August 11, 2023

St. Anne Parish celebrates 150 years of ‘roots’ and ‘resilience’ in New Castle

This photo shows the extent of damage to the former St. Anne Church in New Castle due to an arson fire in 2007. (Photo courtesy of St. Anne and Her People by Doug Magers, Providence House Publishers, 2010)

This photo shows the extent of damage to the former St. Anne Church in New Castle due to an arson fire in 2007. (Photo courtesy of St. Anne and Her People by Doug Magers, Providence House Publishers, 2010)

By Natalie Hoefer

When New Castle was established as the seat of Henry County in 1823, the area was dense with tall, thick trees.

It was among those trees that St. Anne Parish can trace its roots. The first known Catholic settler in the area arrived in 1839, and by 1849 a site in the forest served as the location for Mass for German and Irish immigrants in New Castle working on railroad construction.

It was from such trees that the faith community’s first official wood-frame church was built in 1872. It was dedicated on May 25, 1873—and so St. Anne Parish was founded.

“You see how deep those roots go,” says parishioner Ross Lammers. “It calls people home.”

The faith community invites all from the archdiocese to its home for a special 150th anniversary Mass celebrated by Archbishop Charles C. Thompson at 10 a.m. on Sept. 10.

“Former pastors and parish life coordinators have been invited,” says Father John Hall, St. Anne’s pastor. “It will be a wonderful celebration of our 150 years here in New Castle.”

A Catholic presence in the heart of the city

For all 150 years, “We’ve been on the main street of New Castle close to the downtown area,” says Father Hall. The original wood-frame church was “a few blocks east” of the parish’s current location.

The parish’s first church served its people well. But by the mid-1910s, the faith community was outgrowing its home. New property for a larger church was purchased in 1919.

Dark-toned, multi-colored bricks, Bedford limestone detail, a massive but delicate rose window—the solid structure was impressive and more than double the size of the first church. It was dedicated on July 6, 1924, with more than 5,000 people on hand for the event.

The parish continued to grow. By 1951, the population of students in the parish led to the founding of St. Anne School, with Providence Sisters of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods serving as instructors.

At its start, the school’s enrollment was 91. It nearly doubled by 1957 and, with the exception of two years, ranged between 202-242 from 1958-1968.

But as New Castle’s population began to taper off (by 5.5% between 1970-1980, and by 11.5% between 1980-1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), the school’s enrollment also dwindled. The final figure was 71 students in 1982, the last year the school was in operation.

By then, the archdiocese was dealing with its own decrease in priests. A resident pastor served at St. Anne from 1985-1995. From 1995-2016, the parish was administered by two different parish life coordinators (PLCs), with non-resident priests serving as sacramental ministers.

The first PLC was Franciscan Sister Shirley Gerth. She planned on leaving the position in 2007—until the most tragic event in the parish’s history occurred.

‘Everyone from that time remembers the fire’

On the morning of April 7, 2007—Holy Saturday—a fire started in St. Anne Church.

Archive photos capture the devastating scene: smoke billowing so thickly the church is obscured; fire hoses spraying streams of water that look like thin, helpless slivers against the blaze; beautiful stained-glass windows—including the rose window—shattered and melted by the heat of the fire.

The brick edifice remained, but the church was gutted.

“Everyone from that time remembers the fire,” says parish council chairperson Bill Hubbard, a member of St. Anne since 1984. “It was the Saturday before Easter. We were allowed to celebrate Mass at [New Castle’s] high school auditorium, and we had to hustle to get ready for that.”

Mary Leyes, a 50-year-member of St. Anne, recalls the time as “a very traumatic event for our parish. But it brought us all together. The whole community was very supportive of us.”

The fire was ruled to be arson. By May 10, a suspect was arrested and later pleaded guilty. In 2009, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

After the sentencing, Sister Shirley, who agreed to remain PLC of the parish until a new church was constructed, called on parishioners to forgive the arsonist.

