October 27, 2023

From its humble origins to a constant commitment to community, a spirit of faith and service has guided St. Martin of Tours Parish for 175 years

Father Stephen Giannini, pastor of St. Martin of Tours Parish in Martinsville, left, joins members of the parish’s Altar Society as they pose for a photo with their Christmas gifts for local nursing home residents and families from the Martinsville community.  (Submitted photo)

Father Stephen Giannini, pastor of St. Martin of Tours Parish in Martinsville, left, joins members of the parish’s Altar Society as they pose for a photo with their Christmas gifts for local nursing home residents and families from the Martinsville community. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

The moment stands out to Father Stephen Giannini because it represents the power of a parish to touch lives in the larger community with faith, compassion and generosity.

Severe summer floods that hadn’t occurred in nearly a century swept through southern Indiana in 2008, including in Martinsville where lives were devastated and 1,500 homes were damaged.

In response, St. Martin of Tours Parish in Martinsville opened its doors as a shelter for flood victims, and its parishioners “helped the Martinsville community rebuild lives after the devastation that occurred,” notes Father Giannini, the current pastor of the parish.

Father Giannini believes that response is symbolic of the 175-year history of the parish and its people—an anniversary that has been marked all this year by parishioners and will culminate in a special way on Oct. 28 when Archbishop Charles C. Thompson joins the faith community to celebrate Mass at 4 p.m., with a reception to follow.

“St. Martin of Tours parishioners live their lives in loving God and their neighbor,” Father Giannini says. “Their hearts are generous, kind and forgiving.”

The history of the parish is also filled with moments of generosity, great faith, perseverance and forgiveness—and even humor.

“The official history of the parish dates back to October 28, 1848, when Nail and Bridget Mallon deeded an acre of ground for the building of a church and cemetery plot,” notes a historical sketch from the parish’s 100-year anniversary celebration program. “The section where these early Catholic settlers lived was known as ‘Little Ireland.’ ”

That first, small church, built of logs, was named St. Columban. In 1868, a second church was built and renamed St. Martin of Tours. The historical sketch recalled that time with a touch of humor:

“There are those who tell the story that prior to the church being erected in Martinsville—1868—the babies were taken to Indianapolis for baptism, and the roads were so bad that the journey consumed so much time that the infants could walk and talk by the time they got back to Martinsville.”

Yet there was no humor in the anti-Catholic sentiments that parishioners faced in the early part of the 20th century when the Ku Klux Klan was a powerful force in Martinsville. Catholics from that time recalled that members of the anti-Catholic, anti-minority hate group paraded in their white robes and burned crosses on a big hill in a park.

One of many pastors to lead the parish, Father Charles Sexton served there from 1945 to 1983 and watched it grow from 60 members to 950, reflecting the changing attitude in the city toward Catholics across that time span. It was a period in which a new church—still the current one—had its first Mass celebrated on Christmas day in 1962.

‘A wonderful, warm and welcoming faith community’

Today, St. Martin serves about 405 families and 1,100 members, according to Lynne Kluesner, the parish secretary.

Cathy Carmack has seen the impact the parish has made on her life and others since she became a member in 1985.

“I came to St. Martin at a particularly difficult time in my life,” she says. “There were times when I would drive to the church and sit. I remember just sitting quietly and waiting. Sure enough, a quiet calm would eventually come. I would spend my time with our Lord and was able to collect myself and go on. Things eventually worked out.

“I have met many good people here, and some have become good friends. The people are so instrumental in leading, guiding and helping others.

St. Martin has always been a source of peace and comfort to me.”

Similar to Carmack, who has long enjoyed being part of the music ministry of the parish, Nancy and Mike Habbel have also been extensively involved in St. Martin for nearly 40 years.

“It is a wonderful, warm and welcoming faith community,” says Mike, who has participated in the “Christ Renews His Parish” program and is an extraordinary minister of holy Communion. “It is important to me because it allows me to take part in the Mass celebration which makes me feel closer to God.”

Nancy feels the same way when she provides meals for families following a loved one’s funeral. She’s also been long involved in the holiday bazaar, the parish’s main annual fundraiser.

“It requires many volunteers to be successful,” she says. “It is important to me because of the vital need for funds to support the various parish projects and improve the quality of parish life.”

‘God has been faithful to us’

The commitment of the parish to the faith and the community remains strong, says Father Giannini.

“The parishioners have embraced the [National] Eucharistic Revival in expressing their love of the precious body and blood of Christ through the Corpus Christi eucharistic processions, holy hours for vocations, and increased attendance at weekday and weekend Masses,” he says.

Parishioners also live their faith by reaching out to people in need through the parish’s Helping Hands Ministry, St. Vincent de Paul Society, Bloomington Catholic Charities, the Red Barn Food Pantry and Clarity Pregnancy Services.

Bonds have also been formed with other faith denominations, with Lenten lunches being held at St. Martin with the faithful of Martinsville’s First Baptist, First Christian, First Methodist, First Presbyterian and Prince of Peace Lutheran churches.

“The different churches will host a lunch and have their pastor give a short inspirational talk about the Bible and how God’s word is made known in our communities,” Father Giannini says. 

As the parish celebrates its 175th anniversary, a perspective that was shared during its 150th anniversary remains pertinent. That perspective came from the pastor at the time, Father Mark Gottemoeller:

“When this community was forming here, slavery was accepted in part of this country. Women did not have the vote; railroads were being built to replace dirt paths and flatboat canals. Most of those first Catholics were common laborers who built the railroads.

“Times have changed. The world is a different place and so is the Catholic Church. Yet maybe one thought you and I might have is that in spite of the good times and bad times, in spite of the changes, both welcome and unwelcome, this community has grown.

“God has not only cared for us but has greatly blessed us. Wherever we go, let us remember, God has been faithful to us—as individuals, as a parish and as a Church.” †

Local site Links: