation movement,” says Legg. “The [Ku Klux] Klan was extremely powerful. Given that we were both Black and Catholic, we had a double target on our backs.”

And with many parishes of the time still affiliated by nationality like German, Irish and Italian, “there really was no place” for Black Catholics to call their faith home, he explains.

The creation of the parish by then-Bishop Joseph Chartrand in 1919 was “a tremendous show of Church support and sympathy to the needs of Black Catholics,” says Legg.

Since its founding, the faith community has been building what he calls a “forward-thinking legacy.”

Much of that legacy occurred under the leadership of Father Bernard Strange, the parish’s administrator, associate pastor then pastor from 1935-1973.

According to Legg’s research, some of the Caucasian priest’s accomplishments at the parish and its former school include obtaining the right of Black girls to attend local Catholic high schools, instituting a tuition payment plan for financially challenged families, including roller skating lanes in the school’s gym, and creating the archdiocese’s first dedicated school library.

And he gave a boost to bingo, Legg adds.

Indiana’s Hasbrook Anti-Gaming Law, passed in April 1953, listed an exception for churches. Nevertheless, when a St. Rita parishioner was arrested and found to have a ticket from a St. Rita bingo fundraiser, he was charged under the Hasbrook law.

“Father Strange realized the importance of that situation,” says Legg. “He represented the parishioner in front of the courts. Ultimately St. Rita prevailed, and the charges were dropped. So, churches can thank St. Rita for playing bingo without the state breathing down their neck.”

‘Pennies, nickels and dimes’

Father Strange’s greatest physical legacy is the parish’s Mid-Century Modern church, built from 1958-59.

“He believed in working hard and earning your way,” says Legg, who grew up in the parish during the Father Strange years. “He told us we could have a magnificent church, but we’d have to raise the money in pennies, nickels and dimes.”

And they did. When construction was completed, the cutting edge, state-of-the- art church was paid for.

But true of any building, the cost of maintenance never ends. To help preserve the church and other campus structures built between 1919-1972, the parish sent a team from St. Rita to attend the Indiana Landmarks’ Sacred Places workshops in 2019-20.

St. Joseph of Carondelet Sister Gail Trippett, then-parish life coordinator and now an assistant on the parish’s preservation and grant projects, describes the workshops as “a yearlong process of teaching congregations about development, looking at facilities, looking at how to repurpose or reenergize them. They did a facilities assessment of our buildings and looked at value-assessing ways we can reach out and help in the community.”

After attending the workshops, Sister Gail applied for and received four grants for the parish totaling $41,000 from Indiana Landmarks.

By now familiar with the structures on St. Rita’s campus, Indiana Landmarks urged the parish to apply for a National Fund for Sacred Places grant to help restore its bell tower—a $450,000 project.

The organization offers matching grants to select congregations that “contribute significant value to their communities” and whose “historic and cultural significance are essential parts of our national heritage,” according to the fund’s website.

A new grant team consisting of Sister Gail, Legg and parishioner Linda Johnson took Indiana Landmark’s advice and applied for the grant. Out of more than 360 applicants nationwide, St. Rita was one of only 30 to qualify. If the parish raises $300,000 by October 2024, the grant will contribute the remaining $150,000 to restore the bell tower.

The facilities assessment found other causes for concern as well.

“The church needs tuckpointing and weatherproofing,” says Sister Gail. “We need to renovate the Father Bernard Strange Family Life Center, upgrade the electricity and heat in the entire building. And the old preschool will need to be demolished” due to significant water damage, mold and mildew. The parish hopes to erect a small museum in its place.

The combined cost of these projects is about $1.15 million, Sister Gail says.

“Instead of raising money by pennies, nickels and dimes, it’s more like dollars, hundreds of dollars and thousands of dollars now,” Legg quips.

Hence, St. Rita’s ongoing grant-seeking efforts. In January, the parish received a $100,000 Preserving Black Churches Grant through the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“We were thrilled to be awarded,” says Legg.

‘Space to continue our mission’

The church is so notable in art and architecture that Indiana Landmarks included it on its holiday church tour last December.

“It’s one of those hidden gems that nobody knows about,” says Suzanne Stanis, Indiana Landmarks’ vice president of education.

Her co-worker Eunice Trotter agrees.

“We have this desire to help support the preservation of iconic facilities such as St. Rita Catholic Church,” says Trotter, director of Indiana Landmarks’ Black Heritage Preservation Program. “There is this wonderful heritage there that we have a responsibility to preserve.”

To help preserve that legacy, Legg undertook the arduous task of applying for the St. Rita campus to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).

“We’ve been recognized by the state of Indiana as being eligible for inclusion. We’ve cleared all of the initial barriers, but it’s a long process,” he says. The final announcement will be made in 2024.

“Most people think being listed comes with all kinds of restrictions, but that’s not the case,” Legg adds.

According to the NRHP website, “National Register listing is an honorific and does not come with any restrictions as to what can be done to the property by its owners.”

Rather, it states, being listed makes “applicable property owners eligible for grants like the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program … and the Conservation License Plate Program.”

Raising funds, applying for grants and seeking National Register of Historic Places status is about so much more than the upkeep of buildings, says Sister Gail.

“Our main purpose is to give us a worship space and space to continue our mission in spreading the good news, to really play a prominent part and be a positive force in the changes that happen in the community and neighborhood around us.”

(To contribute to the Bell Tower Campaign, send a check made out to St. Rita Catholic Church, write “Bell Tower Capital Campaign” in the memo line, and mail it to St. Rita Parish, 1733 Dr. Andrew J. Brown Ave., Indianapolis, IN 46202. To contribute to the $1.15 million campaign, go to stritaindy.org. All donations are tax-deductible.)

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