“I marvel at how God has been with us these past two years,” Sister Shirley told The Criterion in a Feb. 27, 2009, article. “As difficult as it’s been, it’s God’s way and God’s time. It’s been two years, but I think that time was needed for us to come to the place [of healing] where we are now.”

Part of that healing came with the dedication of the current church on Feb. 28, 2010, on the same location as the prior church building.

“We tried to bring back some of the things from the old church, like having stained-glass windows like the ones in the church that burned,” says Leyes, who served on the reconstruction committee. “We had an exact duplicate of the rose window made. The Holy Family and St. Anne and Blessed Virgin Mary statues are identical, plus we have two statues in the back of church that survived the fire.”

With the completion of the new church, Sister Shirley passed the PLC baton to Deacon Russell Woodard. He remained at the parish until 2016. That year, St. Anne returned to having its own pastor, Father Hall.

It was also that year that the parish experienced its next major hallmark—the welcoming of parishioners from

St. Rose of Lima Parish in Knightstown.

‘Serving that role as being missionaries’

St. Rose was closed and merged with St. Anne in 2016 through the archdiocese’s Connected in the Spirit process.

“There was definitely sorrow, because we weren’t a big parish but felt like a close-knit family,” says Patti Keesling, who had been a member of St. Rose since 1977. “We came from many different communities and towns. So, when St. Rose closed, we all went to diverse locations because of our different physical homebases. I went to St. Anne because I felt comfort there.”

Keesling is now an active member at the parish.

“It’s your family, and you have to be involved with family,” she says.

She calls the parish “welcoming,” noting that it “seems to be burgeoning, and more families with young children are attending.”

Leyes and Hubbard also commented on the growing number of young families—like the Lammers, with 2-year-old and 7-month-old sons.

“Almost all the older parishioners are like grandparents to our boys,” Lammers says with a chuckle.

Parishioners of St. Anne for just three years, the Lammers are among the faith community’s newest members.

“We’re fortunate to have members from a wide area—Knightstown, Hagerstown, Shirley, Spiceland,” he says. “We have a lot of converts to the faith, too. That speaks to the parish, that it may not be hugely visible to the public, but we are serving that role as being missionaries to the public here.”

He says part of that outreach includes a back-to-school backpack drive “to help families who need a bit of assistance before the school year to get supplies they need.

“And we do a lot of unseen projects throughout the year, like staying in touch with various school districts, finding out what their needs are, providing jackets and clothing throughout the school year.”

As Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus council in New Castle, Lammers says the organization’s current focus is “raising the profile of New Castle’s Safe Haven Baby Box, in case there’s a mom in a hard situation where instead of putting their [newborn’s] life in danger, they can give that child a chance at life.”

‘That all will see Christ’

St. Anne is the only parish in Henry County, and the county “is not a strong Catholic area,” says Keesling.

“Yet our Catholic presence for 150 years says a lot about us, that we are needed here and are appreciated.”

Lammers agrees.

“Part of our resilience comes from being in a largely non-Catholic area,” he says. “The good times help, but it’s really in those time of challenge and struggle—not just the fire but changes in the economy—where you really lean on your faith and turn to others in the community for help as well. Those times really forge that resilience.”

When reflecting on St. Anne’s milestone anniversary, Lammers says the word “rooted” comes to mind.

“Our roots run deep,” he says. “That phrase ‘bloom where you’re planted’ comes to mind.”

Knowing the rootedness of the parish’s past, Father Hall looks to the future.

“My hope for the future is for St. Anne to continue in the spirit of our 150 years, giving witness to the community not by preaching on a soap box but by our words and actions, making Christ present by the way we live our lives, that all will see Christ in our words and actions.”

(All are invited to worship at St. Anne Parish’s 150th anniversary Mass, celebrated by Archbishop Charles C. Thompson, at St. Anne Church, 102 N. 19th St., in New Castle, at 10 a.m. on Sept. 10. No reservations are required for the Mass. However, those who wish to enjoy a celebratory lunch after Mass must register by Aug. 28 by calling the parish office at 765-529-0933 or by sending an e-mail to

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