October 20, 2023

St. Mary-of-the-Knobs bicentennial is call to ‘gratitude’ and to ‘carry torch forward’

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson elevates the Eucharist during a 200th parish anniversary Mass at St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Church in Floyd County on Oct. 15. Concelebrating with him are Father Michael Hilderbrand, left, Father Stephen Banet, Conventual Franciscan Father John Elmer and Father Steven Schaftlein. Father William Marks, the parish’s current pastor, is at right. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson elevates the Eucharist during a 200th parish anniversary Mass at St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Church in Floyd County on Oct. 15. Concelebrating with him are Father Michael Hilderbrand, left, Father Stephen Banet, Conventual Franciscan Father John Elmer and Father Steven Schaftlein. Father William Marks, the parish’s current pastor, is at right. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

FLOYD COUNTY—It was a touching, full-circle moment on Oct. 15 as Pat Byrne, a member of St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Parish, placed flowers on the grave of his great-great grandfather, Thomas Piers, in the parish’s cemetery.

Piers donated one acre of his land for the new parish to build its first church in 1823.

Two-hundred years later, Byrne and his family walked from the cemetery to the Floyd County faith community’s fourth church, built in 2012—a structure he helped make possible by co-chairing its $12.5 million campaign.

It was in that church on Oct. 15 that Archbishop Charles C. Thompson presided at a Mass celebrating the bicentennial of St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Parish—the oldest existing parish in the archdiocese.

Byrne noted that his link to Piers is just one of thousands of faith connections in a parish where he said, since 1823, parishioners have been “committed to living as a Catholic community, passing on the faith from one generation to the next, providing not only for current needs but future needs as well.”

‘Sitting behind tombstones, guns sticking out’

Indiana was still a territory when Thomas and Ellen Piers immigrated from Ireland to Floyds Knobs, a range of hills northwest of New Albany.

Other Catholic families joined them from Ireland as well as Belgium, England, France, Germany and Switzerland. Many of those early settlers’ names still fill the parish roster, names like Banet, Batlinger, Byrne, Duffy, Didat, Receveur and Sprigler.

The faith community soon outgrew the 1823 log church. A new church was built on seven donated acres in 1837 with bricks made by parishioners.

That church came under threat of attack by the members of the Know Nothing political party, who were prejudiced against foreign-born citizens, in the mid-1850s.

“There was a group of about 50 who came from Corydon on horseback to burn down the church,” said John Merk, who recorded fellow parishioners’ stories for an anniversary video.

“Men of the parish learned of it, and I was told over 100 went to the church with guns,” positioning themselves “behind tombstones” and “sticking guns out of [the church] windows to protect it.”

When the priest told the band they were outnumbered, they left without incident.

By the early 1900s, the parish again needed a larger church. A new structure was built in 1909, and the former church was razed to expand the parish cemetery.

“It was my grandfather who, with a team of horses, cut the road to the [new] brick church and carried the rock to make a road for the parishioners and their horses and buggies,” said lifelong parishioner Mary Ann Duffy, 87.

She recalled the same church sustaining heavy exterior and interior damage in 1955 when a tornado tore off a portion of its roof.

But the church was restored, and she celebrated her nuptial Mass with fellow lifetime parishioner Richard Duffy there in 1959.

‘What a beautiful church it is!’

By the early 2000s, the parish had outgrown the nearly 100-year-old structure. So began the campaign Byrne co-chaired that led to the construction of the current church, parish office, activity center and parish hall in 2012.

“No doubt I’m very proud of my great-great-grandfather” who helped found the parish, said Byrne. “But all through our [parish] history, whether it was the log chapel, the first or second brick church or our school, our members have always been willing to step up and help.”

Duffy admitted she was initially dubious about the need for a new church.

“But after seeing the parish come together and the number of new people who became active members—it was really incredible,” she said. “And what a beautiful church it is!”

Still, Duffy is happy the parish decided to keep as a chapel the 1909 church “where I was baptized and married and went to so many Masses with my family.”

‘A beacon of evangelization and catechesis’

Roughly 1,000 people filled St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Church for the anniversary Mass on Oct. 15.

The sanctuary was just as crowded: 12 priests concelebrated the Mass with the archbishop—including current pastor Father William Marks and two former pastors, Father John Geis and Father Michael Hilderbrand.

Archbishop Thompson noted in his homily that many local, national and global events have transpired since 1823.

Through them all, he said, “the priests, religious and lay people have gathered at St. Mary-of-the-Knobs to pray, to worship, to proclaim the Gospel, to draw upon the grace of the sacraments—especially the Eucharist—and to serve those in need throughout this community and beyond.

“Thus, the parish continues to serve as a beacon of evangelization and catechesis, providing a means of encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.”

For decades, a bell made in 1865 was used to call people to that encounter in Mass. But also for decades it remained broken and silent in the 1909 church belfry. As part of the parish’s bicentennial, it was removed and restored.

Immediately after the Mass, the refurbished bell was unveiled on its new stand outside of the entrance to the current church. Archbishop Thompson blessed it, then the bell—now fitted with an electronic mechanism to move the clapper—rang again for the first time in at least 60 years.

“The bell was full of memories for me,” Duffy reflected. “The strongest boys would ring it every noon while I was in grade school, and my grandmother told me it would ring at funerals.”

She arranged to have the bell rung for her May 30,1959, wedding to Richard.

“That was the last time I heard it until today,” she said. “My husband died in October 2019, so it also brought a tear as well as a smile.”

‘Jesus is so present in our school’

Since John Coleman taught classes in his cabin in 1825, St. Mary-of-the-Knobs has provided education in some form for most of its existence.

But in 1864, the school became a lay-staffed, public institution funded by the local township and county. The arrangement continued even when Benedictine sisters from Ferdinand, Ind. (now in the Diocese of Evansville), took over management and instruction for the school in 1891.

For 134 years, the school remained a public institution until it closed in 1998 when it was merged with another elementary school.

After many discussions about what to do with the empty building, the parish community “narrowly voted to support reopening it as a parish elementary school,” said Brittany Geswein, assistant principal of the current school after teaching there for 16 years.

The Catholic school opened in 2001. In the 22 years following, “we’ve just exploded,” she said. “We’ve added on to the [1949] building several times, and in 2017 we opened a middle school.”

Geswein said people “are drawn to the family atmosphere here—you feel it as soon as you walk in the door. Jesus is so present in our school.”

Jesus is part of the school’s theme this year: “JOY,” which she describes as “first Jesus, then others, then yourself. It fits our mission and the joy of celebrating the parish’s 200th anniversary.”

‘Look back’ but ‘carry torch of faith forward’

Geswein became a member of St. Mary-of-the-Knobs 17 years ago when she married her husband Nick.

The couple, whose three children are now in eighth grade, sixth grade and kindergarten at the school, call St. Mary-of-the-Knobs “the center of our family’s universe,” said Brittany.

Nick views the bicentennial through the eyes of a lifelong parishioner.

“My time in the parish is so short when you look at its 200-year history,” he said. “Still, looking back, it’s amazing to think of all the people who came before and humbling to be even a small part of the long history of this parish.”

Brittany sees the milestone as being “like a call to action,” she said. “Knowing that our parish is 200 years old and it’s up to us to keep it going and evangelizing—it’s humbling but also inspiring.”

Father Marks agreed with both of the Gesweins’ perspectives.

“Celebrating a bicentennial calls [us] to look backward with gratitude to God and the faithful who came before us,” he told The Criterion.

“But we are also reminded that our mission continues. We are called to carry the torch of faith forward, to inspire future generations, and to ensure that the legacy of our parish endures as we follow the way of Christ and the Holy Spirit.” †

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